The Evil Queen was the first, Ursula was probably the most fun, but Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty, 1959) is the mistress of all evil.
Her wit and evil elegance still fascinates, while Aurora has only looked more irrelevant as successive generations of Disney women have done more than sing and long for a prince. In this live-action, revisionist take on Maleficent’s backstory, where humans are total jerks, Angelina Jolie dons the arch-villain’s horns.
She’s a hero turned evil by the ambitions of men, but is this reboot good for her image?
As a child living in the fairy realm, Maleficent befriends a human boy called Stefan. The pair become more than friends and while she grows up to be the protector of her people, he (District 9‘s Sharlto Copley) is seduced by power.
Stefan betrays Maleficent, cutting off her wings to impress the dying king (Hellraiser II: Hellbound‘s Kenneth Cranham) and win the throne. Naturally she’s miffed, particularly after she learns he has a daughter by his new queen.
She curses the princess to prick her finger on a spindle by her 16th birthday and fall into a death-like sleep until true love’s kiss awakens her – something Maleficent’s experience has taught her does not exist. The princess is spirited off to a cottage in the woods by three bumbling CGI fairies that have no clue about childcare.
Here’s where you’ll either buy into this reimagining, or reject it entirely: instead of exacting revenge, Maleficent becomes a surrogate mother figure to Aurora, taking the saccharine teen (Elle Fanning) on jollies to the fairy realm and brooding over the curse she cannot undo. There’s a divorce allegory underneath somewhere: a child caught between two warring exes bent on destroying each other, visitation rights permitted.
It’s hard to fault Angelina, with her sardonic smile and cheekbones that could cut glass. The problem is the movie starts to feel more like an Annie Leibovitz tableau. She’s almost too good in the cape that the movie doesn’t push any harder, falling short in emotion and settling for scenes that just look nice.
Jolie does bring unexpected tenderness, but the script fails to give Aurora a personality strong enough for us to believe their bond. The fairies are shadows of their former selves, and while it’s good to see romance continue to take a backseat post-Frozen, the prince is so pointless that it begs the question: why include him at all?
The fairy story origins trend is looking a little threadbare. Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent was arrogant, powerful and independent. By giving her the back story of a spurned woman, it feels like Disney is selling her short.