Once upon a dream, (1959 to be exact), Disney released an animated film version of one of the most widely known fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty. If you were to poll a contingent of average film-goers and ask what they remember most from that film, chances are the vast majority of them would immediately mention the film’s eerie, alien-like, venomous sorceress (voiced by the memorable Eleanor Audley). For many, she was the haunting figure from which nightmares are made. In the film’s climactic showdown between her and the valiant Prince Phillip, she magically transforms herself into a behemoth fire-breathing dragon (long before the ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ re-imagined the dragon iconography). Even her name was terrifyingly evil-Maleficent. Now, Disney has come along with a live action re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty tale from a vastly different viewpoint, wherein the larger-than-life Maleficent is “both hero and villain”. Much like Wicked’s retelling of the Wicked Witch of the West’s untold story, this film humanizes and softens the villainess in order to regenerate her image. While the results are unbalanced at times, the film is an empowering story, surprisingly, that will appeal to girls (and Disney fans) of all ages.
In an extended prologue, the audience is introduced to the vivacious young Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy), described in the voiceover as “the strongest of the fairies and protector of the Moores”. With her mature-beyond-her-years self-assured attitude and strapping set of powerful wings, she rules over the mystical Moores (an area of land whose physical characteristics seem to have been mimicked from Avatar and the Lord of the Rings films). When she meets the curious young Stefan (Michael Higgins), however, she instantly and fatefully falls in love. Though Stefan must regularly return to the other areas of the Kingdom, Maleficent waits patiently over the years for her so-called true love to resurge by her side. During this time she (now played by Angelina Jolie), along with her behemoth tree-like creature army, defend the Moores against the greedy invading King and his troops. Defeated and injured, the King angrily seeks vengeance and offers his crown to any man who will avenge him and slaughter Maleficent. In a tragic turn of events (and the film’s most bitter to swallow sequence), Stefan (District 9 and Elysium’s Sharlto Copley) drugs the lovelorn heroine and literally clips her wings (although it unmistakably comes across as a date rape scene). He is rewarded soon after by being named King, and therein begins the widely versed Sleeping Beauty story.
In the film’s most awe-inspiring moment, director Robert Stromberg recreates baby Aurora’s party where Maleficent cunningly uses her sorcery to cast the calamitous and pivotal spell on the baby. Replete with her iconic horns and billowing black gown, the ghostly and playfully menacing Jolie is a spectacle to behold. Stromberg even injects Audley’s cackling maniacal laugh, which surprised and delighted this Disney fan. It is unfortunate that much of Aurora’s formative years spent in the woods with her guardian fairies, (played by the otherwise delightful trio of Juno Temple, Imelda Staunton, and Lesley Manville) caters to a younger audience, with the ladies bumbling their way through silly comedic set pieces. Thankfully, most of these episodes are bookended with Maleficent silently watching over them. It is here that Jolie quietly conveys more emotional range than she has shown in a film in years. Though she effortlessly exudes icy beauty, it is rare to see such warmth that can easily be felt in the scenes where she nurtures Aurora. In other scenes, Jolie achingly conveys her inner emotional turmoil and the gradual mending of her shattered heart in very few words.
Though it can easily be compared to the journey of Wicked, the film most closely resembles Disney’s smash hit Frozen. Both films teach girls that princes are no longer necessary in the hunt for true love and one must stand strong, regardless of how peculiar or otherworldly estranged others may deem you. It is easy to criticize the tonal issues in Linda Woolverton’s script, but the film’s key strength is its timely empowering message for girls of all ages.