For my generation, and many that preceded it, Disney’s Maleficent was such a creature. A menacing composite of every sorceress and dark queen who ever stalked a fairy tale kingdom – haughty, manipulative and ruthless with blood red nails and a penchant for arch-villain couture. Her horned headdress and ill-concealed weariness with mankind declared her to be the Mistress of all Evil, even before she had defined herself so. And now Disney, grown wise to Wicked fever, have deemed her fit to headline a live action film – the flip side of the Sleeping Beauty story. We travel back to a time before Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) came of age, when Maleficent had a pure heart and there was still a chance for her own happy ending.
It is encouraging to see Disney follow in the footsteps of Marvel and DC by examining the origins of their most beloved characters. (More encouraging still that they would seek to share the backstory of such a notorious dame.) Although Maleficent is among the more memorable of their roster of ‘bad guys’, Disney never really saw fit to flesh her out. Counting on her dramatic appearance to communicate a general sense of witch/bitch/baddie we were never given an insight into why she might have felt SO slighted by the lack of party invite. With an opportunity to see Aurora’s trio of fairy protectors reimagined and a host of new talent thrown into the mix, this is a film with the potential to be a big hit for the early summer box office.
My faith in Maleficent is drawn from a combination of nostalgia for the singular loveliness of Sleeping Beauty and for the strength of will of the women involved in this bold new production. The primary irresistible draw is Angelina Jolie, taking the helm as the eponymous antihero. From the earliest released stills – indeed from the first casting rumours – it was clear that a serendipitous alchemy was in play. All those salacious column inches expended on speculation about Jolie’s sex life, her role in the downfall of Brad ‘n’ Jen and that vial of Billy Bob’s blood had imparted a similar veneer of villainy to the original one-dimensional Maleficent of 1959. She was beautiful, powerful and refused to play the simpering American sweetheart – obviously she belonged on the dark side. Jolie does appear to entirely inhabit Maleficent – to relish every moment she spends manipulating her from within – that spirit of mischief crackles electric from the screen.
Without her filmography to hand, some find it easy to forget the extraordinary talent Angelina Jolie has because of the equal impact of her extraordinary face. Two decades of tabloid splashes have made her one of the most recognisable women in the world. Makeup effects wizard Rick Baker has capitalised on the sharp planes of that familiar face, made architecture of her bone structure and refreshed Maleficent’s iconic look with a clear reverence for what has gone before. Angelina’s beauty and the ripple effect of her manufactured infamy combine to make something greater than the sum of their parts. Quite simply, it is impossible to imagine that a contemporary Maleficent would exist without her. And a pleasing victory against a misogynist press, to turn their presumptions into bankable attributes.
Although Robert Stromberg makes his directorial debut with Maleficent, his award winning production design on Alice in Wonderland promised a memorable aesthetic. One which trailer and footage would seem to confirm. I had been terribly afraid of the emo havoc Tim Burton might wreak upon the production if he were given free reign but, conversely, find it comforting to know that his talent is only one degree of separation from the screen (and that Saving Mr. Banks’ John Lee Hancock was on set to stabilise late wobbles). And Lana Del Rey’s smoky new interpretation of Once Upon a Dream seems to offer further reason to hope for something gently Burtonesque. With shades of Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands score, it is a smoky daydream of a song. More encouraging still, for the soul of the picture, is writer Linda Woolverton’s approach – her ongoing desire for a feminist perspective is music to ears long tired of hearing the same old tropes play out.
Vivid, complex women – be they from the real world or an imaginary realm – don’t ever seem to stay in vogue. My bookshelves groan with the weight of a thousand valuable female voices and I wonder why so few will ever speak on our screens. Placing that burden upon the shoulders of a fairy tale origin story may seem illogical, but the first impressions made upon us are those that last the longest. I want my child to fall in lifelong love with a handful of life changing movies, yet I fear for her too, I see too few of the people I’d wish her to fall hard for actually make it onto the big screen. Dorian Lynskey spoke of Frozen as Disney’s first movie without an unambiguous villain (in an eloquent account of his daughter’s reaction to the song Let it Go) and I look forward to raising my daughter in a time when all female characters are granted the dignity of multiple facets.
Maleficent will be released in the UK on May 28th and in the US on May 30th