NOTE: The bulk of this article was originally posted on www.declafinn.com, almost two years ago. However, in light of the even-growing trend of “re-imagining” old stories for both children and adults, it bears repeating. This analysis also serves as a good demonstration of the differences between subversive and superversive storytelling. While Maleficent received mixed reviews from critics (50% on Rotten Tomatoes), the audience ratings were much higher (71%) and its financial success is undisputed. I therefore feel safe from any accusations of intentionally picking a modern dud to compare to a beloved classic. In my not-so-humble opinion, Maleficent’s flaws are features, not bugs, for it aspires to subversion and succeeds at that level.
One of the side effects of not growing up in the culture is that, no matter how well-assimilated, one inevitably misses some of the basics that all the native-born take for granted. Classic movies, especially those geared towards children, fall firmly in that category. So it was that after almost three decades in the U.S., I still was not familiar with one of the greatest creations of American culture. I am, of course, referring to the Disney classic movie, Sleeping Beauty. Suitably mortified, I ended up renting both the original and the “modern spin” version that is Maleficent.
I had reservations, having been burned to a crisp by the atrocity that was Ever After, but the trailers promised great visuals, plus Angelina Jolie in title role sounded intriguing.
Thus, a double-feature family movie night was on. Perhaps it is not fair to compare a modern Hollywood production to a beloved classic. On the other hand, since I had not seen either movie previously, sentimental value was a non-factor in my case and my expectations would not be unreasonably raised for one over the other.
First, Sleeping Beauty. In terms of storytelling, it is straightforward and honest, the way children’s tales tend to be. The rules of magic are simple, the threat and the possible salvation are laid out, all the characters are introduced in the early scenes, and we more or less know how this ends.
Yet there are layers, too, and it’s a great demonstration of how a story can be more complex than it seems while retaining its innocence. Take the scene where Aurora meets the Prince in the woods. They have, essentially, fallen in love before ever having laid their eyes on each other. The meeting is just a validation of something that is already there. How? Why? Is it magic, or destiny, or just a lucky coincidence? We don’t know, but by establishing that both had dreamed of each other before their encounter, we, even as cynical adults, are given enough reason to believe that true love is indeed in the works.
Later on, we get a surprisingly dark yet effective scene where Maleficent, having captured the Prince, torments him with visions of life wasted and love lost, but there is something else. She is mocking the traditional model of a heroic knight who defeats his foe and rescues a maiden, denying the very possibility that the good can triumph. In her world, there is only power and vengeance. No love, no hope, no joy except in denying love and hope to others—a perfect combination of ancient evil and modern nihilism.
In the end, while the Prince is the nominal hero of the story, a big chunk of the credit belongs to the good fairies. They free him not just from physical chains of the dungeon, but also from despair, give him the right tools (the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Righteousness- that’s right; in your face, nihilism!) and guide him along the way. Even in the final confrontation, where the Prince, seemingly alone, has to defeat a fearsome dragon, he is not, in fact, alone as the good fairies make sure the final strike of the sword strikes home. Is there a deeper meaning to the way this part of the story pays out? It is for the viewer to decide.
The rest of the story is simplistic by today’s standards. True love’s kiss is just that. Aurora does indeed wake up, and aside from a little comic relief, the story concludes exactly in the manner we had been promised at the start. It’s not a bad lesson to modern storytellers always on the lookout for The Big Twist. Some stories are beautiful just by their essence and can be told effectively using neither irony nor misdirection.
And now, for Maleficent. Skeptical as I was, the visually stunning opening scenes, combined with a hypnotic voice-over asking us to challenge what we think we know of the story, gave me much hope. A part of me wondered why a beautiful girl possessed of magic powers to heal and protect all living things would have a name that literally means “causing or capable of producing evil,” but I put it aside. It did, however, set the tone for the story: hauntingly, darkly beautiful; self-aware in a detached, post-modern way; and often too clever for its own good. In other words, mostly the opposite of the original story it was meant to re-tell.
Maleficent is not the villain of old, but a horribly wronged, heartbroken woman trying to heal her physical and emotional wounds through an act of revenge. And other characters are just as unrecognizable.
The King Father is first a thief and a liar, then a cruel coward, then a full blown lunatic obsessed with killing and destruction, his daughter merely an afterthought by the time the story really gets going. The brief moments where he shows glimpses of humanity are lost because they serve no purpose to this particular version, and that’s too bad because he could have been a great tragic character if handled by a more careful storyteller.
The fairies, who in the original are comical and lovable yet powerful when it counts most, are reduced to incompetent, annoying, squabbling hags who seem to understand nothing of life, or love. They disappear for large stretches of the movie, only to come back and remind everyone how ineffectual they truly are before slinking off again, not even managing to produce comic relief, let alone serious magic.
Aurora is sweet enough, and does get a decent amount of screen time. The best scenes that could really have been the whole (much better) movie are between Aurora and Maleficent, the innocence and innate joy of the girl slowly but surely melting the heart of the bitter, vengeful woman and turning her into a loving maternal figure. But the story’s ambition is bigger, and darker, than that. The little hint of what it might have been makes the end result so much more infuriating.
What about the Prince, you ask? Well, there is a Prince. Unfortunately, he has nothing to do but look confused. He’s not heroic, or interesting, or even particularly attractive. He shows up occasionally to signal in red flashing lights that this story is oh-so-very different. I suppose the script writers think we as the audience are just that dense.
There’s also a Raven who is turned by Maleficent into a shape-shifter and spends some of his time being a semi-useful sidekick who occasionally utters a word of wisdom before being turned into yet another CGI creature.
“But, but…What about True Love’s Kiss? You promised!” says a demanding, if unsophisticated, viewer who still thinks she paid the $10 to see a fairy tale. Said viewer will, indeed witness a kiss, and the Beauty will wake up, but that is all. The Big Twist so lacking in the original is found here. I did not feel cheated, per se, only because the “surprise” was, in a way, so tediously predictable, but neither was I satisfied.
Given the thrust of the story, the ending with Aurora ruling over the newly happy magical kingdom under the wise tutelage of Maleficent should have been enough. But is it? Is there room in the story for romance, for the quaint idea of “happily ever after”? Well, the Prince shows up at the end, for now apparent reason, and all I could think about at that point was “He wants MALEFICENT for his mother in law? He must be either very brave or very stupid, and from the movie’s view of men, I’d have to put money on stupid.” Since we aren’t supposed to question such things too deeply, the movie pulls us back to the beautiful vistas and a hypnotic voice-over, and soon the end credits start rolling to a suitably macabre remake of the original Sleeping beauty love song.
I have to give the script writers credit where it’s due: the movie stayed true to its vision till the very end. Unfortunately, the vision is thoroughly at odds with the classic it was claiming to re-tell. While it is possible to create a compelling story—NOT a true fairy tale, but perhaps a dark fantasy—where the hero and the villain is one and the same, Maleficent doesn’t quite gets there. Once you look beyond the special effects and Jolie’s solid acting, this “re-imagining” eagerly tears down the original, but fails to build anything substantial in its stead. But then, knowing what we know of today’s Hollywood, perhaps that was the intention all along.
Marina Fontaine is a co-founder of Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance and the author of Chasing Freedom (a Dragon Awards finalist) and The Product, a dystopian novella published by Superversive Press.