Personally, I adore the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. It’s one of the few Disney movies that won me over through repeat viewing for its hand-drawn animation and subtle darkness. To me, the revalation that the titular princess only has few lines and only has 16 minutes of screen time, proved the film was more about the fairies, prince Phillip and of course Maleficent. The very concept of Angelina Jolie playing this role was pure brilliance. The end result confirms that this was a match worth paying for and captures something special that so many other live-action takes on Disney’s heritage lacked: homage. However, altering some important parts of the original story is what troubles the movie as it simultaneously doesn’t venture too far away from known territory.
The character of Maleficent is devious, cruel and genuinely scary in the animated feature. Any story that revisits that clear evil and tries to sympathise the character will have a rather large hole to fill. In that respect it was very wise to not betray Maleficent’s will to put a curse on an innocent princess out of spite. Yet, as the last part of the movie struggles with right and wrong, there is an essence to the character, that with the iconic laugh, enjoyment of torture and owner of all mighty power, that’s irrevocably lost. It’s give and take with this interpretation.
By far the movie’s most priced pocession is that of Maleficent and Aurora’s (Elle Fanning) bond. There’s room for subtle humor as Maleficent tells the baby she hates her. There is redemption in a seemingly throwaway moment when the icy scorceres, with reservations, saves the child. Ultimately, there’s genuine joy in thinking of a version of the story where Aurora makes her own decisions and Maleficent is more layered. This relationship carries through the rest of the film, makes for some terrific story beats and is truly rewarding. But unfortunately, like the quirky friendship between the powerful fairy and her raven (Sam Riley), it is overshadowed by almost everything else that’s going on.
Sizing up Aurora’s father’s role in the well-known tale is a bold decision. King Stefan certainly shapes the story in the animated version, but with his wine drinking and weird parental decision, he’s hardly an important player. The three fairies carry much of the comedy of the original movie and Prince Phillip carries much of the story. Instead, the fairies’ (Lesley Manville, Imelda Stanton and Juno Temple) incompetence, which was always apparent, is now enlarged to the point of irritation. Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) actually looks his age now but actually plays more like the original Aurora: a disposable pawn in the game. No, instead, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is pulled upfront to showcases the worst of mankind. Chosing his selfish desires over love is what drives the narrative, as it is twisted into a childhood romance between the future king and Maleficent. Because of this, there’s an awful lot of time jumping under an unneccesary long introduction. It also makes Maleficent literally a jealous witch, for which the movie then aims to redeem her of. Suddenly there was another king, a forgetful princess whom Stefan marries and a climax that feels forced. On its own merit, Stefan betrayal is a powerful twist. Yet, it feels out of tune to have this iconic power figure find her motivation in such a heavy metaphor. As if Glenn Close’s Cruella de Vil was bit by her dalmatian puppy when she was young.
Luckily, there’s a lot more to this movie than just the script by personal favorite Linda Woolverton. Obviously, the casting of Angelina Jolie is invaluable here as no one else could have remotely made this itteration worth it. It’s refreshing to see Jolie act her heart out. This power house doesn’t need to dodge bullets to kick some major butt. The direction, by former production designer Robert Stromberg, isn’t always solid. Yet, he thrives with shots like a floating Aurora next to a gliding Maleficent, or a young Maleficent soaring over the clouds in the light of the sun. The graphics are outstanding, but like Alice in Wonderland, a bit too overwhelming. We’re introduced to a whole computer generated world with its own creatures in the opening scene, ostensibly to please the little ones, as they don’t play any significant role later on. Likewise, composer James Newton Howard, who certainly knows how to work these adventures, goes all out all the time. Giving a bombastic sound to scenes where it’s seemingly uncalled for.
In its completion ‘Maleficent’ feels uneven. The movie could have simply referenced the original Disney feature with cute little references, as it does with the messed up pie. Instead it is set on replaying some iconic scenes which results in dull moments that cannot measure up to what the audience already knows too well. The moment Aurora is drawn to the spinning wheel in 1959 is beautifully creepy and exciting in its sublety and calm. Now it plays out like a necessary stop that can quickly be forgotten. For an audience that is obsessed with dragons, the legendary original fight finds no equal here. Maleficent’s story still centers Aurora and by fighting her own curse, the story is enriched. One of the big reveals in the movie is a landmark change that, after the twist in Frozen, stems hopeful for a future generation of impressionable young children who grow up with these modern fairy tales. But it all doesn’t quite fit with the new Maleficent story. She’s a protector of her home place, she allows herself to care for the one person in the world she harmed the most and yet she starts out as a woman scorned. Could the 2014 interpretation of Maleficent, that stars Lara Croft, actually have less agency than her 2D fifties counterpart? Who knows. It’s just a waste that so much potential of a marvelous plot twist is buried under bad repetition and meaningless new endeavors. One thing is for certain, if one choses to take from this movie the fresh interpretation of true love, the story is already more relevant than the original fairy tale could ever be.
Directed by Robert Stromberg
Produced by Joe Roth
Screenplay by Linda Woolverton
with Angeline Jolie, Shartlo Copley and Elle Fanning
Released May 28, 2014