There isn’t a great tradition of prequels telling iconic villains’ origin stories, and with good reason. The first thoughts that came into my head when thinking about them were of Hannibal Rising, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, or of course, the dreaded Star Wars prequel trilogy, all of which contributed detrimentally to my memories of their classic evildoers. The problem tends to be the need to create a reason for these characters’ villainy, something must have happened to them to make them this way, they’re victims really. There’s no need for this, we don’t want to see Hans Gruber: The Teenage Years, or Nurse Ratched: Med School. Why can’t our bad guys just be bad? Maleficent is one of Disney’s most memorable villains from their classic period, and this new eponymous film seeks to do just that; give her a sympathetic backstory, not to mention cashing in on the recent trend for live action retellings of fairy tales that’s spawned such stinkers as Snow White and the Huntsman and Jack the Giant Slayer.
I can’t claim credit for originating the rape/revenge parallel found in Maleficent, I’d seen a number of headlines pointing this out prior to viewing the film, and it’s all I could think about during the metaphoric ‘rape’ scene, which is none too-subtle anyway. Growing up in a colourful fantasy land of fairies and such that’s next to the land of humans, the young, parent-less Maleficent is like many other happy-go-lucky girls, but with wings and horns. She appears to be the only one of her kind in the land but one day meets a young lad named Stefan who she falls for, but later drifts away from as he returns to the castle. Years later, they meet again when her land is under attack by the king. Ambitious to become heir, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) takes advantage of her by drugging, mutilating and then abandoning her. It’s an effectively dark scene, without being at all graphic, and could really be shocking to children.
As well done as this opening might be though, it illustrates the transparent way Maleficent intends to gain sympathy for its leading lady. Not content with simply making her a victim of betrayal and assault, it puts her up against a blatantly more evil adversary in Stefan, next to whom she’ll always seem superior. Stefan is an underdeveloped character the whole time, other than his desire for power, we don’t really know what drives him.
Maleficent is not entirely a prequel though, it spends most of its time covering the same material as Sleeping Beauty. Almost immediately, Maleficent turns evil, hell-bent on revenge, and begins resembling the villainess’ classic look (the film puts in a few ‘remember this’ visual references to the animation). As the film replays key scenes from Sleeping Beauty, it draws attention to the undefined nature of Maleficent’s abilities, and in turn the absurdity of her scheme. She obviously has great power; she can control vast amounts of nature, creating a humongous thorny barricade around her land, and shape-shifts a raven into a man (Sam Riley). She can enter the king’s castle without worry; none of the many armed guards there appear as a threat to her. So why doesn’t she just vapourise Stefan right there? Or turn him into an ant and squash him? We know that she could kill, imprison or humiliate Stefan immediately in a large variety of ways, but instead she opts to put her convoluted curse on his baby. I suppose just because that’s what happened in the original story.
Almost immediately, Maleficent retorts from her baby-cursing ways into being a pseudo-stalker to the young princess, spying on her as she’s raised by three pixies in the woods while appearing to care. As the film constantly reminds you that Maleficent isn’t bad, it’s contradicted by the actions the story required her to perform; a flaw at the heart of its concept.
Angelina Jolie certainly looks the part as Maleficent, offering amusing glowers and dastardly smiles, but I wonder how much credit for her performance lies with the costume and make up departments. There’s a mixture of UK-based accents, Jolie adopts pantomime British vocalisations while Riley sounds Irish. Shartlo Copley, even as he plays Stefan as a madman, offers a more measured portrayal of insanity than his bizarre work in Oldboy, complete with competent Scottish inflections. The leads are never damaging to Maleficent, but it veers way off course with its supporting cast. The pixies charged with raising princess Aurora (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville) appear as freakish photoshop jobs in their original form, with their real heads awkwardly plastered onto tiny CGI bodies. Set-up like a comedy trio, they’re exceedingly annoying in pixie or human form. Why the king gave them the job of raising the girl we’ll never know, because they sure are inept at doing it, they don’t even know how to feed her. Of course, this is contrived to allow Maleficent to slyly swoop in and help the girl whenever she needs it, which is a lot. The pixies’ general uselessness might go some way to explain why Aurora turns out how she does though. As a teenager (an awful Elle Fanning), she’s an airheaded dimwit of the sort you might actually believe could chase a butterfly off a cliff to her own death. Things get even worse when the eminently slappable Prince Philip turns up.
First time director Robert Stromberg comes from a background in production design and art direction, so the film looks pretty most of the time, even if it’s a mixture of fantasy castles and creatures we’ve seen before. He keeps the pacing brisk, but the tension is lost in a number of scenes by the nature of being a prequel/retelling, even when it re-jigs core elements. Maleficent builds up to a big climactic action scene that it blunders with a deus ex machina ending, followed by a needless voiceover. It’ll likely be remembered for the mildly daring and traumatic events of its opening act, but Disney should have used this as the basis for a new fairy tale about a new anti-heroine, rather than as a do-over for one of their older properties.