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Angelina Jolie in the title role of ‘Maleficent,’ the villian from the 1959 classic ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ (AP)
Jolie fun hero-villain in ‘Maleficent’ Film exposes roots of Disney’s wicked witch

Maybe it’s too soon to say the tide has shifted definitively. But it’s certainly been a unique time for fairy-tale villains. After hundreds of years of moral clarity, suddenly we’re getting a new look at these evil creatures, who are actually turning out to be complex beings, and not that bad at all. Really, they’ve just been misunderstood. (And, by the way, those charming princes? Highly overrated.) The most obvious recent example is “Frozen,” the animated Disney blockbuster that showed us how the Snow Queen, long portrayed as an icy-hearted villain, was actually a tragic victim of circumstance, with a pure and loving heart. And now we have “Maleficent,” which tells us that one of the most evil characters in all of pop culture is equally vulnerable and misunderstood. Plus, she’s gorgeous. Duh. She’s Angelina Jolie.

All this is a rather seismic development in fairytale-dom. There are numerous versions of “Sleeping Beauty,” stemming back even before Charles Perrault’s from 1697, but the fairy who casts an angry spell on the baby princess, dooming her to prick her finger, has always been, well, just nasty.
But now, 55 years after Disney introduced the character named Maleficent in its 1959 classic film — and colored her skin an eerie green — the studio is back with a live-action (not to mention 3D) Maleficent who’s more superheroine than evil fairy. Think Maleficent by way of Lara Croft.
And though Maleficent is no longer green-skinned, it’s hard not to think of another green-skinned villainess who’s also been rehabilitated, by means of the durable Broadway hit “Wicked”: the witch Elphaba from “The Wizard of Oz,” who, it turns out, we just didn’t know enough about.


And so it is in “Maleficent,” in which director Robert Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton take us back to the fairy’s youth to better understand her. She’s a plucky young thing with lovely wings and bright pink lipstick, which will turn blood-red when she becomes an adult (the fairy world clearly isn’t lacking for cosmetics.)
One day she meets a young man from that other, darker world, where humans live. The two form a strong bond. But the ugliest human emotions — jealousy and ambition — will intervene. Young Stefan will grow into the power-hungry older Stefan (the wild-eyed South African actor Sharlto Copley.) And his stunning betrayal of Maleficent will instantly harden her, turning her into the villainess we recognize.
Alas, the story’s still all about a guy, in the end. But we digress.
“Maleficent” is surely targeted to the same audience — young and female — which has so lovingly embraced “Frozen” and its appealing message of female solidarity and empowerment. But “Frozen” felt clever, charming, and fresh. “Maleficent,” less so.
Part of this is due, paradoxically, to Jolie’s star wattage. Don’t get us wrong: she’s the best thing about the movie, and always worth watching. But it blunts the effectiveness of the narrative if we can never quite believe Maleficent is bad. That’s because we know she’s essentially good, and she seems to know that we know it; You can see it in the upturned wrinkle of her mouth.
And frankly, the other characters are simply not that interesting — Stefan, but also Elle Fanning’s Aurora, or “Sleeping Beauty.” The best scenes Aurora has, in fact, are when she’s a gurgling baby and then, adorably, a toddler, played by none other than 5-year-old Vivienne Jolie-Pitt. (In the movie’s one laugh-out-loud moment, Maleficent tells Aurora: “I don’t like children.”)


Compared

But Fanning as Aurora is too boringly sweet — especially compared to the fabulous-in-every-way Maleficent, with her blazing lips, fashionable black headgear and exaggerated cheekbones, not to mention her way around a quip. In the end, “Maleficent” is fun for its appealing visuals — especially in the forest — and for watching Jolie. But that’s not enough to make the whole film interesting. As the minutes tick by, you might even start feeling a bit like Sleeping Beauty herself comes to feel: Drowsy.
The wicked witch who has haunted generations of children in Sleeping Beauty has been brought grippingly to life by Jolie, in a modern retelling seeking to humanize the fairytale she-devil.
“Maleficent,” released on Friday in the United States, amounts to a towering tribute to Jolie, who produces and stars in the film about the Disney witch with unlimited powers.
“It was both a great pleasure and an extreme challenge to have such an extraordinary original. And we wanted to make sure we did justice to it,” Jolie told a recent press conference in Paris.


Scared
“I was scared of her, but I loved her. I was fascinated by her when I was a child, so I didn’t want to do anything that would not be good enough for all the people that had responded to her over the years,” she added.
“Maleficent” aims to be both a retelling of the fairytale — albeit taking several eyebrow-raising artistic liberties — and an exploration of her past, to show what made her so cruel.
“I think it’s nice to use these stories that we are familiar with to try to touch on deeper and bigger themes,” said Jolie.
“She remains a villain, but there’s just maybe more to her. I think it’s an interesting message for children, because kids are drawn to dark things. They are drawn to things that scare them.”
She added: “The goal was not just to entertain children or retell the story. The goal was to try to see these deeper things of really understanding who somebody was, not judging them just by just what they seem to be.”
Robert Stromberg, directing for the first time after winning two Oscars in art direction — for “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland” — agrees it would have been boring to make a film simply about a wicked witch.
“We could have made a movie that was just evil sorceress, but it’s very one-dimensional,” he told AFP. “What we wanted to do is make the character more human in many ways.
“So to me, the interesting part was to ask questions of why is she so bad, why is she so angry, where does she come from?”


The filmmakers were aware however that the liberties they take with the story could prove distracting. To minimize this, they filled the film with references — aesthetic, historical — linking it directly to the Disney classic.
“We had to have the christening scene, which is the center point of the film. We had to have that work. That iconic moment in the film is when we all recognize that this is the character that we all know and love from the Disney classic,” said Stromberg.
“We shot that scene word for word from the animated classic. And it was Angelina’s idea.”
In the end, more than Maleficent herself, it is the men around her who are shown in a less than favorable light.
The all-too-perfect Prince Phillip (played by Brenton Thwaites) and the cruel King Stefan (played by South African actor Sharlto Copley, from “District 9” and “Elysium”) are lightweights compared to Jolie’s magnificent Maleficent. “It’s interesting because it does make you wonder about what the male role in society is,” Copley told AFP.
 

His own character “is a cautionary tale to a certain type of male behavior: dominance and ambition and greed. It’s not only restricted to men, but by large a lot of that in the world is male dominated,” he added.
The film, a big Walt Disney Co production that cost $200 million, opens Friday in US theaters and the studio has launched an ambitious marketing campaign that includes Maleficent lines of MAC Cosmetics and clothing and shoes by designer Stella McCartney.
The audience sweet spot is girls age 10 and up, an older group than the younger children who swooned for the empowering princesses in the Disney’s animated blockbuster “Frozen,” according to Phil Contrino, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com.
Riding on the momentum of “Frozen,” “Maleficent” should bring in $64 million in ticket sales in its opening weekend in the United States and Canada, Contrino said, and Jolie’s global appeal hints at big sales overseas.
Jolie’s life off-screen, as a United Nations special envoy, film director and busy mother, informed her character, her director said.

“I love that it is strong female character in this film and there is a strength to who she is in real life and as Maleficent,” said Stromberg.
As much as she wanted to have fun with the role, Jolie also felt a certain responsibility. (Agencies)
“You do a Disney film and you want kids to walk out and be better for it,” she said.
Jolie’s next offering will be her second directorial effort, “Unbroken,” the real story of an Olympic runner taken prisoner in World War II that will be released Dec. 25.
But when it comes to acting, the soon-to-be 39-year-old Jolie likes where she is.
“The nice thing about being around for a really long time is you stop worrying about your career and you get to just really think about what you want to give to the audience and the experience you want to have,” she said. (Agencies)
 


By: Jocelyn Noveck

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