‘Maleficent’: The Pleasures and Perils of the Revisionist Fairy Tale

REARVIEW: Disney has intriguingly dismantled one of its own mythologies with 'Maleficent,' but the beauty and artistry of 'Sleeping Beauty' still endure.

(NOTE: This piece discusses key plot points from “Maleficent.”)

If we must take a revisionist sledgehammer to our most beloved fairy tales — and if the recent likes of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Jack the Giant Slayer” and “Oz the Great and Powerful” are any indication, it seems we must — the results should always turn out to be as interesting as “Maleficent.” With its righteous gender politics and a mesmerizing Angelina Jolie front and center, this live-action fantasy doesn’t just offer an engrossing “Wicked”-style alternative reading of Disney’s 1959 animated masterpiece, “Sleeping Beauty.” It also represents the studio’s latest concerted effort to dismantle, or at least gently undermine, some of its time-honored myths and stereotypes.

When Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) mistakenly identifies Maleficent as her “fairy godmother,” Jolie’s deadpan reaction is priceless: the barest flicker of a raised eyebrow, as if to signal, “You’re in the wrong story, sweetheart.” Indeed she is. In “Maleficent” you can sense a culmination of the subversive undercurrents that have popped up in Disney’s recent run of princess pictures, from the sly, wised-up humor of “Enchanted” and “Tangled” to the boldly feminist narratives of “Frozen” and Pixar’s “Brave.” Notably, every one of these movies has been a hit, and “Maleficent,” in continuing the trend with a stellar opening gross of $170.6 million worldwide, should further reinforce what has become a winning studio formula: classic fairy-tale standards infused with an agreeably cheeky, thoroughly contemporary sensibility.

There is, to be sure, much to applaud in this approach. As in “Frozen” and “Brave,” the key relationship in “Maleficent” is not a romance, but rather a thorny, emotionally complex bond between two sharply drawn women. The story hinges not on some heroic quest to vanquish evil, but rather on the basic struggle for these two to arrive at an honest understanding of one another. Gone are the male heroics (or, for that matter, interesting male characters of any kind), and gone are the traditional happily-ever-after paradigms: In a picture that redefines the meaning of true love’s kiss, it is Maleficent, not the useless Prince Phillip, who rides to the princess’ rescue — and she doesn’t ride sidesaddle.

If you thought “Frozen” came with an unusually direct warning about the dangers of listening to handsome young men and their treacherous sweet nothings, that movie has nothing on “Maleficent.” The scene in which the would-be King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) betrays the powerful fairy and divests her of her wings, pushing her over to the dark side in the process, is deliberately coded as a date rape. And when Maleficent realizes the full extent of her violation, Jolie — in a performance that is otherwise a marvel of chilling, hypnotic restraint — gives herself over to the moment completely. In that piercing howl she emits, you don’t hear the fury of a woman scorned so much as the primal agony of a wounded animal. It’s a genuinely devastating moment, and it puts to shame the equivalent motivation scene in Disney’s 2013 fantasy prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which did a much clumsier job of rationalizing the Wicked Witch of the West, one of the most iconic villains the movies have given us. (Surely there was more to her backstory than being jilted by James Franco.)

Archetype subversion and feminist deconstruction, of course, do not in themselves a great movie make, and while “Maleficent” passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, it also has its fair share of drecky missteps: ho-hum battle sequences, creature f/x overkill and, most egregiously, the reduction of the Three Good Fairies to a tittering trio of idiots. (That two of them are played by Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville made me wonder, briefly, what a Mike Leigh-directed “Maleficent” would have looked like — “Unhappy-Go-Lucky,” anyone?) The screenwriter, Linda Woolverton (the erratic talent behind the wonderful “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” but also the ghastly “Alice in Wonderland”), has succeeded in turning her protagonist into a fascinating bundle of contradictory impulses, but she hasn’t been able to reimagine any of the other key characters — least of all Stefan, an irredeemable bastard — with anywhere near the same complexity. In inflating Maleficent into a tragically misunderstood leading lady, the movie stacks the deck by treating its supporting players with a startling lack of generosity.

And so “Maleficent,” for all its pleasurable, forward-thinking engagement with an antiquated fairy tale, cannot ultimately supplant or improve upon it. The reason for that has something to do with the fact that, whether we care to admit it or not, some of our most cherished legends endure in spite of — and perhaps even because of — their old-fashioned, retrograde qualities. But it also has something to do with, if you’ll pardon the expression, the timeless power of art. To watch “Sleeping Beauty” again after all these years is to behold a fully realized work of visual and musical brilliance, and to see it in close proximity to “Maleficent” is to grasp the essential difference between a clever derivation and a classic, between a movie that reflects its moment and a movie that transcends it.

Not that “Sleeping Beauty” has always been recognized as such. After almost a decade in the making, Walt Disney’s 16th animated feature — the most expensive film he had ever produced (on a budget of $6 million) — was released in 1959 to underwhelming box office and mixed reviews. It has since been rightly vindicated, by the passage of time and a series of successful theatrical reissues, as one of the studio’s finest achievements, and arguably its most distinctive. Of all the Disney classics, this is the one my wife and I return to year after year — often on the bigscreen, which is the only way to properly experience the full, painterly richness of Eyvind Earle’s backdrops. The entire picture is conceived as a spectacular, almost abstract duet between the forces of darkness and light — from the delicate shifts between whimsy and melancholy in George Bruns’ magnificent score (adapted from Tchaikovsky’s 1890 “Sleeping Beauty” ballet), to the boldly stylized visuals, whose sharp, angular lines and striking colors suggest a medieval tapestry come to life.

The common knock against “Sleeping Beauty,” of course, is that its heroine is a literal and figurative snooze: the very epitome of the clueless princess, a woman with no narrative agency, no interests beyond romance and indeed no mind of her own. It’s a valid complaint that nevertheless misses where the real drama of this particular story lies, not in a young maiden’s self-actualization, but in the stark, Manichaean contrast between three benevolent pixies and the self-proclaimed “mistress of all evil” — a metaphor for the unseen spiritual forces at work in the human world, shaping destinies that we only fool ourselves into thinking we can control.

“Now shall you deal with me, O Prince … and all the powers of HEEELLLLLLLL!” Maleficent declares at the climax, with a blood-curdling intensity still capable of terrifying your inner 5-year-old. A few moments later, it’s the good fairies who save the day, with a wave of their wands and a valiant incantation: “Let Evil die and Good endure.” It’s an honorable sentiment, even if, on some level, it misses the point: If there’s one thing that the great Disney movies have taught us — and that “Maleficent” proves, however imperfectly — it’s that truly great evil always lives on.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Inside the Spider-Man Split: Finger-Pointing and Executive Endgames

    Spider-Man’s neighborhood has been decidedly unfriendly this week. A private and contentious battle over the onscreen future of the beloved Marvel superhero has spilled out into the public square over the past few days. After making nice for two wildly successful films, Sony Pictures, which holds the licensing rights to the Marvel character, will go [...]

  • Variety Announces 10 Actors to Watch

    Variety Announces 10 Actors to Watch for 2019

    Variety has announced its 10 Actors to Watch for 2019, an honor the publication has bestowed since 1998. Past honorees include many future Oscar winners and nominees, such as Mahershala Ali, Timothée Chalamet, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Brie Larson, Lupita Nyong’o and Melissa Leo. This year’s honorees will be feted in the Oct. 27 issue of [...]

  • August Maturo

    Film News Roundup: August Maturo to Star in Horror Movie 'Slapface'

    In today’s film news roundup, August Maturo gets a starring role and “Death of Me” and “Fatale” find homes. CASTING “Girl Meets World” star August Maturo has been cast as the lead character in the upcoming indie horror feature, “Slapface.” Maturo will play a boy who deals with the loss of his mother by creating [...]

  • Dan Trachtenberg

    Tom Holland's 'Uncharted' Movie Loses Director

    Dan Trachtenberg has exited the director’s chair for Sony’s “Uncharted” movie starring Tom Holland, with the studio taking meetings with top filmmakers and production starting early next year. The studio confirmed Trachtenberg’s departure Thursday. It also said Sony-based PlayStation Productions — headed by Asad Qizilbash and Carter Swan — had come on to produce alongside [...]

  • Participant Taps Anikah McLaren, Robert Kessel

    Participant Taps Anikah McLaren, Robert Kessel to Head Film Department

    Participant Media has named industry veterans Anikah McLaren and Robert Kessel as co-heads of the company’s film department with the titles of executive vice president. Both executives will report together to Participant CEO David Linde, who made the announcement Thursday. McLaren joins Participant having most recently served as a production executive for Fox Searchlight Pictures. [...]

  • 'The Son' Review: Bosnian Family Drama

    Sarajevo Film Review: 'The Son'

    It is a mixed blessing to be born in the aftermath of a war. On the one hand, you never have to experience the terror and suffering your parents did; on the other, you grow up with your own personal crises forever made to feel smaller by comparison. That, at least, is the frustration driving [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Box Office: Jennifer Lopez 'Hustlers' Heading for $25 Million Launch

    STX Entertainment’s “Hustlers,” a comedic thriller about strip-club employees seeking revenge, is expected to earn $25 million when it opens on Sept. 13, according to early tracking. The movie — starring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Cardi B and Lizzo — will debut alongside Warner Bros.’ “The Goldfinch.” The drama, based on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content