Let’s be honest, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is a bit of a bore. I remember my sister often wanting to watch when we were kids and me having none of it until the end’s fire and brimstone and menacing dragon spawned from the tale’s creepy, wide-smiling villain. Did I understand the fairy’s reason for cursing the princess? No. I’m not quite sure I realized the political ramifications of her baby shower invite getting lost in the mail until it was explained to me last night after watching Maleficent—the Mouse House’s newest live-action redux stylized by Oscar-winning Art Director Robert Stromberg (who serves as director here after Tim Burton walked away years ago). Nope, I enjoyed this magical witch because it seemed so random. Sometimes being mean simply to be mean is the most believable motive there is.
Interestingly enough, screenwriter Linda Woolverton retools that 1959 animated film—itself based on Charles Perrault‘s La Belle au bois dormant and the Grimm Brothers‘ Little Briar Rose—in a way that makes us forget Maleficent was evil at all, whether randomly or justifiable via archaic custom. Considering Sleeping Beauty plugged Disney’s fairy tale pipeline until 1989’s The Little Mermaid courtesy of a disappointing box office and lackluster critical acclaim, an overhaul with major plot alterations was definitely a viable idea. Where it differs from similar reimaginings like Oz the Great and Powerful and Alice in Wonderland, though, is in its self-awareness. While those tried to force themselves into canon, Maleficent‘s narrator admits this tale is new. That simple yet necessary revelation allows it to be judged on its own merits and not by how it fits our memory.
It’s a crucial distinction because you can get bogged down sifting through sloppy anachronisms rather than enjoying the movie itself. I sure did with those other two, especially considering both were born from properties written as escapist fever dreams within young girls’ minds and not legitimate worlds to be expanded upon with histories that can’t have occurred beyond Dorothy and Alice’s respective imaginations. But I digress. Maleficent could easily have fallen into the realm of “Wicked” wherein it shows the same story we already know from another viewpoint—a grave misstep in this case since its humanizing of the titular fairy would render her malice from Sleeping Beauty moot. By completely rewriting the fantasy as an alternate perspective “correcting the facts”, both can now exist simultaneously without one ruining the very things that make the other worthwhile.
So please do yourself a favor before buying your ticket: enter with an open mind unencumbered by whatever version of the story you hold dear. They all prove nothing more than inspiration for Maleficent to springboard from before creating its own origin mythology about a hubristic kingdom of men and its neighboring, fantastical world within the Moors. I’m not going to lie and say Woolverton and Stromberg have crafted a masterpiece, but it is an enjoyable reprieve from the Disney cartoon cycle that possesses a welcome message of true love beyond romantic happily ever after constraints. It’s a tragic tale of a young fairy scorned by the man she believed would help unite their kingdoms—one of betrayal and revenge fantasy but also an emotional journey of the heart transcending the concept of families being formed around blood.
Troubles with the movie’s opening twenty minutes have been well-documented and the version onscreen is bolstered by reshoots from director John Lee Hancock at the behest of producer Joe Roth to punch-up what first-time director Stromberg couldn’t. Let’s just say it’s still a pretty slow timeline from joyous little Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) flying around the Moors and befriending a young human peasant with dreams of royalty (Michael Higgins‘ Stefan) until adulthood hits. She (Jolie) grows into protecting her homeland as the strongest of fairies and he (Sharlto Copley) climbs the ladder into the king’s trust. We smirk at cute fantastical creatures slinging mud, listen to giant tree-like guardians speaking foreign languages, and witness the inevitable battle between Moors and man that leads to the latter’s defeat and a bounty atop Maleficent’s head—one even Stefan cannot ignore.
It’s a ton of exposition advancing towards Maleficent’s wings being stolen and Stefan ascending to the throne, all told purely as set-up for the former’s surly disposition and pessimistic belief that true love is a fallacy. Unwieldy and laborious, we yearn for Princess Aurora’s (Elle Fanning) birth to escape the history lesson. We get it: Maleficent’s newfound hate and quest for vengeance is justified and Stefan’s position as villain even more so. He deserves to have his daughter cursed and you can’t blame her for doing it. Remove the desire to mesmerize with Labyrinth-like, grotesque splendors from bedtime story and get on with Aurora’s sixteen-year adolescence. Show us the Moors’ heyday through flashback once the girl enters its present-time darker days. The unlikely relationship between Aurora and Maleficent is what we’ve come to see—don’t hesitate.
The orchestration of this chapter is up and down too, but at least it feels in process rather than already performed. While Aurora’s three fairy guardians (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) are overly slapstick and tonally incongruous, Maleficent’s raven servant Diaval (Sam Riley) is perfectly suited to the compassion-tinted horror the film projects. They are the comic relief and moral center respectively while the titular fairy sees her disdain towards the girl evolve into one of sympathy and appreciation. Where their dynamic goes is exactly where you’d think considering we know the film turns Sleeping Beauty on its head, but the emotion cultivated is surprising in its authenticity. Aurora proves more than a pawn between Maleficent and Stefan and their fight possesses a much deeper psychology than kingdom versus kingdom or even self-preservation.
Jolie shines at projecting pain underneath smile and delight below steely cold eyes. She’s a complicated creature with a nightmarish past her younger self could never have dreamed possible. Gloriously bombastic when green, magic mist pours from her silhouette and devastatingly heartfelt once morality replaces frustration, her performance finds a way to overshadow the fantastic computer effects filling the screen (although the dragon is a menacing sight). Copley is up to the task too yet sadly forgotten for most of the runtime so he can serve as the unseen evil we know we’ll see again before long. And while everyone’s trajectory mimics those from 1959, the eventual destinations thankfully stay true to the new structure’s motives. It’s ultimately a flawed film, but I can’t deny its success at completing its academic exercise of rejuvenating a classic.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures