Review: “Maleficent” twists Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” villain into sympathetic star, reworking classic story with surprises

in Disney, Movies, Reviews

Maleficent 2

Forget “Sleeping Beauty.” Though the 1959 Disney animated film introduced the character that’s now featured in her own live-action movie, “Maleficent” does not exactly retell exactly the same tale. Instead, the new film starring Angelina Jolie in its title role sets its own path, closely and consistently walking alongside the classic Disney storyline but managing to stray at every available opportunity to create its own narrative.

“Maleficent” is not a villain’s film, despite its title. The movie doesn’t even have a clear hero or villain. The character once known for committing acts of evil, including transforming into a menacing fire-breathing dragon, now has a backstory filled with love and happiness, offering a new perspective on motivations behind her seemingly sinister actions. Yes, Maleficent is now a sympathetic character, for better or for worse.

The film starts off rather weak, a cutesy introduction that’s tough to get through for those seeking the darker side of the menacing villain. Soon thereafter, there is war and a power struggle that finally explains just why Maleficent is so famously offended by not receiving an invitation to Aurora’s christening.

From there, audiences are meant to grow fond of Maleficent, feeling bad when she is wronged and laughing along as she frequently uses her mystical powers and surprisingly comedic ways. But as the evil inside her grows, the more conflicted the audience becomes, not sure who exactly to root for in the end.

Is King Stefan the hero for trying to keep his daughter safe or has he gone mad, infatuated with his pursuit of Maleficent? And is Maleficent truly evil or is she justified in her retaliation for past wrongs? Most of all, can these characters be redeemed? These are just a few of the questions this film asks of viewers throughout.

Jolie pulls off the mix between outright evil and subdued mystery, the perfect choice for the role. Though the script can be blamed for a few out-of-character moments, Jolie’s performance always summons the spirit of Maleficent. But Elle Fanning’s Aurora is too flighty while Sharlto Copley reduces King Stefan to an obnoxious whiner rather than a flawed leader, the least impressive of the leads.

The whole of “Maleficent” is better than its parts. There are definitely dark moments where Maleficent comes across as truly evil. The action is big, gripping, and exciting. The film overall is visually stunning, with many shots deserving of a freeze frame to fully appreciate their beauty. The falseness that plagued the CG in Disney’s recent “Alice in Wonderland” live-action film is barely present in “Maleficent,” focusing far more on real characters and realistic sets. Seeing it in 3D often adds to the experience, though it does make the film quite dark at times.

But with a runtime of just 97 minutes, “Maleficent” often rushes along, frequently relying on voice-over narration to keep viewers apprised of what has happened in the passage of time off-screen. It plays like a 2-hour movie that unnecessarily left much on the editing room floor, producing a lot of unexplained plot points. It leaves the audience wanting more – but not in a good way.

Fans of Disney’s original will find much familiarity in “Maleficent,” with plenty of nods and references throughout. But there will be as much frustration for those seeking something more faithful, but told from a different perspective. This film is not that, instead frequently changing both key plot points as well as seemingly insignificant details throughout. For example (spoiler-free), the famous fairies that watch over Aurora while she grows up have been inexplicably renamed from Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather to Thistletwit, Knotgrass, and Flittle. Likewise, Diablo is now Diaval. These and many other alterations to Disney’s classic tale seem to exist for no reason other than to differentiate the two.

Though the new character names are relatively minor changes, other differences are far more major in their impact on how the story unfolds. Aurora is cursed. She spends time in a forest cottage. Prince Phillip arrives. There is a kiss meant to awaken Aurora. And ultimately there is a dragon. But none of these familiar elements play out exactly as one might think. Every major plot point receives a twist – big or small – frequently feeling like the elements were changed simply for the sake of change in an effort to make “Maleficent” feel new. But few of these changes actually improve the story.

There is one scene in “Maleficent” that plays out almost identically to “Sleeping Beauty” – Aurora’s christening – which is a highlight of the entire new film.

“Sleeping Beauty” (1959)
“Maleficent” (2014)
“Sleeping Beauty” (1959)
“Maleficent” (2014)

“Maleficent” isn’t entirely the film fans of Disney’s villains are hoping for. Those who arrive expecting a dark and foreboding film will be somewhat disappointed. It is rated PG after all, intended for family audiences. But since its story doesn’t jive at all with the original, the new movie should be viewed on its own merit, forgetting about Disney’s classic animated film and simply enjoying a different take on that story. “Maleficent” is indeed an interesting and entertaining exploration of how the evil of “Sleeping Beauty” came to be, even if that origin story makes this villain a bit less bad.

“Maleficent” flies into theaters May 30, 2014.

Want more Maleficent? Here she is appearing at Walt Disney World recently (or, at least, an excellent lookalike):

And a trailer for the film:

23 Comments

  1. Jessica

    After reading this I’m thoroughly disppointed in the fact that you keep pointing out that there are major differences to the “original.” This movie is not intended to be a “prequel” to the 1959 ANIMATED Sleeping Beauty. This is intended to be the telling of Maleficent in a live action sequence. It is to be it’s own story. Yes, there are going to be similarities only because it’s derived from the same fairy tale, however this is about Maleficent, not Aurora. They want you to feel sympathetic for her, because as every villain has, she has a back story that tells why she is the way she is. They are bringing it to light to make us understand why she chose the path of being evil. I’m very excited to see this movie and fully do not expect the darkness that you also keep speaking of, because frankly the trailers aren’t that dark either. I also hope they do more movies about villains. Especially ones like the Evil Queen!!

    1. Ricky Brigante

      You have basically reiterated what I wrote above. My point in making comparisons to “Sleeping Beauty” was to show exactly what you said – this is its own story.

      But there is absolutely no reason comparisons to Disney’s classic film shouldn’t be made. Don’t forget that Maleficent was created FOR the 1959 movie. Yes, the the original fairy tale had a wicked fairy godmother, but she was not Maleficent. This new film uses that iconic name from the Disney movie, so it’s reasonable for fans of that classic film to go in expecting an expanded version of the same character’s story.

      It doesn’t matter if it is animated or live action. A film is a film. “Animation” is not a genre but a medium. Maleficent was created in the ’50s as an evil villain, pure and simple. But now Disney has given that character a much, MUCH softer side, which surely is disappointing to those who want to see a villain shine.

      1. Bill Kellenberger

        I have to agree with you Ricky, as a fan of Maleficent I was looking forward to seeing an evil Maleficent I don’t mind seeing a softer side of her, but I still expect her to die at the end for cursing Aurora and imprisoning Prince Philip…. However they make the movie I’m still looking forward to seeing it.

        1. Jessica

          I will continue to stand by my statement and add this… Hands down one of the BEST movies I’ve seen in a while. And more importantly my husband said, “we all know how big a fan I am of Pirates and this blew if out of the water. Hands down best Disney movie to date.”

      2. Jessica

        All villains are going to have a softer side at some point. Showing that in them and especially when the movie is named after the villain you are going to see that softer side. They clearly want you to feel empathy/sympathy for her to be on her “side” in the movie. “Animation” is a genre.

        1. Sorry to get off topic, Ricky. But Jessica, Animation is a medium it is not a genre.

          Genre – a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.

          Here are some examples of genres and titles under that genre. I tried my best to stay away from Disney Movies. And not all of them are Family friendly either.

          * Western is a genre. (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, The Man from Button Willow)
          * Horror is a genre (Wicked City, Dead Space: Downfall)
          * Science Fiction\Fantasy is a genre (Heavy Metal, Wizards, The Hobbit)
          * Drama is a genre (American Pop, Barefoot Gen, Watership Down)
          * Period or historical piece is a genre. (Barefoot Gen, Victorian Romance Emma, Mushishi)

          Comedy is a genre, a very broad genre with so many to choose from. But it’s a genre none the less.

          Now ANIME is a genre as that is a type or style of animation. But, Animation on a whole is a MEDIUM.

      3. Jessica

        From the way this article is presented you aren’t making comparisons to show that it is its own story. It sounds like you are putting the movie down for being too far different but still sharing similarities to the 50’s classic.

        1. Cameron

          Not to be harsh, but it’s obvious you don’t really know what you’re talking about, Jessica. Having watched the movie last night, I can tell you that Ricky nailed it with this article. Every point he makes is valid and leads to exactly what he said in his comment reply to you; that it was intended to be it’s own story.

          Yes, hardcore villain fans will probably be upset, but overall, it was a good way to show that even villains have a backstory.

          P.S. Animation is a medium, not a genre.

  2. William

    I actually really enjoyed the film. I went into it expecting more of a “events from a different point of view” type of film and was surprised that it was essentially a retelling of the story. Yes, it had some cheesiness to it and yes, the film flew by but to me it felt like a real version and had the pacing of one of their animated films. I think because the film looks dark, is titled/about a “villain”, and the fact that Maleficent just looks evil, Disney is already fighting an uphill battle to get some families into the theatre to see this. I was pleasantly surprised to see how family friendly “Maleficent” actually was. There will be people that are not happy that its not a darker film, but I enjoyed it. It does have some annoying parts. Aurora has this goofy smile that she sports in almost single scene shes in. You’ll know it when you see it. I also thought that Phillip was kind of dopey. He looked like he belongs in One Direction or something and just felt out of place.

    I thought the look of The Moors was fantastic. If they had marketed this more or if by some crazy chance this does really really well, they could easily turn Avatar Land into something Moors related. I think it would be great to run with the forever long idea of turning Animal Kingdom into a dark park at night with Maleficent as the central figure. After seeing this film, it just feels like it would make much more sense and Disney related than Avatar. The film even has an element of trying to protect The Moors from harm and caring for the creatures that live there. Hello, Animal Kingdom ideology?

  3. Gretchen Camp

    I had a feeling they would take the route Rob Zombie took when he redid Halloween – try to make a reason for someone to be evil. Just let the villans be evil, that’s most of their appeal after all!

  4. Jeremy K

    Ok Ricky, If you had the option would you go IMAX 3d, 3d or just normal movie screen?

  5. Camerin

    (Spoilers)
    I actually kinda liked the movie and all of it twists. I didnt really expect it would be the exact same events told from a different perspective, but i wished they would’ve added more similarities to the 50’s classic. The true loves kiss had a twist and it sent out a sly message that love at first sight doesnt exist. The only thing i really didnt like about the movie is that they could have emphasized on Aurora’s and Phillip’s relationship more, even though i know this was Maleficient’s movie.

  6. Cammie

    (Spoilers)
    I actually kinda liked the movie and all of it twists. I didnt really expect it would be the exact same events told from a different perspective, but i wished they would’ve added more similarities to the 50’s classic. The true loves kiss had a twist and it sent out a sly message that love at first sight doesnt exist. The only thing i really didnt like about the movie is that they could have emphasized on Aurora’s and Phillip’s relationship more, even though i know this was Maleficent’s movie.

  7. Xoch

    Does malificent die in the end? Does the film have the same ending as the old version

    1. Jade

      I have to say, the film was incredible. However I was disappointed that they twisted the end to contradict the ending to the original ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Prince Philip slays the dragon and Maleficent dies. However, **spoiler alert**
      They ended it that Maleficent and Aurora live happily ever after in the woods. In my opinion, they should have made sure that this matched the original ending… As a huge Disney fan I was very excited for this film but I did have a feeling they would ruin something… I don’t think they should change an ending to a classic tale just to keep this story alive.

  8. I can’t wait to see this movie soon! Looking forward to it! 🙂

  9. mark

    C’mon, people! This is NOT a just a retelling seen from the another perspective. This is a complete BIZARRO WORLD change. What was good is now bad and what was bad is now good. Sorry, but to revise to this extent is to basically call Walt Disney out; it’s surprising his own company would upend the magic that he created; seems like people with an agenda decided to turn this into feminist claptrap.

  10. Menehune

    I loved the movie and everyone is entitled to share their own opinion. I too had the expectation on seeing Maleficent as the villain. Now that the movie is out, I can view both movies in a different perspective. In watching Maleficent you are seeing her side of the story. In watching Sleeping Beauty you are see the story being told by a storyteller, etc. It kind of gives you the feeling (at least for me) that a story has been told and how much has the story changed as it has been passed down from one person to another. It’s up to you whose side of the story you would like to believe or choose like more. That is how I was able to enjoy the movie and not make a comparison.

  11. Lucy

    This movie was dull and boring the only highlight was when maleficent cursed aurora. Coming from a die hard Sleeping beauty fan I’m disappointed by disney for this crappy movie. Maleficent was evil and ruthless and this made her into some sad softy wtf is that. Forget a villian having a softer side that’s dumb. Maleficent had one side: being evil! She was an evil witch/fairy she’s supposed stay that way. I dont want a bullshit backstory that’s nothing like the story line in sleeping beauty. Oh and the fairies being complete idiots and nonchalant about aurora and having maleficent being the one who cared about her, are you kidding me?!?! Obviously nobody understands why this story line sucks

  12. carolyn

    For me the two movies are politically wonderfully distinct. Maleficent is the story of the overly rigid masculine cutting off its own access to the feminine and the terrible costs of that. It’s a mirror of our culture right now — cut off from earth, focused on war, and power-over. Stephan’s cutting off of M’s wings is a metaphorical rape, and her response when she wakens shows all the agony, and later the revenge that such abuse engenders. Slowly, M re-falls in love with her own young, innocent self, and it’s her return to that softness that returns her to life and love, and opens up the world — beginning with Aurora, and shifting to the whole of the queendom. In Jolie’s movie, Sleeping Beauty is not awakened with the fantasy projection-style kiss from a boy, but by a loving, grief-filled acknowledgement of a long-developing relationship in which there has been much wrong and a slowly growing, healing right.

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