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Maleficent

OK, I know what you’re thinking. Do we really need another prequel? Another origin story? Is it that important to know what all our heroes looked like when they were still in diapers, and to witness the tragic events that turned good guys into bad guys? Wolverine, Magneto, Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch… who’s next? Donald Rumsfield?

But just because a tune is familiar doesn’t mean the right artist can’t totally kill it. (In a good way.) And that’s what happens with “Maleficent.” The general outline of the story is overly familiar, but Angelina Jolie puts so much soul into her performance as the wicked fairy, she saves this one from the junkpile.

Jolie plays the title character, a powerful fairy who rules over a kingdom of magical creatures. On the other side of the river are the humans, who are greedy and mean and don’t like magic.  A boy crosses the river and wins the trust of the fairy queen, but, back on his side of the river, he is overwhelmed by ambition. When the king declares that whoever can kill the fairy queen will marry his daughter and become the next king, he betrays the trust of his friend (and love?) in a shocking manner, stealing her magnificent wings and presenting them as evidence of her death.

Pause there. The scene when Jolie discovers that she has been betrayed and violated is easily the most intense and disturbing in the movie. You may have heard that Maleficent has a “rape scene;” this is it. Thankfully there is no scene of violent sexual assault in this kids’ movie, but the way Angelina Jolie plays Maleficent’s sense of loss, of violation, of anger and hurt and disbelief is heart wrenching and unforgettable. It’s a powerful moment in the film, but also the main reason why I would not take my daughter to see this movie. This is not kids’ stuff.

In line with the old adage that “hurting people hurt people,” Jolie transfers her kingdom into a dark place, builds a wall of thorns between herself and the humans, and then puts a curse on the king’s daughter — this part you’ll remember from “Sleeping Beauty,” and it plays verbatim here. But when the cursed infant is placed in the care of three (very irritating) fairies who might as well be the Three Stooges, the job of keeping Aurora alive until the curse can kick in sort of inadvertently falls to Maleficent herself. If left up to the stupid fairies, she’ll be dead before she turns three.

And I guess that’s the problem with putting a sixteen year delay on your revenge; it gives you a ton of time to sit and think about it.  Maleficent calls Aurora “Beastie,” first out of hatred and disgust, but eventually, with affection.  Again, this should be really cheesy and predictable, and ok, it kind of is, but Jolie really sells it. It works, and it’s because she doesn’t over-act, doesn’t chew the scenery, doesn’t camp it up. It’s really a pretty quiet performance from Jolie, and because of that, the big, loud, frightening moments really work. In the craft of acting, less is almost always more, but movies like this (and actresses like Jolie) very rarely grasp that. I was pleasantly surprised.

But of course, the curse has to happen anyway, because, well, there is that 1959 Disney film, after all, and you can’t just ignore it and hope it’ll go away. But at a key moment, “Maleficent” takes a page straight from “Frozen,” and while it’s kind of refreshing (and undoes the worst of the sexism from the ’59 film,) it’s enough to make a guy wonder if there’s anything left for the non-fairer sex in the wonderful world of Disney. Will handsome young princes be relegated to sidekick roles (at best) for the next 50 years? Well, I guess that would be fair and just.

As I watched it, I wondered who “Maleficent” was for – I certainly would not take my five year old daughter to see it, and I’m not sure I’d take a twelve year old to see it, either. It’s dark, and intense, and really never lets up. Elle Fanning is given the task of bringing some sunshine to the picture as Aurora, but she doesn’t have anywhere near the screen presence to compete with Jolie’s darkness. I hesitate to blame the young actress, though; she really doesn’t isn’t given all that much to work with. Probably the physical comedy of the three fairies was supposed to lighten things up, but they are, without a doubt, the worst part of the movie, and just make a black mood blacker. Maleficent isn’t just hurt and angry, she’s surrounded by brightly colored idiots.

It is interesting, and satisfying, to watch Maleficent journey from hurt and hatred towards love and redemption. It’s made doubly so to watch the king on the other side of the river (played by Sharlto Copley) journey deeper and deeper into fear and madness. He has the power he wants, but it can’t protect him from his own conscience– or Maleficent’s curse.

Aside from Jolie’s makeup (which is pretty great – prosthetic cheekbones!) the visuals here aren’t particularly interesting.  Everything looks borrowed from an earlier movie. The fairy creatures look like overweight house elves and smallish Ents.  The battle scenes could’ve been pulled straight out of “Prince Caspian.” There’s a dragon in the climactic scene that pales in comparison with the one we saw not too long ago in “The Hobbit.”

Frankly, I’ve never thought much of Angelina Jolie as an actress. Her film history suggests that she mostly relies on what her mama gave her instead of investing much into the study of her craft; her attempts at “serious” movies have been pretty bad. But there’s no doubt in my mind that without Jolie in the title role, “Maleficent” would have been a forgettable bit of summer nonsense. Instead, it’s worth watching.

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