Maleficent is Disney’s update of the Sleeping Beauty story, only this time told from the “villain’s” point of view. It presents an enchanted world of two kingdoms living peacefully side-by-side, the kingdom of humans and the land of fairies. The fairy realm has no formal rulers but is protected by a powerful young fairy named Maleficent. Maleficent befriends and loves a human named Stefan, who wanders into the fairy realm as a young boy. As the story progresses, we see how their relationship evolves over time and we come to understand how life events shape them. Ultimately we see the transformation of Maleficent from a loving, naïve young fairy creature into the dark malevolent sorceress of the Sleeping Beauty tale.
Maleficent is an interesting idea, but one that requires a skilled hand to pull off. Part of the appeal of classic Disney cartoons, especially for young children, is the simplicity of the good versus evil narrative that comes from the fairy tales they are based on. By introducing the notion of shades of grey into the Sleeping Beauty story, Disney sets itself a difficult but interesting challenge. The challenge is to create a modernized take on Sleeping Beauty that introduces shades of grey into character motivations, yet still maintains its appeal with core family audiences. It’s a difficult tightrope walk and one that needs to be tackled by a formidable creative talent.
Unfortunately, this is one movie that does not live up to the challenge it sets for itself. Instead of truly introducing shades of grey, the movie simply turns the Sleeping Beauty story on its head. Turns out that white is really black, and black is really white after all. It may be the studio felt this is what was needed to keep the film relatable for family audiences, but artistically it’s a flop. Yes, we see the “behind the scenes” story that leads Maleficent to curse a newborn baby, and we learn to empathize with her reasons for doing it. However, other than that, Maleficent turns out to really be just a poor misunderstood victim of circumstances, much like the Disney characters of Cinderella or Snow White. The difference being that this Disney character never meets her Prince Charming and instead starts dressing up in black and hanging out at goth clubs.
Maleficent is a gorgeously filmed movie with eye-catching special effects, and a top-notch performance by Angelina Jolie. During the ten minutes or so when Maleficent first starts dressing in black and casting evil curses, the movie really comes alive and we’re left fascinated, wanting to see what she’ll do next. The reasons for her change from a light to dark fairy are powerful and relatable, and the makings for a good movie were certainly there. However, the Maleficent character rapidly abandons and regrets the “evil” she has done, and any complexity in her motivation is quickly disposed of. By simply turning the Sleeping Beauty story on its head, the film fails to tell a nuanced tale that makes all of its characters more interesting and relatable. Instead it becomes Disney giving the middle finger to fans of their original Sleeping Beauty, while telling a new story that is only slightly less rigid and one dimensional than the one it’s trying to supersede.
What would be interesting is if this film were presented Rashomon-style as part of a series of takes on Sleeping Beauty. The original animated film could be presented as the King’s or the Prince’s story, Maleficent could be presented as her version of things, and then some other stories could be told from other points of view. This could allow for some very interesting explorations of truth and perception, and could add all kinds of intriguing complexity to the story. As it stands on its own, though, Maleficent is just a one sided rehash that purports to be nuanced reinvention, but in the end it amounts to little more than a crass cash grab by Disney studios.
2.5 out of 5 stars