I was among the many fans who could not wait to see how Disney chose to re-imagine the backstory of one of their most dastardly villains of all time in the update of “Sleeping Beauty” in their latest film Maleficent. With much trepidation, I am not afraid to admit I was woefully disappointed by this latest retcon of a classic fairy tale. Of course Disney has done this before to a lesser degree with live action adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Oz: Great and Powerful. But with this one, I was expecting more and what I got was somewhat less. Don’t get me wrong, Angelina Jolie was made for this role. With her dark and mysterious look and coloring not to mention the energy and aura she constantly gives off, I could not imagine anyone else taking on this challenging role. But the storyline and characterization did not sit right with me who has been a fan of this fairy tale for years. So why didn’t it deliver?
Spoiler Alert! Without giving too much away…unlike Sleeping Beauty…Maleficent focuses on (surprise!) our apparently not-as-evil-as-we-thought title character and her origins and the tale of how she came to shape young Sleeping Beauty’s (aka Princess Aurora’s) life. The movie is set up as it is something that takes place in the middle of J.R.R. Tolkien’s middle earth where we have warring kingdoms and fairies and goblins and huge tree creatures that somehow communicate with Maleficent, who try to defend their territory.
From this we get a backdrop of Romeo and Juliet, where Sleeping Beauty’s father King Stefan, as a boy, comes from the other kingdom but he is a poor orphan who as a child befriends Maleficent, who represents sort of larger scale fairy/sorceress with huge wings and horns manages to fall in love with this mere mortal. The kids grow up, and grow apart, wars continue to happen until Stefan’s predecessor insists that whomever kill the adult Maleficent (now played by Jolie) they will inherit his throne. Stefan (now played by a unbelievably miscast Sharlto Copley of District 9 fame) decides he wants the crown for himself and will kill his former true love himself in order to get to the throne. Instead of killing Maleficent, Stefan drugs her and cuts off her wings (in one of the most alarming scenes based on a fairy tale, trust me you will be hearing Jolie voice shrieking in your nightmares long after seeing this film) and returns, claiming to have killed her.
Long story short, Stefan becomes King, gets married, has a child named Princess Aurora. Eventually, driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect “the moors” kingdom over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the Stefan’s newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love (she comes across thinking it’s all some dream) and the human kingdom that holds her legacy (but of course she doesn’t know this). It is at this point where the movie gets even more choppier if it hasn’t already, Maleficent not only interacts with Aurora, throughout the rest of the film, she sort of become obsessed with the young girl. This is because we are lead to believe, Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and decides to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.
Eventually more fighting occurs, including an unbelievable fight sequence with Maleficent and Stefan, and it all culminates with the most absurd rewrite of history of who really wakes up poor Sleeping Aurora. Everyone winds up happy (well, sort of) in the end, but with a lot of burning questions still unanswered, but the screenwriters leave us to think who cares as long as we get a “happily ever after.”
But where is this story going?
Both of my problems with Maleficent clearly have to do with the film pandering to the intended audience, mainly young women and fantasy fans, instead of galvanizing the modern fairy tale by turning the concept on its head, the screenwriters John Lee Hancock and Linda Woolverton, gave us a young female empowerment tale with no purpose or center.
First, let’s start with the setup of warring factions between the mortals and the creatures in the night, which is ripped right out of a traditional fantasy playbook. My main issue with this storyline is that it shades it’s characters in too broadly painted strokes. Maleficent is portrayed as all knowing and kind, that is until she gets jilted by her misunderstood lover Stefan, who himself goes from rags to riches once he becomes an adult, and he decides to turn on Maleficent in order to get what he wants.
When this happens, Maleficent becomes the apparent victim and uses that victim card to become a villain herself, making sure she gets revenge on everyone who scorned her namely King Stefan. My question is why did we have to demonize Stefan in order to make Maleficent our hero? Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to show different shades of characters and find out what motivates them to do the things that they do? Perhaps I’m reading too much into this fantasy, but when you have a story as legendary as Sleeping Beauty you have to deliver.
My second problem is with Maleficent’s apparent obsession with young Aurora from birth to when she grows into a teenager. She’s around her all of the time, and eventually becomes more of an advisory figure and best friend to young Aurora. Granted as Aurora, Elle Fanning wanders around like an woodland imp not realizing who she is as a person or the motives of others around her. I wanted her to get some sort of clue.
But for me the motives of our lead Maleficnet had the oddest and most abrupt change of characterization throughout the entire movie. First, Maleficent is hell bent on getting revenge, then later she’s mentally fallen in love with this young girl who supposed to represent everything she hates. Did she just grow a heart again all of a sudden? This climaxes with the pivotal moment of how young Aurora is awakened with the most ludicrous scene I have seen in some time. But I realized after everything that has previously happened in the movie’s storyline, it was actually quite predictable.
The Bottom Line
Maleficent is director Robert Stromberg’s first feature film as a director. He actually delivers on the fast-paced action scenes and with his background as production designer on such films as Alice in Wonderland and Oz: Great and Powerful you can tell by the details he put into his film he was focused on creating a sumptuous display of sets, costumes, and makeup. Where Maleficent is involved, there is no higher peer on how this movie comes across visually. Obviously I had major issues with the storyline and the follow through.
Then again, if you and your family want to be entertained by a less-than-deep fairy tale told in a way that suits certain factions better than others then go out and see it. I personally take my fairy takes with a grain of salt and when they are “updated,” I still hold out hope they aren’t reaching too far in order to satisfy certain parties over others. This is where I think fairy tales are supposed to deliver, but Maleficent sadly does not.