Sunday, June 1, 2014


Sleeping Beauty villainess tells her side of the story in Maleficent

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. (Well, better late than never...) 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.

Times and tastes change, of course. Kick-ass heroines (the very phrase is already a cliche), in the Katniss Everdeen mode, are all the rage in the YA fantasy market—to which all little pink Disney Princess fans graduate soon enough. And it probably made a difference that the above Disney films were largely conceived, as well as co-written and co-directed, by women—Brenda Chapman and Jennifer Lee, respectively.

For Maleficent, the studio turns over scriptwriting duties to one of its most accomplished players, Linda Woolverton, who wrote (among other things) Disney's fabulous Beauty and the Beast, and its live-action Alice In Wonderland. It's Woolverton's task to blithely rewrite the vintage Disney Princess cartoon, Sleeping Beauty—or at least provide a bracketing story around events in the earlier movie that pretty much changes everything.
Not your ordinary fairy wings.

This time, the story is told from the viewpoint of the so-called evil fairy, Maleficent, formerly the designated villain. It's an audacious idea, and a nod to the trend for rehabilitated villains, a la Wicked (not to mention Alias Hook).

And while the narrative stumbles now and then, Maleficent is often a savvy and entertaining live-action revision. 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.
Disney's original, in all her wicked glory.

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 or anything that threatens her precious moors.

As a child, she befriends a human boy, Stefan, who strays into the Moors one day. They become close friends—until the day, years later, that he betrays her. It's not simply that his love isn't 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 Maleficent, it hardens her heart and sets her on the road to villainy.

The symbolic weight of this action for female viewers cannot be overestimated, and it ground's Maleficent's psyche in something much deeper and more primal than an unhappy romance.

When her former friend 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 waken.

This is the "familiar" part of the story, except things don't play out the way we expect in 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 a wild child, beloved by all the woodland creatures. Including, gradually, Maleficent herself—whom Aurora 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. Ironically, the only possible escape clause is "true love's kiss"—which Maleficent believes does not exist.
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.

Something to crow about: Sam Riley and Jolie.
In an earlier scene, 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—especially since giant bog creatures of trees, rock, and mud seem perfectly 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. Her sleep is usually shown to cast a pall of tragedy over the realm; in some versions of the tale, the entire kingdom likewise falls asleep for a hundred years.

Here, she's only asleep for about five minutes of screen time before the apparent rescuer(s) start parading in. I love how the notion of what does (and does not) constitute "true love" is handled in this sequence; still, waking the princess from a nap doesn't have quite the same dramatic urgency.

But despite these missteps, the film's fresh ideas (including its notion of who the real Sleeping Beauty is) help this radical retake cast a certain spell.

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