Disney's Maleficent has a dark side, but it's not too scary for kids
The Sleeping Beauty villainess gets to tell her own wicked story in Disney's Maleficent
Text: James Mottram
There's something wonderfully wicked about the idea of Maleficent. While we all know Hollywood loves a story about origins - with the births of comic-book heroes such as Batman, Superman and the X-Men having been sketched out by the studios of late - it's usually the villains that miss out.
So all credit to Walt Disney Pictures for thinking outside the box for the live-action reworking of the 1959 classic cartoon, Sleeping Beauty.
The age-old fairy tale about a young princess, a malevolent fairy and a sleep-inducing curse provided the ingredients for one of the studio's most enduring and beloved animations. But for executive producer Don Hahn, it was always the cruel villainess that drove the drama.
"With respect to the original Disney film, Maleficent is the most interesting thing about it. She's beloved by movie-goers and Disney fans, and was a terrific character," he says.
Considered one of Disney's most sinister villains, she dominates the film - from arriving in a puff of smoke to metamorphosing into a giant dragon. "I loved Maleficent when I was a little girl," says Angelina Jolie, the actress given the task to bring her to life. "She was my favourite Disney character. I was afraid of her and I loved her." It's this love-hate duality that makes her such an intriguing character to explore.
Of course, the Sleeping Beauty story predates Disney, with traces of the character as far back as Giambattista Basile's Sun, Moon & Talia (1636) and Charles Perrault's The Beauty Asleep in the Woods (1697), from which the Brothers Grimm borrowed heavily for their 1812 story Little Briar Rose. Not one, however, boasted a character like Maleficent. "It was something that was very original to Disney," says Hahn.
In the 1959 animated movie, the story sees Maleficent arrive, uninvited, at the christening of Princess Aurora, the only daughter of King Stefan and Queen Leah. With an ominous two-pronged headdress and a pet raven on her shoulder, she cuts an imposing figure as she places a curse on the infant child: that on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die before sunset (the spell is weakened later so she falls into a deep sleep).
While Sleeping Beauty concentrates on her obsession with bringing down Aurora, Maleficent offers the chance to look at what made this fairy so twisted.
"You get to tell people why someone becomes evil," says director Robert Stromberg. "You get to solve some of the mystery of what drove her to become the character we all know. It opened up the opportunity to see many more layers of that character - one of those layers being evil."
Unlike recent fairy tale re-spins, such as Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, the aim of Maleficent is not to offer knowing winks to the audience. This was never going to be a larger-than-life pantomime, with boo-hiss villains. "We had to try to make a movie for the ages," says Hahn. "We had to try to make a movie that could sit on your shelf beside your DVD of Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella."
With this in mind, Hahn went to screenwriter Linda Woolverton, with whom he'd worked on modern Disney classics such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. She had worked with Tim Burton on his 3-D take on Alice in Wonderland - and clearly understood the Disney DNA like few other writers. While Burton was briefly attached to the project, he dropped out - allowing another former collaborator of his to take the helm.
The son of low-budget director William R. Stromberg ( The Crater Lake Monster), visual effects specialist Robert Stromberg's extensive film background includes celebrated work as a production designer-art director, winning back-to-back Oscars for Avatar and Burton's Alice in Wonderland before working on Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful.
"He's such a world-builder," says Hahn, who claims that no one was worried that Stromberg had not directed before.
Indeed, Stromberg seems tailor-made for a visually stunning project such as Maleficent, which will be shown in both 3-D and Imax. What he loves, he says, is allowing audiences to immerse themselves in "some dreamlike place that doesn't exist" for a couple of hours.
"That's why I've never been afraid to push things more than others. Alice in Wonderland, for example, is pushed to this place that's on the brink of craziness. Avatar is its own unique place, and so is the land of Oz," he says.
Building the world of Maleficent took Stromberg and his team to England, where the entire film was shot in five months on six soundstages at Pinewood Studios. It also gave the team the opportunity to raid the local pool of acting talent.
In Aurora's corner are Juno Temple, Lesley Manville and Imelda Staunton as the three good fairies entrusted to look after the princess.
Sam Riley plays Maleficient's shape-shifting sidekick Diaval, who alternates between man and beasts as his mistress desires.
Best known for indie movies such as Control and On the Road, Riley's casting indicates the edgier direction the film was striving for. "I didn't really see myself as Disney material … but I was up for seeing what it was like," says the actor, who relished the chance to play the comic relief. "Angelina was pretty determined to subvert, to some extent, with the costumes and so on. I think I was in safe hands with both Robert and her."
Factor in 16-year-old Elle Fanning as Aurora and South African-born Sharlto Copley as King Stefan, and there's no question that Stromberg has gathered together an impressive cast. But in the end, Maleficent will live or die by its leading lady. Like Stromberg, Jolie seems perfectly made for this project.
"Thirty years from now, there will be a montage of her films with this clip of her walking into the camera, as it's so iconic and powerful," says her director. For an actress who began her spell in Hollywood playing unhinged women - notably in her Oscar-winning turn in Girl, Interrupted - "she's built hercareer towards this," says Hahn, who thinks Jolie is also "channelling" the likes of classic Hollywood stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis to play Maleficent.
Just how dark does Maleficent get? "The truth is it can't be too dark," says Stromberg. "It is a huge Disney fairy tale come to life, and the key word is Disney. We had to make sure that we service a broad audience, and it can't be targeted at one age group. There's lots of dark in this movie. There's also light in this movie. So I hope that it's well-balanced." Let the enchantment begin.
Maleficent opens on May 29