“Maleficent” Casting Review

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Kicking off its latest batch of live-action film adaptations, Disney has decided to revisit one of its most popular (and misunderstood) villains, Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. The aptly-titled Maleficent is a live-action retelling of the aforementioned fairytale, only this time from the perspective of Maleficent herself. Through this lens, the filmmakers set out to show what is often overlooked in fairytales–the origin story of the villain.

When it comes to an iconic character like Maleficent, the casting has to be perfect. Not only does the actress have to physically and emotionally embody the role, but, from a business standpoint, has to have enough commercial appeal and draw to get people into the seats. Given these aspects, who better to embody the famous villain than mega star actress Angelina Jolie? Jolie has everything you need for this character–sex appeal, acting chops, the physical look, and the emotional gravitas to breathe life into this character to create a fully fleshed-out force of nature.

Although this film is very much a live action adaptation of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, due to its focus on Maleficent, the story unfolds in a different manner. Like all misunderstood villains, there’s always a genesis as to how they came to be, and in Maleficent’s case, the narrative begins by focusing on two ancient kingdoms–one of man, and one of fairies and mystical creatures. Both kingdoms co-existed in separate, but equal terms, and within the fairy kingdom, lived a young fairy girl by the name of Maleficent. This “Young Maleficent” is played by young British actress Isobelle Molloy who is mostly known for her work on the long running U.K. television series EastEnders. Molloy does a great job bringing a sense of innocence and wisdom as the young fairy, which is especially pronounced when she meets a young boy from the kingdom of man named “Stefan”, played by actor Michael Higgins. The two develop a quick friendship that only blossoms as the years go by. When next we see the couple, they are teenagers, with “Teen Maleficent” and “Teen Stefan” played by U.K. actors Ella Purnell and Jackson Bews respectively. With teenage hormones in the air, their friendship evolves into young love. Unfortunately, the two ultimately drift apart over the years (mainly due to Stefan’s personal ambitions to become king), and Maleficent goes on to become the most powerful fairy in the kingdom as well as its sworn protector.

Ever ambitious, an adult Stefan (now played by actor Sharlto Copley), finally returns to the fairy kingdom to visit Maleficent (now played by Jolie). Although Maleficent is more than happy to pick up where they left off as teenagers, Stefan has less than altruistic thoughts in mind. In a bid to become the king’s successor, Stefan plans to kill Maleficent, but at the last minute, he has a slight change of heart. Rather than kill his former love, he cuts off her wings and presents them as a kind of trophy to the king, ensuring his spot as the king’s successor. While Stefan basks in his newfound position, Maleficent, feeling scorned by mankind, embraces the darker side of her powers. She uses her powers to further widen the gap between man and fairy, while completely transforming herself into the infamous villain we all know–complete with her staff and all-black garb. She even creates herself a servant by transforming a crow into a man named “Diaval”. Played by actor Sam Riley, Diaval adds his fair share of comic relief while also acting as Maleficent’s spy and messenger.

Through Diaval, Maleficent discovers that King Stefan has newly-born child: a baby named “Aurora”, and if you’re following along with the fairytale, you know that she grows up to be the legendary “Sleeping Beauty”. In classic form, the story unfolds as we all know it–Maleficent pays the king a visit at the castle and casts a curse on the infant–one that foretells that when the child grows up to a certain age, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into an everlasting sleep. In a vain attempt to protect his daughter, King Stefan orders every spinning wheel in the kingdom destroyed, and sends Aurora to live in the countryside, entrusting her care to three fairies: “Flittle”, “Knotgrass”, and “Thistletwit”. The fairy trio is played by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple respectively. Manville and Staunton are another pair of seasoned British actresses, and the general public will probably recognize Staunton for her turn as “Dolores Umbridge” in the Harry Potter films. Although Knotgrass is very much a good character in this film (unlike the villainous and perturbed Umbridge), there are definitely strong similarities with both characters, qualities that Staunton embodies well, making her the perfect de facto leader of the trio. Temple is the youngest actress of the three, and is yet another successful crossover actress from the U.K. making a splash in Hollywood. She’s had roles in films like The Dark Knight Rises and Lovelace, and the highly-anticipated Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, to name a few.

Getting back to the story, after Aurora is taken to live with the fairies, the classic tale as we know it then typically fast forwards through Aurora’s childhood until we arrive at the destined finger prick. It is in Aurora’s childhood and upbringing where Maleficent’s story truly shines. Unlike the classic tale, Maleficent comes to watch over baby Aurora over the years. She was initially just observing the child out of some sort of curiosity, but the two inexplicably develop a connection. Although most people don’t pay too much attention to infant “actors”, it’s interesting to note that the 5 year old version of Aurora is played by Vivienne Jolie-Pitt. The last name should ring a bell because she’s the daughter to Jolie and her long-time partner Brad Pitt. Although actors having their actual children play their kids in movies is more than common in this business (Will Smith and son Jaden Smith come immediately to mind), this is the first theatrical appearance of a Jolie-Pitt child, so it’ll interesting to see if Vivienne or any of her other brothers and sisters will eventually follow in their parents’ footsteps.

Aurora eventually grows into a young teenager and is then played by Elle Fanning, one of the few American actresses in the entire film. At only 16 years old, Fanning is readily following in the footsteps of her older sister (Dakota Fanning), and continues to stand out in performances in both independent films and studio features. She plays Aurora with a mid-Atlantic accent (a watered-down British accent typically used to “standardize” the accents amongst predominantly international casts), and gives the princess a much needed sense of wonder, innocence, and naiveté. It’s always refreshing to see American actors in these accented/international projects since it’s (ironically) usually the other way around, i.e.,  Aussie and British actors playing American characters in leading roles in film and television. Aurora and Maleficent then form a kind of mother-daughter bond which becomes the focal point for the rest of the story. Yes, Aurora does have a “Prince Charming” by way of ‘Prince Phillip” (played by Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites), but funny enough, the character is relatively minor and really just serves as a nod to the fairytale’s traditional roots (i.e., Prince Charming saves the princess with true love’s kiss). Although the film’s twist on the classic narrative is greatly appreciated and well-executed, it’s a shame that Thwaites isn’t utilized more as he is definitely a crossover up and comer to keep an eye on (he’s currently the lead in the feature The Signal, which premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival).

Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say that the film checkmarks all of its boxes for a good Sleeping Beauty story: the princess is revived by true love’s kiss, there’s an epic battle involving a dragon, the villains get their due, and everyone lives happily ever after. Jolie and Fanning sparkle as the film’s leading ladies and the two have great chemistry on screen. Their performances are then bolstered by the film’s cast of international and seasoned actors, which only further boosts the movie’s appeal to people across the world. Disney is definitely on to something with its live action adaptations, and you can be sure this is going to be the first of many more (a live-action version of Cinderella is up next).

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Kyle

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