I was so excited, waiting nearly a year for this particular variation of my favourite Disney story to come out, and all ready to review the film here. So what happened?
(Warning: possible spoilers ahead. Don’t get mad at me if you have not yet watched and you learn things you don’t want to. You have been fairly warned. In that case, move along and stop reading, but make a note to return after you’ve viewed the movie.)
It has been several months since that time and I am just getting around to writing this, but not because I hated it so much I backed out. I will explain below, now, finally with the release of Maleficent on DVD (or in whatever the hell form movies are coming out these days) I will try not to spoil the story too much. This is part movie review and part movie comparison.
Sleeping Beauty was my favourite fairy tale Disney cartoon as a child. I loved the fairies, Princess Aurora, and even the wicked Maleficent herself because she was just that frightening and evil, but what made her that way? That’s not really the sort of thing you look too deeply into as a child.
I didn’t know what to expect from this live-action movie. It’s been years since Sleeping Beauty and finally we were getting to hear the story from Maleficent’s point-of-view.
Angelina Jolie is the star of this movie, as it should be and as the title suggests, but she totally steals the spotlight.
In the movie trailer she seems just as evil as I’ve always known her to be. She made me tremble with just a few words, but there is a lot more to this version of the Disney villain.
The narrator helps to set the scene:
Let us tell an old story anew and we will see how well you know it.
Two kingdoms live side by side, a human kingdom and a fairy one, but not harmoniously.
The Moors is the home of all number of mythical, magical creatures, but a young fairy, Maleficent flies over it all, with her giant, powerfully strong wings.
She lives in a tree and hears of a human boy trying to steal from the Pool of Jewels.
She pities him and seeing something in him, lets him explain himself and the border guards back off. She has never seen a human up close. An unlikely friendship begins between the two.
She takes back the jewel the human boy was attempting to steal, tossing it back into the pool: “I didn’t throw it away. I delivered it home, as I’m going to do for you.”
She spares his life and saves him. They are both orphans and find something in each other. He risks danger to return to the Moors, just to see her again. He tosses away a ring made from iron he wears when he hears that iron burns fairies, just so their hands can touch.
He compliments her: “I like your wings,” as any boy might compliment a girl he likes. He came to the Moors, was about to steal a jewel, but ends up stealing her heart, something much more precious.
All the signs point to a love story between these two different races. Perhaps the old war between the two kingdoms is forgotten, but like most stories, the reality of life, the greed and ambition of man gets in the way.
Stefan’s desire, as he grows, grows too. I never would have considered, watching the Disney version as a child, any backstory between Maleficent and King Stefan, but it works well I think.
These two teenagers have had their own perfect version of true love’s first kiss, but the temptation and ambition have grown in Stefan. Maleficent has lost her own chance for any possibility of that iconic first kiss leading to a happy ending and they both lose out on everything they could have had together.
Maleficent is the protector of the Moors and must do so when the king and his army attack, envious and fearful. She is just a winged elf to him and he is no king to her.
He demands her head, but is wounded in battle. This is the perfect opportunity for the increasingly greedy young Stefan to show his loyalty to the kingdom of men. This is where things turned uncomfortable for me.
He uses the history between them to fool Maleficent. He can’t bring himself to kill her, but he does knock her out, using the dreaded iron against her, cutting off her precious wings.
Angelina spoke in interviews of the connection between this act in the movie and the invasion of sexual assault and rape. Of course this doesn’t have to be how this scene is read, but for me this is where the film took on a darker adult meaning, so different from the simple, innocent evil of the classic Disney film.
Angelina moved me, showing her truly perfect casting for this role, when she awakes as Maleficent to find that she has been robbed of her wings.
I could hardly even stand to listen to the scene. Her sounds of pure agony and despair on learning of her loss were difficult to get through. Although I could not see, I found it a hard scene to watch.
Stefan has his proof to present to the dying king and takes position as the newly reining King Stefan. He marries the dead king’s daughter and they have a child: Princess Aurora.
Back in the Moors Maleficent has no way of flying over her land to see what’s going on. One day she comes across the character of Diabal and saves his life. He pledges his loyalty to her from then on.
The pet raven Maleficent has as her loyal companion in Sleeping Beauty becomes a real man at times. Then, as a raven, is able to fly and find out what has become of Stefan.
Upon learning of the birth of the princess Maleficent feels betrayed all the more by Stefan and the well-known evil, hatred, and vengeance grows in her. She uses her magic to put up a wall of thorns around the Moors, just like the wall she puts around her heart. This is more reminiscent of the darkness of Maleficent’s castle in the 1959 film.
It is her rendition of the famous Christening scene that caught my attention with its power and the big way in which she plays it.
Angelina plays this with the right amount of resemblance to the original movie, but with her own spin on just the right touch of evil glee to be heard in her voice as she curses Aurora.
“My my…what an awkward situation.”
When she pledges to curse the princess to death on her sixteenth birthday by the prick from a spindle of a spinning wheel, it is clear Maleficent wants to hurt King Stefan as much as he has hurt her.
When he begs her to spare his daughter, she says:
“I like you begging. Do it again.”
At first she feeds on his desperation and it makes her feel a little better, but then there is a sudden turn and she seems to soften a little then and reduces the outcome of the curse to only a deep sleep until true love’s first kiss.
It is a scene full of tension and anxiety. Maleficent wants to make Stefan suffer for what he did to her, like a victim of sexual assault who might want the same thing from their perpetrator, no longer believing that true love exists.
“This curse will last until the end of time. No power on earth can change it.”
The fairies aren’t like I know them and love them in Sleeping Beauty. Their names have been changed. They were always a bit useless once they were made to live without their magical powers for the sixteen years it takes to raise Aurora, but although still genuinely good and kind, they have been reduced to something farcical.
They are known, not as fairies, but as pixies. The blue one always reminded me of my grandmother, but in this telling of the story, the pink, green, and blue pixies (one played by the evil Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter), they come across as bumbling, foolish, ridiculous creatures. They have a fluttery wispy sound that grated on my nerves every time I heard it.
The scene where the baby is left crying and they discuss that she must be hungry, yet none of them do anything about it. This is where Maleficent comes in.
In the original film they would never have been so thoughtless. It appears as if they don’t really care for the child very much, not one of the three feeding the poor baby. Maleficent and her companion step in, Maleficent starting with resentment, referring to Aurora as “Beastie”, but she saves her life, more than once.
From then on she is a shadow who is always following and looking over Aurora as she grows. She tries to remain cool and detached, but slowly grows to care for the girl. This is a definite departure from the Disney classic, but it adds a level of depth to the story that nobody would have predicted.
As Maleficent’s heart thaws, it is King Stefan whose heart hardens as the years pass by and he is determined to find Maleficent. He slowly loses touch with reality.
All throughout the omniscient narrator speaks lines about the life Aurora lives, such as:
“Far away from the lofty palace that she remembered not.”
During one particular conversation between Maleficent and Aurora:
“There is an evil in this world, revenge, and hatred.”
Aurora asks Maleficent why she does not possess wings like the other fairies and Maleficent hesitantly explains that she had wings once, but they were taken from her.
She speaks of her long lost wings with wistful sadness. That they were stolen, but that they had been big and strong, never faltering, she could trust them.
These wings were a part of her and it was a terrible violation, what the now king had done by stealing them, removing them like he did.
As for true love, both the king and the “evil” fairy no longer believe.
True love does not exist.
I suppose I found the emphasis on this topic in this version to be the most interesting part.
Perhaps it is the guilt of this act that has eaten away at the king ever since. Perhaps he has blamed himself for the whole mess, for what has happened to his daughter and to the wild fairy he once loved.
As for his daughter, she is a princess, but she does not know it, until the day before her sixteenth birthday. She has confronted the shadow and is not scared of what she discovers. She has developed a strong bond with Maleficent, happy until the pixies inform her who she really is and that she must return to her father, the king.
The scene where Aurora meets a stranger in the woods isn’t at all like the key scene in Sleeping Beauty, but it still leads you to believe he will be the true love who will break the inevitable curse.
There is no magical moment when Aurora and Prince Philip dance in a woodland glen, with all the friendly woodland animals watching. It feels like this handsome prince is merely a background character in this updated adaptation. Any feelings of love are slow to grow, unlike the sudden realization of feelings that is a naive idea of love from a child’s point of view in a Disney movie.
Aurora is disillusioned with Maleficent and the pixies and runs to meet her father in the palace, which feels a little unrealistic, but it has gotten her back to where the danger really lies.
Even King Stefan’s insane order to lock her in her room does not prevent the curse from taking effect. She pricks her finger and Maleficent is determined to break the curse, but can it be done?
Does Maleficent really believe she will be able to lift the curse by bringing the prince to the bedside of her darling so-called daughter?
She tries to take back her curse, no longer only two options, good and bad, that are so simplistic, through a child’s eyes; black and white turns to grey.
She has found the stranger from the woods and brings him to the castle and to the sleeping Aurora. The scene builds to a climactic moment, after the more modern hesitation from the young prince, questioning whether he should kiss a girl he has just met.
Everything has been leading up to this. HE finds himself by the sleeping princess’s bedside. They wait with bated breath and you think this is the moment of the movie, the whole point.
Kissing someone without their consent, having not met more than once as he points out, suddenly also becomes something else, becomes more, like an invasion of personal space.
I won’t spoil the next part, in case I have, invariably, convinced you to watch this movie, because in spite of the issues I have with it, in case you couldn’t tell, I think you should.
Maleficent does feel the sorrow of what she has done to her precious Aurora. She admits that she can not be forgiven for it, because what she has done to the poor child is unforgivable, all that time she was so lost with seeking revenge and in hatred. This, perhaps, is the repentance you wouldn’t expect from an evil power like Maleficent, the kind of repentance the king can not realize.
By her bedside she declares:
“I swear no harm will come to you as long as I live and not a day shall pass that I don’t miss your smile.”
The epic climactic battle does not happen in the way you might remember it. It’s the heart of King Stephan, once touched by his feelings for the young Maleficent, that has turned cold and hard. He is beyond all help or hope. He has grown mad in those feelings of hatred and revenge, the same ones Maleficent fought so hard against, they have won out in him..
There is one final, dramatic point, a battle between Maleficent and King Stefan, involving a dragon, and true love does win out, but at a cost. The characters you might expect to end up happily aren’t necessarily the ones who do, but this story is a fairy tale, still grounded in reality and with a more modern touch.
The narrator, which I like very much because she has helped me to understand the story, sums it all up in a beautiful and satisfying manner. All along this invisible voice of the story is someone you may not have guessed.
Angelina Jolie is the star of this whole retelling and her role of Maleficent is one of the best of her career, in this lowly reviewer’s opinion.
This is no longer the sweet little fairy tale of my youth. The lessons are plentiful, on greed and envy, jealousy and revenge, true love and cruelty. The two worlds are so different and it is a constant struggle, a battle at times, to see if the two worlds can get along and live happily side by side.
Like most stories, the humans are the greedy ones, fearing magic and seeking to take its power.
Good and evil, black and white are no longer at the heart of it. This is a nice follow-up piece to the original Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, made fifty-five years earlier.
The three good fairies I loved so much, the pixies of this film, are the things I like least in this version. The one whose supposedly evil and her bird/wolf/man are my favourite characters.
My feelings were constantly on a roller coaster, from start to finish of this film. I hurt and I smiled. I would give Angelina’s performance a 5 out of 5, while the rest of the movie I would give a solid 4 for its fairy tale style, mixed with its modern-day themes.
In the end, it’s the true love in the unlikely relationship between Maleficent and Aurora that is the nice surprise of this film, true love between the two you never, on watching the original, would have guessed. This alteration in this updated version was a bewildering one and yet, a sweet change in direction of plot and story.
The true love of a man does not always have to be the answer, but it still ends up rounding out the story rather sweetly.
For you true love fans, you romantic fairy tale lovers who cling to childhood ideals like myself, it is nice to see.
So apparently we did not know this particular favourite of mine quite as well as we, or at least, as well as I thought I did. This was an unexpected surprise, and a mostly pleasant one at that.
It ends happily ever after, as a fairy tale is supposed to. The Moors become a bright beautiful place once more.
The kingdoms unify and Princess Aurora is crowned Queen, having been the narrator all along.
The two kingdoms are at peace with one another, in the end:
“Brought together not by hero or villain as legend predicted. But by both.”
That is what makes Maleficent and indeed the actress who plays her so spellbinding and what made all the other little annoyances I felt throughout worth watching.
Of course I can’t write this review without highlighting the musical tone provided for this film, by the haunting voice of Lana Del Ray:
It’s a lesson in growing up and learning about the good and the bad in people. It totally changed my perspective on this most famous of Disney tales, but in a way I won’t soon forget.
If you are a fan of the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty or even if you are not, go see Maleficent. Rent it. Watch it. Download it. You will have a good time.