Disney’s new live-action CGI-resplendent “Maleficent” borrows on some of the Disney Sleeping Beauty traditions for an uneven pro-woman portrayal of the tale which focuses on the so-called evil fairy but will likely be remembered more for its impact on fashion (and the attack on Brad Pitt at the Hollywood El Capitan premiere) than as a movie with a well-told story.
Disney’s 1959 musical animated feature “Sleeping Beauty” was a disappointment both financially and critically, receiving mixed reviews, but it did introduce what became a classic Disney princess and gave her a name, Aurora. It also introduced a sleek fashionable dark fairy and gave her a name, Maleficent. Of course, even more unusual, the movie gave Sleeping Beauty’s prince a name (Philip).
As with many fairytales, there are many versions. Charles Perrault’s version “La Belle au Bois Dormant” and the Brothers Grimm “Little Briar Rose” were the basis for the Disney animated feature. I also have a version of “The Sleeping Beauty” in my “Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales.” In all, it all, the fairy who gives the curse, was uninvited. In
Perrault’s version, the fairy is old and the slight is unintentional. There are seven invited fairies. In the Grimms’ stories, the problem was the table service. The King and Queen have only 12 gold plates so they only invited 12 of the 13 fairies.
In all cases, the uninvited fairy makes her curse before the last fairy can bestow a gift to the child and after the curse has been set, she softens the effect of the curse–instead of death, the child will fall into a deep sleep and both the Grimms’ stories, the curse is a 100-year slumber and the lucky prince is not the Beauty’s true love, but rather the chap lucky enough to come upon the cursed kingdom at the right time.
Perrault’s tale is one of love at first sight or at least first kiss. The whole true love notion is problematic because the Sleeping Beauty barely knows the prince, something that Disney attempted to circumvent by having her meet her prince before her long sleep. Perrault’s tale also introduces another evil–the mother-in-law who attempts to kill the now-queen Sleeping Beauty while her son is away. For Disney, one evil woman was enough and thus Maleficent was created by Disney and she becomes one of the most spectacular dragons of animated history at that time.
This movie “Maleficent” owes much to the Gregory Maguire book “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.” “Wicked” imagines a shunned and betrayed Witch of the West as a sympathetic character compared to the snobby Glinda–very different from either the L. Frank Baum books or the musical movie “The Wizard of Oz.” “Maleficent re-imagines Maleficent as a character much wronged with anger management issues that might come under the heading “a woman scorned.” The actual narrator (Janet McTeer) isn’t identified until the end.
In “Maleficent,” the movie begins with a young Maleficent (Ella Purnell). She is a fairly unlike all the others and she is an orphan, yet still a regal figure who stands in judgment between the people of the fairy world moors and an intruding human. The human is a young peasant boy, Stefan (Toby Regbo), ambitious and brave enough to venture into the fairy moors where most humans would not dare to venture alone.
Maleficent (now played by Isobelle Molloy) and Stefan (Michael Higgins) are in love, or so it seems. Stefan deserts Maleficent. While this makes him seem merely callow, what follows transforms him into a Disney villain (one without much style unfortunately for Cosplayers). The neighboring kingdom is ruled by the old, white-bearded King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) who attempts to wage war against the fairy people of the Moors, but is soundly defeated by the now majestic Maleficent. If you haven’t seen the trailers, then think winged Victory with more sex appeal and impossibly sharp high cheek bones.
King Henry has many greedy possible heirs to this throne, but only a daughter and no male heir. He promises her in marriage and the throne to the man who kills Maleficent. Now young Stefan, only a steward and not a lord, sees his chance. Going back to the Moors, he has a visit with Maleficent and basically gives her the ancient equivalent of a roofie. Drugging her, he leaves Maleficent with a two-winged deficit.
Crippled and angry, her darkened outlook on life darkens the Moors as if she were the very essence of the fairy world. When Stefan finally becomes King Stefan, he soon has a child.
At the christening, the fluffy-brained but well-intentioned three fairies attend and two grant the child beauty and happiness, but Maleficent storms in and gives the full curse. The third fairy is fairly useless and doesn’t soften the curse nor grant a wish. The bumbling threesome are left in charge of Aurora, but it is Maleficent who helps the child survive and grow and finally Maleficent regrets her curse, but cannot revoke it. So the rest of the story becomes about saving Aurora with true love’s kiss.
Aurora does meet the handsome Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites) and he does kiss her, but that’s all you need to know without spoiling the fun.
The names Maleficent, Aurora, King Stefan, Prince Philip and Queen Leah are all carryovers from the 1959 Disney animated feature so there’s some continuity in the Disney lore. Maleficent’s pet raven Diablo, becomes Diaval which via Maleficent’s magic is the movie’s shapeshifter (Sam Riley in human form and CGI otherwise).
The number of fairies–the threesome of Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, is in keeping with the Disney tradition, but in this movie, they become Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Fittle (Lesley Manville). The threesome caring for the child is pure Disney invention.
Princess Aurora begins as Vivienne Jolie-Pitt transforms into Eleanor Worthington Cox on the way to becoming the 16-year-old Elle Fanning. Fanning plays Aurora with a sweet innocence contrasted by a set of impossibly black eyebrows for her very blonde hair. Yet even as a young fairy, Maleficent sported the reddest of lips. Where
“Maleficent” falters is in common place logic. Merriam-Webster tells me that a “moor” is “an expanse of open rolling infertile land” but also a “boggy area” especially one that is “dominated by grasses and sedges.” Our Disney animators give us forest land. While a bog is a place with “wet spongy ground” that is “frequently surrounding a body of open water,” the Disney animator give us tall tower like rock formations that spring from the ocean. We have not real sense of place, of a limited and protected moor that is, as the movie tells us.
Maleficent as a character doesn’t have any other fellow fairies who are her equal or look similar in appearance. That’s not to say that Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is magnificent. Cosplayers will rejoice at the fashion bonanza, even if her sudden late appearance in the figure-hugging pleather pants suit makes her seem more like a modern day action hero (Catwoman? Black Widow?) than a renaissance or medieval fairy.
There are other breaks of logic. The queen and Aurora’s mother is barely more than a face and body and more character development is given to the raven in his human incarnation although through her King Stefan gains his right to rule. The three fairies must have known about Stefan’s betrayal and mutilation of Maleficent and yet blithely go to give his only child fairy gifts.
Then there’s that odd parallel journey from the Moor to the castle. Aurora runs to the castle on foot and makes it there without breaking a sweat. Maleficent requires a horse (Diaval in another form) and doesn’t quite make it there despite a rousing gallop.
Director Robert Stromberg can’t quite balance the tone between the ditzy fairies and the life and death battles, but even with better timing most of the dialogue provided by Linda Woolverton’s script and the sight gags for the fairies would still have fallen flatter than anything than the wonderful dragon sat on.
Where Stromberg excels is in the characterization of Jolie’s Maleficent as a fashion icon, thanks in part to the atmospheric cinematography of Dean Semler (“Trojan War” and “Dances with Wolves”) and costume design by Anna B. Sheppard (“Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Inglourious Basterds”).
“Maleficent” isn’t a great movie, but it is a great source for fashion-forward Cosplay and Edna Mode would definitely approve. Should your kid or the child in you want to dress up, this is as good an occasion as any. There won’t be fighting between Aurora and Maleficent after this one. Just two caveats. The de-winging isn’t bloody, but it might have an adverse reaction for younger children and the violent battle toward the end might be too intense. Should your little one want to attend wearing a Stella McCartney Maleficent costume, be sure to safety pin those wings on because they can easily come unbuttoned and lost.