'Sleeping Beauty' told from the villain's view

Angelina Jolie takes evil to new places in ‘Maleficent’

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

Websites such as Buzzfeed have made an art of the “listicle,” a news article that comprises a top 10 on a designated topic. Thanks to childhood nostalgia, Walt Disney characters often make their way onto such listicles, and a quick look at the Top 10 Disney villains of all time often ends with one woman in the top spot — Maleficent, the green-skinned lady dressed in black who curses Princess Aurora in the 1959 Walt Disney film “Sleeping Beauty.”

Another woman who often ends up at the top of listicles is Angelina Jolie. The 39-year-old takes the No. 1 spot in everything from “most beautiful” to “most bankable” actress or, with her partner Brad Pitt, one half of Hollywood’s “most powerful couple.”

Jolie hasn’t appeared in a film since 2010, when she starred in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Tourist,” with Johnny Depp, and took the title role in Phillip Noyce’s action-hero vehicle “Salt” (a role that was originally intended for Tom Cruise). Therefore, it’s only fitting that A-lister Jolie returns to the big screen as one of Disney’s A-list villains.

“Yes, she is an evil character,” Jolie tells The Japan Times. “I did tell (the writers at Disney) not to sugar-coat her. But you also have to understand her, she does have a motivation.”

“Maleficent” tells the story of a fairy (Maleficent) who is betrayed by her first love, Stefan (played by Sharlto Copley). After Stefan becomes king and has his own child, Maleficent sees a chance to take some revenge. The twist? The audience sees the story from Maleficent’s point of view, and she turns out not to be that ruthless villain who reigns over those Disney listicles.

“Fairy tales are timeless,” Jolie says, “yet they’re very adaptable to the times in which they’re told.”

It’s not a new idea. The 1995 novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” took a look at “The Wizard of Oz” from the villain’s point of view. Disney just scored a major hit with “Frozen,” which was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 story “The Snow Queen.”

“Children and young people aren’t as gullible or open to traditional fairy tales or to sweetness-and-light endings,” Jolie says when asked about the idea of reinterpreting classic stories. “Nor to black-and-white depictions of a totally evil villainess or villain. Or a totally good hero or heroine. Those are fantasies — or propaganda, in a way. More than ever, people are questioning. Nothing is taboo to question now — fairy tales, religious tales, parables or fables.”

Coming on the heels of the huge success of “Frozen,” “Maleficent” has a tough act to follow. Some critics have said the film is too frightening for young children, but Jolie thinks kids won’t be bothered.

“Children are tougher than some adults give them credit for,” she says. “They’re resilient — put it that way. I think betraying trust (which Stefan does) has a much more negative impact on children than a wicked, extreme character like Maleficent.”

The actress, it could be argued, may be an expert on the subject of children — she has six of her own. One of them, 5-year-old Vivienne Marcheline Jolie-Pitt, even had a bit part in “Maleficent” as the young Princess Aurora (a role played by Elle Fanning when the character is older).

“How many women are this omnipotent and magically commanding?” Jolie says, arguing what viewers are likely to remember from the movie. “The special effects are wonderful, even unforgettable, totally beyond ordinary life. I think the film’s story, characterizations and visuals will draw repeat audiences.”

Despite not appearing in a film since 2010, Jolie has never really been out of the press. In 2012, she became special envoy to U.N. High Commissioner Antonio Guterres and in 2013 she made news when she had a preventive double mastectomy after learning she had a high risk of developing cancer. In 2011, she took a role behind the lens, directing “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” The film was a politicized love story set in the former Yugoslavia that garnered its share of controversy.

“I have experienced some giant steps in my journey,” she says, noting that her directorial efforts have brought “tremendous satisfaction . . . just from being able to focus on what comes from my mind and creativity, not dwelling on my physical presence.

“When times are difficult, it’s wonderful to have something absorbing to focus my attention and efforts on.”

Asked if she is more comfortable behind the lens than in front of it, Jolie admits that “if the project is close to me, dear to me, yes. Of course.”

Her next directorial effort is likely to be controversial as well. “Unbroken” is due to come out in December, and it stars British actor Jack O’Connell as American Olympian Louis Zamperini, who was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. He survived a crash at sea before spending two years in a prisoner-of-war camp. Many actors and directors have reportedly tried to bring his story to the screen, but Jolie believes she was destined to make the movie.

Moved by Zamperini’s story, she set out to try and locate him, only to learn that he lives “three minutes up the road” from her in the Los Angeles hills. The two are now friends and Jolie reportedly drops in for breakfast on a regular basis.

“Unbroken” is sure to be notable in Japan as much for its casting as its content. Takamasa Ishihara, who is better known in Japan as guitarist Miyavi, takes the role of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, aka “The Bird,” a guard who tries to break Zamperini’s spirit. The choice was a surprise insofar as Miyavi seems to have been cast somewhat against type, but Jolie cites a precedent in the casting of Japanese musicians on screen with Ryuichi Sakamoto as Capt. Yonoi, the antagonist to David Bowie’s Maj. Jack Celliers in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983, directed by Nagisa Oshima).

“Miyavi is a sensitive artist who adapts himself to what he’s doing,” Jolie explains. “He’s done a brilliant job in the role; it didn’t surprise me. Singers and musicians in general tend to be underrated outside the musical field. Several fine actors have been singers. . . . I remember reading that (Barbra) Streisand said that when she sings a song she acts it, like a three-part story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

“Miyavi’s music is varied and sometimes unexpected, so I think his fans will be impressed if not totally surprised by the presence and depth he brings to the character. It could have been a two-dimensional one, depending on the actor . . . and the script. The role as well as the picture has layers of complexity.”

How does the director think “Unbroken” will be received in Japan?

“It’s very hard to say,” she says after a long pause, “but I hope one result will be the realization that in war, nobody really wins.

“Forgiveness is one message, another is that it’s chiefly governments that fight wars. The populace follows what their government orders. It doesn’t mean a majority of a nation’s population is for a given war, but it certainly means they tend to go along with ‘our government’ in opposition to ‘their government.’ But most people would simply prefer not to have wars.”

“Maleficent” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. “Unbroken” is scheduled for a December release overseas.