In the pantheon of Disney animated classics, 1959's Sleeping Beauty has long been my hands down favorite. The film is a visual masterpiece of rich colors and detail that uses every inch of the screen to its advantage. In adapting a fairy tale about a comatose princess, too, Disney did it absolutely right: Aurora is pushed to stage left and developed only so that we understand she's a fanciful, rather rebellious child. She's the title character, but only so far as events revolve around her curse. There, the story twists away from an attractive notion of what it means to be called a princess. Though Aurora is beautiful and charming, Maleficent becomes central in a way that most Disney villains often are not. She is a terrifying force of nature who's forever watchful, forever fascinating, and who plays opposite not to Aurora, but to her three well-meaning fairy guardians. For me, the Disneyfied version of Sleeping Beauty is about that dynamic; it's a lady-driven ballet that suggests the true powers of the kingdom are held by these various women. As they attempt to tear apart or protect one another, girl-on-girl crime is cast into epic good vs. evil proportions.
Consequently, when Maleficent became the star of her own film, I braced myself for a Wicked-style transformation. Giving the self-proclaimed 'Mistress of all evil' a "softer side" felt counter-intuitive, a new type of story dilution in the continued quest for cash money and reparations. To adapt the Sleeping Beauty mythos, though, is a wholly different task than stitching stupid special effect alterations to the already complete works of Carroll or Baum. Fairy tales naturally evoke the process of -- as the film notes -- "telling and old tale anew," and to twist them is to follow a preexisting tradition of cultural retelling. In the case of Maleficent, the results are somewhat surprising in that they're quite thought-provoking. Though the story does bend to echo aspects of a post-Frozen Disney, there's a darkness more authentic to the fairy tale genre, and one that manifests is intriguing ways.
Maleficent enters into a contract with the story's origins that marks it as unique within the Disney canon. Instead of glossing over the nasty details or ignoring them, the messiest concepts become central features of the plot. This time it's Maleficent herself who takes on the role of sleeping beauty as the film flashes back to a moment of betrayal between the kingdom of men and that of nature. We meet a young Maleficent, a fairy whose wings and magic are so strong that she takes on the role of protector for the creatures around her. As a girl, she meets Stefan, a young peasant boy who has trespassed into their realm. They become unlikely friends and even share a teenage romance. As they age, though, Stefan falls into step within the kingdom of men. He disappears from Maleficent's life and becomes a greedy social climber, eager to stake out a place in the world. When the dying King declares that anyone who can kill the evil fairy will be his successor, the now adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley) uses his relationship with Maleficent to his advantage. He steps once again into the woods, pretends that little has changed, drugs Maleficent in a moment of trust, and cuts her wings from her back as she's face down in the dirt. The scene is a violation, not subtext, and while the rape is metaphorical, the fact of the trespass is devastating. As she awakens, we watch Angelina Jolie's Maleficent struggle with the fact of what's been done with her. She is physically brutalized and mentally unable to comprehend what's happened to her. Or, what's been taken from her.
While most kids won't wholly pick up on the nuances of what's being said, for the adult audience, it's a tough scene to watch. We witness the event that could be called "the rape of Maleficent," and from there, it's game over. Robbed of her wings, Maleficent shrouds herself in mourning black and does not sit still. Her aggressor has become King, leader of her enemies, and she does not trust in the world. Her transformation from heroic figure to embittered villain makes a fair amount of sense in this context, but is the section of the film that's clearly the weakest. The filmmakers can't quite put into words what's happened, or detail the psychological trauma of their characters in the land of the PG fairy tale. So, the events become falsely cut-and-dry: Maleficent gets angry, the plants start dying, she makes an twisty-looking throne and glares and cackles a lot. From this anger comes the driving curse of the original fairy tale; she decides to enact revenge on Stefan by declaring, basically, a sort of mirror of what happened to her. He will watch his infant daughter grow up and, at the moment of her 16th birthday, he will lose something he cares about.
What she fails to consider, of course, is that Stefan demonstrates his inability to care all the more with regard to his daughter. This time when he sends her away to live under the care of three fairies, we do not get the sense that he has her best interest at heart, or that there's a point where he truly misses her. Instead, she becomes a pawn in his battle for more and more power. Stefan willingly abandons his child, leaves her with incompetent individuals, and devotes all of his time to plotting the killing of Maleficent essentially because she has publicly shamed him. He becomes visibly consumed, psychotically obsessed and misogynist in a way that serves to undermine any paternal posture he could adopt. Maleficent, as she moves to spy on the child that, mutually, becomes the figure of her own revenge obsession, finds that she grows to curiously care for the young princess (Elle Fanning). As the care of the three fairies proves more and more inept, Maleficent begins to take a certain amount of responsibility for the girl's situation and the line between villain and hero blurs in a way fascinating and natural. This time, when we find ourselves drawn to Maleficent, we understand why.
The malicious events driving the fairy tale become fertile ground for a curious subversion, and while that space isn't fully explored here, the suggestion of what's possible is far stronger stuff than Frozen's hail-Mary-sister-sacrifice. The update feels necessary, and makes the film smarter and stronger than the bulk of the live action rethinking Disney has attempted in recent years. Still, it's far from perfect. There are changes to the story that disrupt its potential to be a truly empowered adaptation, and one of the biggest problems lies in the rethinking of the other fairies. Maleficent is held up here as the smartest of enchanted creatures, which means that the other fairies become bickering, incompetent twits who, essentially, betray their own kind. It's an unfortunate loss, and adds to the gaps in story that many are complaining about in the film as a whole. We never really understand the motives of the fairies, and too much comes to rest on Maleficent and her raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley). When Aurora slumbers, too, it's uncomfortably the faulty logic of the fairies that leads them to pull the prince in from the corridor and talk him into kissing her. He does not want to, he recognizes it as a kind of violation, but they encourage it in a way that speaks further to the betrayal that they now represent. The tropes have changed, and with them, even the comic relief becomes complicit.