Can we all just take a moment to acknowledge how weird it is that a film like Maleficent even exists? Seriously. Disney, one of the most stringent companies when it comes to their image and the fairy tale charm of their properties, produced a film that not only revises the history and backstory of Sleeping Beauty, one of their keystone stories, but also portrays Maleficent as a tortured anti-hero. Even on paper this sounds insane. After all, Maleficent is practically Disney lore’s equivalent to Satan, being evil just to be evil, and that’s what has made her such an eternal character; she was designed to scare the shit out of you. And now we have a film that portrays her as the good guy? It’s a hard pill to swallow, but here we are.
The film starts off by telling you that everything you think you know about the tale of Sleeping Beauty is a lie. The first film is essentially a piece of anti-Maleficent propaganda, and this is the real history as it should be told. Maleficent is a winged fairy in a magical forest kingdom sharing a border with a human kingdom. She meets a young man named Stefan, and the two grow close and develop feelings for one another. Fast forward a few years later, and an overzealous king seeking to invade the fairy kingdom offers his throne to anyone who can kill the fairy queen, who just happens to be Maleficent. Stefan returns to the fairy kingdom, drugs Maleficent, and cuts off her wings while she sleeps. He then becomes king, and a broken, grief-stricken Maleficent vows revenge.
The rest of the film recounts the supposed true events of the Sleeping Beauty story, following Maleficent’s character arc from revenge-driven villainess to sympathetic mother figure. If that last sentence gives you pause, it should, because it really makes the whole film fall apart. See, Maleficent for some reason decides to watch over the young Aurora as she grows up, presumably to make sure she survives long enough to have the sleeping curse take hold over her. Throughout this process, Maleficent begins to develop maternal feelings for the child, essentially becoming her “fairy godmother.” This has the effect of gradually sapping away any sense of fun that the film ultimately has. The best moments are when Angelina Jolie shows off just how evil Maleficent is or just how tortured Maleficent feels, but as the maternal instinct takes her over, the film becomes a bland by-the-numbers redemption story.
I was intrigued by the concept of Maleficent, but I didn’t think it would be something that Disney would be willing to follow through with. And I was right. It would be fine if Disney wanted to tell a dark tale from the perspective of one of their iconic villains, but it almost seems like the film’s producers started to get just that and decided to back-pedal into more comfortable and conventional territory. Instead, this reimagining ends up feeling like a half-hearted attempt at making us sympathetic to what was originally a deliciously evil monster, and that’s something that nobody was asking for. Don’t bother with this one.
Partially due to the commercial success of Maleficent, Disney has commissioned live-action reimaginings of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, as well as an Alice In Wonderland sequel. Share your thoughts in the comments below.