Linda Woolverton’s ‘Maleficent’ tells the other side of the Sleeping Beauty tale
For 40 years, feminists have complained about the sanitized fairy tales force-fed to little girls in Disney cartoons—the ones that promise a handsome prince and true love’s kiss. And over the last couple of years, the Mouse House seems to be getting a clue. Brave featured an independent-minded princess who didn’t get—or need—a prince. In last year’s mega-hit Frozen, an ironic plot reversal was built around the (mistaken) notion of true love’s kiss.
With Maleficent, the studio blithely rewrites one of its own vintage cartoons, Sleeping Beauty—or at least provides a bracketing story around events in the earlier movie that pretty much changes everything. The narrative stumbles now and then, but overall it’s a savvy and entertaining live-action revision, told from the viewpoint of the so-called evil fairy Maleficent, formerly the designated villain. With the formidable Angelina Jolie in the title role, we get a character who is both deliciously wicked (when she needs to be) and surprisingly, believably tender as her side of the story plays out.
In this version, we meet Maleficent as a young fairy (Isobelle Molloy) growing up blissfully happy in the moors, a verdant haven for all manner of magical CGI critters adjacent to a kingdom of humans. For some reason never explained, Maleficent is blessed with majestic hawk-like wings as tall as she is, which enable her to tumble around joyously in the sky, but also to swoop down on anyone who threatens her precious moors.
As a child, she befriends a human boy, Stefan, who strays into the moors one day. Over the years, as they grow up (and Maleficent morphs into Jolie), they become close friends—until the day he betrays her. It’s not simply that his love is not true enough, but as a grown man (now played by Sharlto Copley), driven by ambition to inherit the kingdom, he commits an act so heinous and horrifying against her, it hardens her heart and sets her on the road to villainy. When he becomes King Stefan, and he and his queen celebrate the birth of their daughter, Aurora, Maleficent crashes the party and delivers her famous curse: on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a trance-like sleep from which she will never wake.
This is the “familiar” part of the story, except things don’t play out the way we expect in Linda Woolverton’s clever script. Not to give away the best surprises, but Aurora, raised in secret by three fairies in a cottage in the wood, grows up in proximity to Maleficent—whom she calls her fairy godmother. When Aurora (now played by the dewy Elle Fanning) nears her sixteenth birthday, Maleficent actually tries to revoke her curse, but can’t.
The film marks the directing debut of visual effects wizard and production designer Robert Stromberg (Oscar-winning art director on Avatar and Alice In Wonderland). The effects are sophisticated, especially the transformations of Maleficent’s shape-shifting crow familiar (nicely played by Sam Riley in human form). Also cunning is the way the faces of actresses Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple are morphed onto tiny winged bodies as the guardian fairies—although too much time is wasted on their slapstick Three Stoogettes routines when they switch to human size. And there’s something ugly, gratuitous, and out-of-character in the savage way winged Maleficent keeps diving into the fray when an invading army attacks the moors early on—especially since giant bog creatures of trees, rock, and mud seem so capable of defending themselves.
Short shrift is also given to the story’s central motif, the death-like sleep into which Aurora falls when the curse is fulfilled. But despite some missteps, the film’s fresh ideas (including its notion of who the real Sleeping Beauty is) help this radical retake cast its spell.
MALEFICENT *** (out of four) With Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville. Written by Linda Woolverton. Directed by Robert Stromberg. A Disney release. Rated PG. 97 minutes.