Sleeping Beauty Review

While princesses have become synonymous with Walt Disney Animation over the decades, it may come as a surprises to learn that for the first twenty-two years from the studio’s first full-length feature, there were only three Disney Princesses, with a fourth not arriving until The Little Mermaid was released in 1989! Snow White was in the very first Disney feature in 1937, with Cinderella arriving in her titular film in 1950. The lone princess to arrive in between Cinderella and The Little Mermaid was Aurora, who was the central character of Sleeping Beauty, released in 1959.

Well, maybe referring to Aurora as the film’s central character isn’t quite accurate, as she – along with her love interest, Prince Phillip – aren’t much of characters at all. In fact, Princess Aurora infamously only gets around eighteen minutes of screen time in the entire feature! That’s a shame, because otherwise Sleeping Beauty has a strong cast of characters: It features a trio of comical fairies, a duo of bombastic kings, and arguably Disney’s most iconic villain in Maleficent.

Sleeping Beauty plays out very similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Aurora takes the role of a beautiful princess under a sleeping curse from Snow White herself, the three good fairies play a similar role to the Dwarves, Maleficent is an evil sorceress/queen like Snow White’s villain, and Prince Phillip is…well, he’s a Disney prince. They’re all basically the same, really.

The story here is that Aurora is born to King Stefan and Queen Leah, and at her christening, she is betrothed to Prince Phillip, the son of King Hubert of a neighboring kingdom, to unite their people. Also at the christening are the three good fairies, each of whom are to give Aurora a gift.

Flora, the red fairy, gives Aurora the gift of beauty. Fauna, the green fairy, grants the gift of song. But before Merryweather, the blue fairy can bestow her gift, the christening is interrupted by the evil fairy, Maleficent. You have to give it to Disney, they really know how to introduce a villain, with Maleficent’s arrival being met with fear by the humans in attendance, and contempt from her fellow fairies, instantly telling the audience she’s bad news.

Maleficent, holding a grudge for not being invited to the christening, takes out her frustrations by cursing the child. Maleficent’s strangely specific curse states that, on her sixteenth birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Maleficent then vanishes, and Merryweather steps in to counter the curse as best she can. Though Maleficent’s dark powers are too great for Merryweather to undo the curse outright, she is able to alter it, making it so Aurora won’t die by the spinning wheel, but fall into a cursed sleep that can be broken by “true love’s kiss.”

King Stefan then orders that every spinning wheel in the kingdom be burned, and as an added precaution, Aurora is sent to live in the woods with the three fairies until the day after her sixteenth birthday, at which time she will return to her family and kingdom and resume her life as a princess. The fairies disguise themselves as human peasants to raise Aurora, fearing usage of their magic would alert Maleficent to their whereabouts.

Fast-forward sixteen years, and the fairies are preparing for Aurora – who  they have named “Briar Rose” to hide her identity – to return home. They decide to do something special for the occasion, and plan on making a new dress and a birthday cake for Briar Rose. So the fairies send Briar Rose to pick some berries while they prepare for her surprise party. While out, Briar Rose meets up with Prince Phillip, though because they haven’t seen each other since one was a kid and the other an infant, they don’t recognize one another, especially with Aurora going by “Briar Rose” now. The two instantly fall in love anyway, and this creates a fun sub-plot where King Hubert believes his son Phillip is set to marry a peasant girl, and can’t find the words to explain the situation to Stefan.

While Briar Rose meets up with Prince Phillip in the forest, the fairies’ plans for the surprise party go awry. Still not having mastered human ways in sixteen years, their attempts at baking and sewing lead to disastrous results. The fairies cave in to their impatience, and decide to break out the old magic wands, figuring using magic for a cake and dress wouldn’t be enough for Maleficent to detect.

Aurora has successfully eluded Maleficent for sixteen years largely due to the fact that the evil fairy’s henchmen – an assortment of pig and bird-like goblins – have still been searching for a baby for all these years, not understanding the aging process of humans. With time running out for her curse, Maleficent sends her pet crow to track down the lost princess, which he does by witnessing the fairies using their magic for Aurora’s would-be surprise party.

After Briar Rose is informed of her true identity and secretly brought into her castle by the fairies, Maleficent more or less cheats her way to having her curse fulfilled by conjuring a spinning wheel out of magic, and hypnotizing Aurora to touch it (the movie is titled Sleeping Beauty, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by revealing Maleficent’s curse comes to fruition). Devastated that they failed within the eleventh hour, the fairies put the people of Aurora’s kingdom into a deep sleep to spare them their grief, and they will only awaken when Aurora herself does (I hope for their sake there aren’t any hostile kingdoms nearby, as the fairies’ spell – while well intentioned – seems to not take into account the grizzly possibilities of a defenseless kingdom). Luckily, the fairies manage to eavesdrop on King Hubert at the last moment, and piece together that the mystery man Aurora met in the woods and Prince Phillip are one and the same. So the fairies rush to aide the prince in a daring quest to save Aurora.

Despite its strong similarities to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty still manages to stand on its own two feet. Though the fairies are lesser in number than the Dwarves of Snow White, they have similarly strong personalities, charm and comedic appeal. Maleficent is a memorably scary villain who earned her place as one of Disney’s most memorable foes (even if the more recent duo of live-action remakes centered on the dark fairy have kind of altered her reputation for modern audiences). And both Kings Stefan and Hubert are given some extensive time to win audiences over with their antics.

That’s why it’s such a shame that Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip are probably most people’s go-to examples when it comes to the frequent criticism of Disney movies having cardboard main characters who are completely outshined by the supporting cast. And although not a flaw per se, it does seem kind of funny to modern audiences to see a movie like this try to pass off an arranged betrothal as “true love,” especially considering how little Aurora and Phillip know of each other. Sure, Sleeping Beauty is a very direct fairy tale in that regard, which can have an appeal of its own. But I find it weirder that some audiences criticize contemporary Disney movies for ‘modernizing fairy tales,’ when a movie like Sleeping Beauty is kind of proof that fairy tales needed some modernization.

Although Sleeping Beauty can’t quite recapture the same quality as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it comes close enough to be considered something of a Disney classic in its own right. It’s vibrantly animated and full of visual detail (Flora and Merryweather’s disputes to magically change things pink and blue are a particular visual highlight). But if we’re being honest, we watch Sleeping Beauty for Maleficent, the fairies and the kings. No one is watching it because Aurora and her prince have anything interesting about them.

 

7

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Review

2019 has certainly been a busy year for Disney, and that is notably true of the Mouse House’s recent trend of remaking their animated classics. Dumbo and Aladdin both received live-action makeovers, while the Lion King got its own Not-Actually-Live-Action-But-Disney-Likes-To-Pretend-It-Is remake. Capping off the quartet of theatrically released Disney remakes of 2019 is a sequel to one of Disney’s earlier efforts in adapting one of their animated features of the past to a contemporary live-action film, 2014’s Maleficent.

You may be wondering if Maleficent needed a sequel. And the answer is no, it didn’t. Nor do I believe there was any particular demand for one. But that’s okay, not every movie has to be “necessary” to be enjoyable, and even though Hollywood still likes to believe there’s a stigma to sequels (because how dare these movies make them money?), there have been plenty of great movie sequels over the years. While Maleficent: Mistress of Evil may not be among those great sequels, it is a serviceable one that is on par with its predecessor. So if you liked the first Maleficent, then Mistress of Evil isn’t going to take anything away from that, even if it doesn’t necessarily improve on anything. Unnecessary it may be, at the very least, Mistress of Evil’s standing as a sequel to the 2014 film at least means it’s a live-action adaptation of a Disney animated film that isn’t a direct remake. So that’s something.

Appropriately set five years after the first film, Mistress of Evil sees its titular Dark Fairy, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), having become something of the adoptive mother of Aurora (Elle Fanning). Although Maleficent cursed Aurora into an eternal slumber, she ended up breaking her own curse with “true love’s kiss” (the mother/daughter spin on the material actually being pretty novel). Despite her good deeds, all people remember of Maleficent’s story is that she cursed Aurora, and she is still feared among many kingdoms.

Maleficent has crowned Aurora queen of the Moors (the magical forest realm), and soon enough, Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) from the human kingdom of Ulstead, proposes to Aurora, and the two are set to be wed. Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent’s raven-turned-manservant, informs the dark fairy of Aurora’s betrothal, which doesn’t sit too well with her. Maleficent still doesn’t believe in love, though she wants Aurora to be happy more than anything, and so agrees to meet the king and queen of Ulstead.

That’s right, the sequel to the movie centered on one of Disney’s most iconic villains is about meeting the in-laws. Strange as it may sound, it’s a fun premise for a fairy tale, even if Shrek 2 beat it to the punch by fifteen years (though considering there’s not really been another such fairy tale since, and this film centers around a villain, it’s still covering pretty fertile ground).

As you might expect, things don’t go so well. Though Phillip’s father, King John (Robert Lindsey) is alright, his mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), has a not-too-subtle prejudice against magic folk. Ingrith brings out the worst in Maleficent, who then goes into full villain mode. When it appears Maleficent has placed a sleeping curse upon King John, she is exiled from the kingdom, and Aurora’s faith in her mother figure is shaken. The king’s curse – and the framing of Maleficent – are Queen Ingrith’s doing, as she plots to start a war with the Moors. Suffice to say, meeting the in-laws escalated quickly.

The plot is a bit silly, but it’s well-intentioned. On the plus sides, Aurora is finally given the opportunity to develop as a character (it only took the sequel to the remake to get there). The performances – particularly of Jolie, Pfeiffer and Fanning – are memorable. And as stated, it’s kind of nice to see these familiar characters featured in a different story than that of Sleeping Beauty. On the downside, the plot takes a largely unnecessary detour when Maleficent goes into exile and encounters the remaining Dark Fairies of the world, and as much as this series has tried to subvert Disney traditions, both Maleficent and now Mistress of Evil feature the Mouse House’s oft criticized “evil parent” archetype more prominently than perhaps any of the studio’s animated features ever did (I speak not of Maleficent, but of King Stephen in the first film, and Ingrith in this sequel).

It’s that aforementioned sub-plot with the other Dark Fairies that is the film’s biggest undoing. Not only does it give us even more characters in an already crowded movie, but it also takes too much time to explain things that really aren’t necessary. For example, we find out that Dark Fairies are descendants of the Phoenix, and that Maleficent is the most powerful Dark Fairy  because she’s a direct descendant of said flaming bird monster. Like, why is that important? Why do we need an explanation for why Maleficent is the most powerful fairy? Why can’t  her magic just be the strongest and that’s all there is to it? And why a phoenix? Given the Maleficent character’s long-standing association with dragons, why not make it a dragon since the first Maleficent movie already denied us of that?

Am I getting sidetracked? Not any more than the movie itself.

The other big problem is, like the first movie, the visual effects still leave a lot to be desired. It’s not bad CG per se, but the creatures just look artificial. They don’t meld into the picture with the live actors, they stand out as visual effects in a garish way. This time around, Aurora’s fairy godmothers; Knotgrass the red fairy (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit the green fairy (Juno Temple), and Flittle the blue fairy (Lesley Manville) no longer take on their human forms, so we’re stuck with seeing their uncanny valley versions throughout the entire movie. And a new character – a hedgehog-like creature called Pinto – joins in the proceedings, along with a mushroom creature. They’re obviously supposed to be filling the role of cutesy animal sidekicks, but the cuteness never shines through the glaringly artificial CG. It’s a similar complaint I have to the Harry Potter series, where every magic creature is unpleasant to look at. Though I suppose the creatures here aren’t all outright grotesque, so I guess the Moors are a step up from Hogwarts.

With all these complaints, however, I admit I still had some fun with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Again, the performances are good and it’s nice to see the characters working in some form of new material. And even when the Dark Fairy sub-plot enters the realms of gobbledygook, it’s at least the kind of needless nonsense I can have fun with (I actually got a kick out of the whole Phoenix stuff, pointless though it may be).

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is not a great movie, or a particularly good sequel. But y’know, if you liked the first film, Mistress of Evil does give you more of what you want. And I don’t think it’s any worse than its predecessor, either. It’s a perfectly serviceable sequel for its fans, if maybe not anything more. But hey, that certainly beats whatever Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was.

 

5

Maleficent (2014) Review

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.

 

5