We all know the story of Sleeping Beauty, as told by Disney’s adaptation. The evil fairy Maleficent casts a spell on the young princess Aurora, so that on the day of her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep, only to be awoken by True Love’s Kiss. Do we ever question Maleficent’s motives for doing so? I didn’t until I watched Disney’s new live action retelling. Starring Angelina Jolie in the title, Maleficent is an eye-opening, magical and thoroughly enjoyable film.
Maleficent opens with our anti-hero as a child. Pure-hearted and beautiful, she has led an idyllic life growing up in the peaceful Forest Kingdom the magical creatures roam, separate from the Human Kingdom. One day though, a human boy, Stefan, ventures too far into the forest, and Maleficent both warns him away and befriends him. The two grow up on friendly terms but become very different people; she a fierce protector of her land, he (portrayed later by Sharlto Copley) an ambitious peasant who takes up a position in the castle.
When an invading army threatens the harmony of the land, Maleficent rises to protect it, only to suffer a ruthless betrayal that sets the scene for the story we know. Bent on revenge, Maleficent places a curse on the newborn infant Aurora, which is where the tale veers in a direction that is surprising, confusing, but oddly welcome based on today’s filmic and ideological standards.
When I say confusing, I mean parts of the film don’t quite add up with the original animation, although I suspect this was by design. For example in the original, the three good fairies are called Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, whereas in Maleficent we know them as Flittle (Leslie Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Thistletwit (Juno Temple). Also the nature of the curse Maleficent places on the child differs between the two films. Not to mention the three fairies charged with Aurora’s care for sixteen years are more comically dim-witted than their 1956 counterparts.
The changes are distracting for anyone who knows the original film well, and if you’re hoping for a good old fashioned Disney romance, be prepared for disappointed. Yes, Prince Philip is a character, but blink and you’ll miss him. His existence in the story felt like an afterthought, when the makers realised they’d changed the plot so drastically he barely fit. I understand Disney are under a lot of pressure from critics who disapprove of their teaching young girls to ‘wait for their prince to come’ and other such unrealistic but wishful ideologies, but I’m not sure it was entirely necessary to make the prince so… redundant.
Other changes made a lot more sense though. Of course Maleficent would have known where Aurora was the whole time. She knows what the three fairies looking after her look like! The only difference in appearance was a lack of wings and an increase in height; hardly a marvellous disguise. I also liked the addition of the raven, Diavel (Sam Riley), in human form. He’s potentially the only genuinely sweet-natured man in the entire film.
As for the performances of the two main leads, Jolie as Maleficent and Elle Fanning as the 16-year-old Aurora, I was pleasantly surprised on both counts. Angelina Jolie relished the part, re-enacting the scene where she places the curse on the baby with a creepy accuracy to the animation (the prominent cheekbones help!). And then there’s Fanning who, I can admit I did prejudge a little harshly when the first trailers were released. Her accent seemed a little over the top in the trailer, but is palatable in the film, and she portrays our naïve, and somewhat two-dimensionally sweet princess believably on screen.
Overall I’d give Disney four stars for effort. Visually gorgeous to watch (no seriously, the digital effects are a stunning spectacle) and entertaining, it is a bit of a one-woman-show at times, and the side characters are flat when compared to the fleshing out of Maleficent’s character, but I can forgive them this because we know most of them from before.
Allow yourself to be surprised, don’t expect any romance, and if you’re not much of a feminist, give it a look anyway.
Maleficent is in UK cinemas now!