Dark side of the magic: Maleficent stars chat about film

Angelina Jolie and Sam Riley chat with us about their new Disney film Maleficent.
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, with the young Princess Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt). Frank Connor / Disney
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, with the young Princess Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt). Frank Connor / Disney

It’s a good time to be a Disney princess. Last week, the Hollywood studio’s animated hit Frozen surpassed Iron Man 3 to become the biggest movie of the past 12 months. If that isn’t enough to make Mickey Mouse jump for joy, then the arrival of Maleficent certainly will. A live-action reworking of the 1959 animated Disney classic Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent looks set to be one of the smashes of the forthcoming blockbuster season.

Inspired, too, by the classic centuries-old fairy tale, the film stars Angelina Jolie as the horn-wearing Maleficent, who places a deadly curse on the young Princess Aurora at her christening. “With complete respect to the original Disney film, Maleficent is the most interesting thing about it,” says the producer Don Hahn, who helped initiate the project. “We said, ‘What’s our version of The Dark Knight?’ – where you go back and do an origin story, where you find out, who is this person? What made her that way?”

While Maleficent may not be as brooding as Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Jolie admits it was a character that always intrigued her. “I loved Maleficent when I was a little girl. She was my favourite Disney character,” she says. “I was afraid of her and I loved her.”

Jolie jumped at the chance of bringing Maleficent to life and the move seems tailor-made for an actress who has explored darkness before, in films such as 1999’s Girl, Interrupted. “She has built her career towards this,” says Hahn. “She was born to play the part.”

Jolie isn’t the only strong woman on board. Also recruited for the project was the Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who last worked on Tim Burton’s 2010 multicoloured blockbuster take on Alice in Wonderland. Her mission was simply to build a film around one of Disney’s all-time great villains. No mean feat when you consider that this dark fairy initially curses baby Aurora to die after pricking her finger on a spindle on her 16th birthday.

One subtle change sees Maleficent relent and adjust the curse, so that it can be broken by true love’s kiss (in the cartoon, it’s a good fairy that orchestrates this). The way Jolie sees it, her Maleficent is not simply a cackling figure of pure evil. “I hope girls, especially, will see the importance of having a sense of justice and a sense of what’s fair and what’s worth fighting for,” says the 38-year-old actress. “They’ll see that they can be warriors and at the same time soft and feminine and deeply feeling, with all the complexities women have.”

It was delving into Maleficent’s psyche that intrigued Robert Stromberg, the film’s first-time director, who previously won two Oscars as a production designer on Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and James Cameron’s Avatar. “That’s the interesting part,” he says. “You get to tell people why someone becomes evil. You get to solve some of the mystery of what drove that character to become the character we all know.”

And, to contrast with the darkness, there needs to be light; with the 16-year-old Elle Fanning cast as the beautiful Princess Aurora.

“Elle is Aurora,” says Jolie. “From the moment I met her, she is just sunshine.”

Stromberg, who had been impressed by Fanning’s performance in 2011’s Super 8, concurs. “She exudes beauty, life and energy. That was what we were looking for – the contrast of that spirit, that kindness, against the dark, evil side. It’s that contrast that became interesting.”

Other intriguing casting choices include the South African star Sharlto Copley, as Aurora’s misguided father King Stefan, and the British actor Sam Riley as Maleficent’s loyal, shape-shifting servant Diaval. Best known for the indie films Control (2007) and On the Road (2012), Riley admits: “I didn’t really see myself as Disney material.”

But that was before he met Jolie and company. “Angelina was pretty determined to subvert, to some extent, with the costumes and so on,” he says.

While Maleficent isn’t the first live-action remake of a Disney cartoon (that would be the 1996 version of 101 Dalmatians), it now seems like the floodgates are about to open. Soon we will see a Kenneth Branagh-directed version of Cinderella, while 1991’s Beauty and the Beast also looks set for the same treatment.

“Well, it is called show business,” says Hahn, almost apologetically. “But it keeps these stories alive. And the one thing about fairy tales … it’s almost our obligation to retell these stories for our generation.”

• Maleficent is out now in UAE cinemas

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: May 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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