When it arrived in 1959, Sleeping Beauty delivered an animated wonderland. A fairy tale brimming with iconic characters and colourful vistas, it was the epitome of a general audience experience. Skip to the end of the original trailer below and you'll hear the following quaint endorsement:
"The management of this theatre is proud to recommend this magnificent motion picture to every member of every family, everywhere."
We're whisked into the world of Long Ago by a kindly narrator's sing-song introduction: "Let us tell you a story anew and see how well you remember it... "
We find ourselves in a world of two realms: a land of men ruled by a cruel king and the Moors, a lush vibrant forest kingdom, spilling over with all manner of creatures.
Born into this land is the proud and regal Maleficent. An orphaned fairy, she grows into a majestic creature with a headdress of twisting rams' horns and a mighty pair of dusty brown wings. Jolie returns to the big screen in full force, her face stretched and streamlined, accented by weaponized cheekbones.
When a relationship with an ambitious peasant goes sour, Maleficent turns from a benevolent neighbour into public enemy number one. Cue the thunder claps, a sinister leather makeover, swirling clouds of evil green smoke and the impenetrable forest of thorns rising from of the earth.
At her height of villainy, Jolie is a potent cinematic vision. Her ruby red lips frame a carnivorous smile. Her eyes sparkle with flecks of green, yellow and much mischief.
Yes, mischief, because this villain isn't quite cruel but simply mean -- like a supernatural schoolyard bully. Mischief also because, other than a surprisingly literal retelling of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is essentially a rehabilitation project for one of Disney's most fearsome villains.
Soon the bad fairy bonds with Aurora, Elle Fanning playing the princess born of the traitorous king, the girl cursed to prick her finger and fall into a never-ending sleep. Fanning plays her as sweetness and light, a friend to all. She melts even the dark heart of Maleficent herself. The dark fairy smiles, her features soften and the film, from the screenwriter of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, telegraphs its only meaningful twist.
Though promising the audience an alternative tale of a world we thought we knew, Maleficent coddles rather than challenges us. From actor Sharlto Copley wasted as King Stefan to Sam Riley's turn as Diaval the crow companion, the film sacrifices sophistication for simplicity. The mad king gets madder, Aurora smiles brighter and love conquers all.
Granted, it all looks gorgeous. Director Robert Stromberg comes from a visual effects background and CGI wizardry covers the film in pixie dust.
The first time director's focus is firmly on the effects (which were reportedly still being tweaked just weeks ago). Looking like refugees from Jim Henson's Creature Shop, googly-eyed trolls and iridescent water spirits run rampant through the Moors.
It's a world of light and gaiety until the inevitable clash between the armies of man and magic. Then, the ground shakes as wooden warriors charge and serpents smash -- all very impressive in an eminently forgettable fashion. Oh and the 3D? Don't bother if you can avoid it.
It's easy to complain about gaps in the storytelling. Why wait so long to make the most of the fairy's weakness? How did Aurora find the kingdom so easily? Ah, nevermind. That's just my frustrated reflex at being promised a fresh take that, in the end, delivers little beyond a cinematic story first told a half-century ago.
RATING: 3 out of 5.
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