Disney’s version of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale cemented Maleficent as the cruelest and most evil of villains in the Disney pantheon. What was it that turned her into such a terrible creature?
This year’s feature “Maleficent” creates a back story that explains why the malevolent fairy was omitted from the royal guest list.
A young pauper, Stephan (Michael Higgins), is caught stealing from a pool of gems in the fairy-protected Moors. Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) is a child as well, but as a fairy child she has large bird-like wings and horns. She has never seen a human child before and her curiosity leads her to make friends with him. As they are both orphans, they spend a good deal of time together.
As Stephan and Maleficent grow, their friendship turns into love, but Stephan eventually feels the draw of power and wealth and begins working his way into the King’s court. That leaves little time for his fairy companion, so he stops returning to the Moors.
The king is growing old and he has one promise to his people that remains unfulfilled: to take the riches of the Moors for humans. Attempting to fulfill his promise, King Henry marshals his army and sets out to take the Moors. The human army is no match for the now fully grown Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and her forest army. The king is mortally wounded in the battle and languishes in his bed, slowly dying.
As he has no heir, King Henry vows that whoever can vanquish Maleficent will be his successor. Stephan (Sharlto Copley) rushes to the Moors to warn his old love that the king wants her dead. His motives are not benign, and the encounter leaves Maleficent without wings and full of nothing but hate for humans. She uses her magic to create a wall of thorns around the Moors and finds a minion to spy on the castle so that she can get her revenge.
Stephan gains the throne and marries the princess. The royal couple soon have a daughter, Aurora. Through her crow spy, Maleficent learns that there will be a christening. It is at that christening that she engineers a reason to curse the child. It is also where the story first meets up with the 1959 telling of “Sleeping Beauty,” and at the same time takes a somewhat different perspective on the events of the story.
“Maleficent” does not try to match up with “Sleeping Beauty.” Instead it is a complete reimagining of the story. This is not the traditional fairy tale, and that deviation from the expected is likely to displease a certain part of the audience.
I was rather pleased with the direction “Maleficent” took. It is a good looking film, and the effects are nicely done. Angelina Jolie was better than I expected in the role. Aurora (Elle Fanning) was a bit one-dimensional, but I think that was by design. The blessings granted by the fairies before Maleficent uttered her curse provide a good explanation for Aurora’s attitude and overly simple character.
Stephan’s decent into madness is steep and unrelenting. His irrational fears and guilt transform into paranoia so deep that he sacrifices everything to it. If anything was overdone in “Maleficent,” Stephan is the worst offender.
“Maleficent,” for all the controversy the deviation from “Sleeping Beauty” might cause, is a complete film on its own. There are plenty of overlaps with the prior work to point out an understanding of the animated feature, even while blatantly saying that the story you remember is wrong. I had forgotten a number of details from “Sleeping Beauty,” but the memories came back as bits and pieces appeared in “Maleficent.”
My daughter Leah, who has steeped herself in Disney Princess lore, liked the movie. She immediately accepted the story changes, and likes “Maleficent” better than “Sleeping Beauty.”