Recently, there has been a growing trend of revisiting fables and bringing them back to life on the silver screen, less adaptations than loose appropriations. There was Red Riding Hood in 2011, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman in 2012, and, to a lesser extent, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters in 2013.1 In literature, the “Young Adult” genre has found immense success by adapting the skeletons of fables as the starting point for several novels. Subsequently, successful YA authors have unabashedly probed the darker undertones in folklore, no longer considering it necessary to shield younger audiences completely from darker undercurrents that are present in many fables.2 The literary success of the macabre and gothic elements geared towards younger audiences prompted a revision in how fables should unfold on the big screen for audiences now capable of handling the more uncomfortable elements that were a part of the original stories. This shouldn’t be seen an indication that younger audiences have suddenly become more adept at handling exposure to mature themes. Rather, the presumption against the trend has been shattered.
Whilst darker undertones of beloved fables have found an appeal in the literary form, the transition to celluloid has been a hit-and-miss affair. Films such as Snow White and the Huntsman garnered more publicity for activities occurring behind the sets, rather than on it.3 Part of the messy output is entwined with the reluctance of big production houses to depart from set formulas that have worked for them in the past. Thematic composition of a film is not something that can be precisely charted on a graph. It has an organic sensibility, a balance that can only be achieved through the creation of the product itself. It cannot be pre-empted.
Amongst this chaotic cinematic backdrop, comes Maleficent, an appropriation of Disney’s earlier Sleeping Beauty, told from the point of view of the antagonist of the original story. Staying true to the cinematic chaos preceding it, it soars in bits and pieces, but like an infant learning to walk, it stumbles almost as much as it takes tentative strides, unsure of its capability. But, as a parent watching your child walk, despite all the stumbles along the way, when it finally falls into your arms, you remember those strides, not the falls. The strides will only get better. The falls are but natural.
There are many things to cherish about Maleficent. Angelina Jolie as the titular Maleficent shines in every frame. From her costuming to her diabolical expressions, she is inch perfect in her portrayal. She gets to express a wide range of emotions – from raw anguish to delectable malice, rounded off with deadpan humour. She carries the burden of the film on her able shoulders and has an enchanting screen presence, lifting the film beyond its flaws. This is easily the most fun she’s had in a film role in recent years and it’s quite visible on screen. Her scenes with the shape shifting raven Diaval (played by Sam Riley) are the highlights of the film.
Jolie is ably supported by Riley, as well as the three pixie fairies – a variation on The Three Stooges , played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Leslie Manville. The visuals are spectacular by all accounts and compliment the fantasy cum gothic feel of the film. Elle Fanning is quite possibly the happiest girl in the whole world. And why shouldn’t she be? She gets to play Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty in a Walt Disney production. If there is a complaint I have, it is with Sharlto Copley’s accent as King Stefan. That’s the most confused perhaps Irish-perhaps Scottish accent I’ve heard in a long while.
The film’s strength lies in thematic underpinnings which at times aren’t sugar coated at all. There’s loss of innocence, the corruption of greed and ambition, suffering of loss and cynicism towards redemption. This film is implicitly more about the growth of Disney as a production house and its changing attitude towards younger audiences. If anything, the serious implications of prolonged, untreated probable mental illness and paranoia are very overtly represented. Maleficent is sure footed when it doesn’t try to pretend that it’s a film for kids. For the most part, it really isn’t.
But, almost as soon as we, the audience, come to this startling realisation, so does the film as well. Because as soon it goes into unchartered territory, it goes into damage control mode, falling back on tried and tested Disney tropes that appear quite forced here. This is the test that Disney faces. Can the production house let go of its carefully crafted image or is it too afraid to take that step? Maleficent is a way to test the waters. The film attempts to subvert well entrenched Disney tropes, only to fall back on them in the end. This makes for frustrating viewing. Because when uninhibited, the film does soar, like young Maleficent exploring her surroundings with the help of her majestic wings. However, before too long, her wings are clipped.
Still, in the time that it is allowed to soar, Maleficent allows Disney to redefine itself and in the process, truly surprise us. Parts of it aren’t anything we’ve seen from Disney recently – brave and confident in taking risks, whereas other bits are so utterly conventional that they are off-putting. Despite the indecisiveness, I applaud the effort. There are enough elements in the film that can be savoured. And if Maleficent does indeed become the catalyst through which Disney finally redefines itself, then I’m even happier for it.