(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.