This ain't your grandma's Sleeping Beauty.
“Maleficent,” Disney's very CG'd but still live-action remake of its 1959 animated classic, offers a more complex take on the fairy tale staple. It's darker and scarier too — but also, humanistic and very much smitten with the power of love.
It was enough to bring Angelina Jolie back in front of the camera after a four-year hiatus, in which she's pursued directing, growing her family with Brad Pitt, quite publicly opting for a preventive double mastectomy and continuing her worldwide efforts to aid refugees and victims of sexual violence.
“It's such a great project,” says Jolie, who plays the title sorceress. “After having directed and thinking that I wasn't sure if I wanted to act, this was such a crazy idea and I was so challenged by it.
“As an actress, it was to not do something where I'm taking myself so seriously and trying to do something for myself and my art, but just to remember that it was to play and entertain and to try something big,” says the actress, who turns 39 next week and is editing her second feature, “Unbroken.” “But also, the artist in me felt it was good to do something bold every once in awhile that you're not comfortable with, that you haven't done. I was actually a bit nervous to take her on. I don't have a big voice, I don't do things that are comedic; but sometimes it's great to jump into things that you're unsure of and you haven't done.”
Jolie's Maleficent starts out as a nice, winged fairy-type thing, whose magical powers help protect all the strange creatures in her enchanted woodland from human encroachment. When she's horribly betrayed and traumatized by the man she loves (Sharlto Copley), who becomes the human king, she vows vengeance on his infant daughter Aurora. Y'know, the whole prick her finger on a spinning wheel and falling into a comatose sleep business, with true love's kiss the only route to reawakening.
The angry Maleficent exults in her wickedness over the ensuing years, but something off-message also happens. A bond develops between her and the growing Aurora.
Elle Fanning plays the adolescent princess, who's all sweetness and light in contrast to Maleficent's hearty malevolence.
“She came in and I loved her immediately,” says Robert Stromberg, the Oscar-winning production designer of “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland,” who makes his directing debut with “Maleficent,” of Fanning. “She just exuded light. There was this life to Elle, and the cross-pollination of that with this dark character, I thought, would be very fun.”
“I am a very energetic, excited person,” admits 16-year-old Fanning, who's been acting since she was 2 and has recently gained critical notice in such films as “Super 8,” “Somewhere” and “We Bought a Zoo.” “I definitely do smile an awful lot, it's kind of part of me. But also, this is a fairy tale, so it's exaggerated, of course. No one can be that naïve.
“But it was difficult to get my character right and not just make her the girl who is happy all the time,” Fanning continues. “Even though she is so lovely, you want to give her a little more substance and depth. We worked on that, to make sure she was not someone you would just disregard.”
Finding a younger actress who plays Aurora as a child was not so easy. In her black flowing robes, twisted horned headgear and appliances that sharpened the look of her nose and cheekbones, Jolie didn't exactly present a 4-year-old-friendly image.
“Kids would come to set and see me, I would go up and say hi to them and they would cry,” Jolie recalls. “We realized that there was no way that they were going to find a 4- or 5-year-old that I could be strong with, that would not see me as a monster. Then we started looking around (the set) and we thought, ah. The answer was right there. But then I had to go home and talk to Dad.”
Jolie and Brad Pitt's six children accompanied her to “Maleficent's” English sets most every day. And even though the couple is a bit reluctant to have their kids follow into the profession that they've been so successful at, their youngest daughter, Vivienne, was the only solution to the situation.
Not a total solution, though.
“She was good ...” Jolie says with reservations. “The first day was the day that she had to catch the butterfly and she, just, really didn't feel like doing it. I actually was holding the pole with the ball on the end, bouncing it up and down, and Daddy was on the edge of the cliff she had to jump off. Her brothers and sisters were kind of edging her on . . . she eventually did it, but she was just taking her sweet time.”
Fanning, no surprise, was more enthusiastic.
“ ‘Sleeping Beauty' was my favorite when I was growing up,” she notes. “When I was little, I looked at all the different Disney princesses and I felt that she was the one I most looked like. And my 5-year-old self was like, ‘Oh, I like pink,' and she was the one in the pink dress. So this is like the ultimate dream, to be welcomed into the elite princesses family.”
It took Fanning a little while to get used to the raft of special effects she had to work with.
“Especially with Rob coming from ‘Avatar' and his background, this is the most special effects-heavy movie I've ever done,” she says. “We did scanning as well; whenever you had a hair or wardrobe change, you had to stand on this turntable and they'd turn you inch by inch and you can't move. They'd basically make a virtual you out of that, and then they can put you onscreen in front of any backdrop that they're creating.
“You do have to use your imagination in a crazy way. But you don't want to get too wrapped up in the technical bits of it because you're still playing a character. The special-effects people can put in as much stuff as they want, but the actor has to believe that it's around and happening.”
Acting like you're sleeping, though, was an effect in and of itself.
“Some days I'd go in, put on everything and just sleep the entire day,” Fanning says with a happy laugh. “It was so nice! But one time I did really fall asleep there, and it was so scary because you could mess up the scene if you started moving without knowing it. So you had to fight not to fall asleep.”
Staying awake wasn't a problem for Jolie. Staying upright was a different matter.
“The creation of the horns took a little while to figure out,” Jolie recalls. “How to get them on my head and make them stay there. We used my hair as kind of braids to nail the headpiece down. Then we had different horns. At first, they were too heavy, then we found ones that would snap off because I kept banging into things.”
It was all worth it.
“I loved playing her,” Jolie says of Maleficent. “I wanted to do something that my children could see, I wanted to perform in a way that I hadn't done. But most of all, when I read the script I was really moved by it, and I thought it was, in fact, an important story to tell.”
“When I started filming, I felt like we were breaking some weird Disney rule,” Fanning reveals, “like Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty aren't supposed to talk to each other, they're enemies. But the way it turned out, it's a fresh take on it, a modern story for the modern world.”