Disney has, in recent years, been leaning heavily on remaking their back catalogue of animated classics into live-action features. And while some of these remakes have been good (The Jungle Book, Aladdin), overall they beg the question as to why such remakes are necessary. If there’s one category of film that’s going to prove timeless, it’s Disney animated films, they never really needed to be remade.
Though credit where it’s due, the first two live-action Disney remakes of this decade were not only spread out by four years (compare that to 2019, in which we’ve seen four live-action Disney remakes in one year!), but they also attempted new spins on their source material more so than being straight-up remakes.
The first, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, while ultimately a bit of a jumbled mess, attempted to be something of a sequel to the original Disney animated film (or the Lewis Carol story itself). The second, 2014’s Maleficent, was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, but from the perspective of its iconic villain.
Given how marketed Disney has made their villains over the years – and with Maleficent probably being the one most promoted as the “big bad” of Disney – the idea of making a movie entirely built around Maleficent made sense. Unfortunately, such a concept also risked changing the image of Maleficent entirely. It was unlikely that Disney would make a film about an entirely evil character, despite the fact that had been Maleficent’s appeal for decades (she was certainly more of a reason to watch Sleeping Beauty than Princess Aurora ever was). And, well, seeing as we rarely see the character marketed as Disney’s ‘big bad’ anymore, I think it’s safe to say that 2014’s Maleficent changed the general outlook on the character.
That’s not innately a bad thing. But it is the product of the film not so much being “Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s perspective” so much as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty that paints Maleficent in a more sympathetic light, if that makes sense. She still looks the part of Mistress of Evil with her long horns, black robes, and penchant for being surrounded by green fire, but Maleficent never really feels like a villain in her titular movie, which kind of seems to defeat the purpose of building a movie around Maleficent to begin with.
That’s not to say that the film is a total bust, with its first half hour actually doing a pretty good job at setting up its story, and Angelina Jolie melds into the role of Maleficent with ease. But once the story enters the territory of Sleeping Beauty proper, the film feels rushed and cluttered. And some of the visual effects, while not bad on a technical level, can look too artificial.
The film begins by explaining that Maleficent is a dark fairy from the Moors, a magical forest realm that neighbors a human kingdom. When she was young, Maleficent befriended a human boy from the neighboring kingdom named Stefan, and the two eventually fell in love. But as they grew to adulthood, the two also grew more distant as they become more entrenched in their respective kingdoms’ differences.
The king of the human kingdom wages war on the Moors, but is mortally wounded in the ensuing battle by Maleficent. The dying king is returned to his kingdom, and declares that whomever can kill Maleficent will marry his daughter and become his successor. Stefen (Sharlto Copley), having grown consumed by his ambitions, takes advantage of the opportunity and his history with Maleficent. Stefen finds the dark fairy, and feigns to rekindle his friendship/romance with her. Stefen’s deceptions are dark, to say the least, as he drugs Maleficent with a sleeping potion with the intent on murdering her. Though memories of his friendship with Maleficent prevent Stefen from completing the dark deed, and decides to cut off Maleficent’s wings and takes them back to the kingdom as a trophy. Believing Stefen has successfully killed Maleficent, the dying king passes his crown down to him.
Meanwhile, Maleficent awakes in shock and horror at the loss of her wings. The depth of Stefen’s deception and cruelty have turned her into the ruthless ruler of the Moors, who transforms the once colorful forest kingdom into a place of dark magic, with walls of deadly thorns preventing humans from stepping foot in the Moors again.
Maleficent keeps an eye on the human kingdom by means of her raven-turned-manservant, Diaval (Sam Riley), who spies on Stefen’s kingdom for the dark fairy. One day, Diaval returns to Maleficent with news that King Stefen and his queen are to have a christening for their child, and Maleficent sees this as an opportunity to exact her revenge for Stefen’s betrayal. Maleficent appears at the christening, where she places (an oddly specific) curse on Stefen’s child. On her sixteenth birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, resulting in a death-like sleep. Stefan pleads for mercy, and Maleficent retorts by adding the caveat that the curse can only be broken by “true love’s kiss” which Maleficent doesn’t truly believe exists.
To protect the princess, she is sent away to live in hiding with three fairy godmothers: Knotgrass the red fairy (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit the green fairy (Juno Temple), and Flittle the blue fairy (Lesley Manville). During the next sixteen years, the fairies (disguised in human form) raise Aurora (Elle Fanning), but the lost princess has an additional guardian in the form of Maleficent, who keeps a watchful eye over the girl for…some reason. Pretty soon, Maleficent grows fond of Aurora, and tries to undo the curse, to no avail (she said only true love’s kiss can break it, and she meant it). Meanwhile, Stefan’s paranoia of Maleficent’s curse drives him insane, to the point that he forgets the very reason he feared the curse to begin with.
Unfortunately, it’s the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora that ends up being the movie’s downfall. It’s a nice twist on the Disney fairy tale to center the story on a mother/daughter relationship, but the problem is said relationship just never feels believable.
Again, I stress that the first half hour (which covers up to about the point the curse is placed) is actually well done. It does a good job at painting both Maleficent and Stefan as tragic figures in different ways. Maleficent’s downfall comes across as sympathetic, and Stefan’s betrayal – as well as his reason for slipping into insanity – resonate well. And you have to commend the filmmakers for treading some seriously dark ground for a Disney movie (the scene in which Stefan drugs Maleficent and steals her wings is alluding to exactly what it sounds like). It certainly succeeds in making Maleficent sympathetic despite her villainous actions.
The problem with Maleficent as a film is that, once the storyline veers into the familiar Sleeping Beauty territory, it seems to thrown too many elements together all at once, and rushes through key plot points, to the point that some characters, such as Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) end up becoming bit players, and just like the original, we barely get to know Aurora as a character (you’d think rectifying the character’s presence would be a key reason for a remake). Hell, even Maleficent’s transformation into a dragon – probably the most iconic imagery of the original animated film – is undone and rushed through, and she’s not even the one who fills the dragon role in her own film (it’s one of the many forms she changes Diaval into during the film).
Maleficent is a two-plus hour film trapped in an hour and a half running time. The strong pacing and character moments are present in the first half hour, but the rest of the film feels so rushed going through the paces, that the story and characters end up suffering. The key victim, again, is Maleficent and Aurora’s relationship, which is supposed to be the heart of the movie. I’m still not sure why Maleficent decides to watch over Aurora as a kind of secret godmother. And her growing love for Aurora, which should be the crux of the film, just doesn’t resonate.
Then there are the visual effects. The visual effects of the film have a strangely garish look to them. They don’t look bad or outdated, just… fake. The Moors is home to many a fairy tale creature (the tree guys are pretty cool looking), but they all really stand out as visual effects. I know people love to belittle CG as looking “fake” in movies, but that’s often an overblown complaint fueled by nostalgia for the pre-CG days. But in Maleficent, I can understand the complaint a bit. It doesn’t look technically bad, just overly artificial. And the less said of the three fairy godmothers and their creepy uncanny valley, the better.
These Disney live-action remakes are so commonplace today, and stick so closely to the originals, that you sometimes forget that the earlier efforts were aiming for new spins on the material. And while Maleficent ultimately stumbles, it can be appreciated for what it attempted to accomplish through one of Disney’s most iconic villains.