The evil, evil villainess in Disney's Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is tall, dark, has two pointy satan-esque points to her headdress, and is perhaps the most sinister Bad Guy in any of disney's films. Where other villains have foolish quirks, senses of humour, or human failings, she is simply and quietly evil and powerful, only defeated with great drama and equally great effort by the valiant prince.

The story: angered by not receiving an invitation to the christening of the newborn princess, Maleficent descends in rage on the celebration and lays a curse on the babe: that if she ever touches a spindle before her 16th birthday, she will fall in to eternal slumber. She is hidden away in the woods with three good fairy witches to protect her, but alas, her destiny fulfills itself and she pricks her finger and falls asleep in the castle. Meanwhile, the prince, with whom she has fallen in love, is captured by Maleficent and held prisoner, to prevent him from freeing her from her sleep with the kiss of true love. The good fairies free him and bless his sword, and he escapes Maleficent's castle, narrowly avoiding the falling bridges and forests of thorns she places in his path, at last confronting her directly in the form of a giant black fire-breathing dragon she has transformed in to, and after a mighty battle, landing the killing blow in her chest with his blessed sword. He kisses the sleeping princess, and the spell is broken. This is one disney film that's never had a sequel and thank god - it would somehow sully Maleficent's wonderful pure evil to think that she could suffer any defeat less than death.

Maleficent stars Angelina Jolie as the titular fairy, Sharlto Copley as Stefan and Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora. Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville are the three pixies, Knotgrass, Thistletwit and Flittle respectively. Sam Riley is Diaval, Brenton Thwaites, Prince Phillip and Kenneth Cranham King Henry. The film is directed by Robert Stromberg and written by Linda Woolverton, sort of, but owes a good deal of debt to many other writers of the other versions of the story. It is, of course, a Disney film.

You already know the story: yam’s write up above outlines it effectively. Perhaps the whole yarn isn’t so firmly embedded in our cultural unconscious as Snow White but it’s pretty close. At a christening, invited guests dish out presents to a royal princess. An evil fairy, hacked off that she wasn’t invited in the first place, turns up anyway and – instead of a blessing – bestows a curse. Before her sixteenth birthday, the child will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. She cackles maniacally and vanishes. One good fairy, who hasn’t given her blessing yet, revises the curse and states that, instead of dying, she will fall into a deep sleep which can only be woken by true love’s kiss – a fairy tale default but the actual phrase invented in Shrek, I think. The curse comes true, thorns wreathe the castle, but a traveling prince cuts through them, finds the girl and wakes her with a kiss. Disney embellishes the story in its 1959 animated film, but the essentials are all there.

It’s easy, perhaps too easy, to find the thoughts and feelings of the societies which come up with tales like this. The redemptive power of love is obvious, clearly, and only marginally less so is the superiority of the man over the woman in terms of capacity for action: Sleeping Beauty must lie and wait for a man to come. If he doesn’t, there’s nothing she can do about it. It’s a woman who curses her in the first place – female jealousy is responsible for women’s problems. It’s a spindle she pricks her finger on: possibly a comment on women working – only men can rescue them from servitude. Maybe the spindle is phallic and the princess’s fascination with it can only be cured by legitimate marriage. Looking at other fairy tales, such themes and ideas seem to crop up again and again. It’s tempting to say, ‘Oh, come on: it’s just a story,’ certainly, but how many women save men? How many heroines aren’t elevated away from servitude to marriage and royalty?

Certainly, Disney must have been feeling this pressure of the narrative because Maleficent sets out to retell the story, to fill in the gaps, and demonstrate that, rather than men being the saviours, it is they who were the problem in the first place. If women are responsible for bad behaviour, then it is men who made them do it, and – eventually – women will put it right. Without blowing the plot, it is a young Stefan who is responsible for Maleficent’s bitterness towards love, an old king who is responsible for her anger and wish for revenge. Maleficent softens towards Aurora, and… well… you’ll see…

It is a good film. In parts, it’s a great film. It is, of course, Jolie’s film entirely. To say that no one else gets a look in is, to a large degree, to miss the point. The aim of the film, its self-declared aim, is to fill in her story. She is strident, strong, feisty, funny, enthralling and heart breaking by turns. The other actors are at their best when they are adding to her performance (Sam Riley) rather than making their own characters (Imelda Staunton) but that’s a directorial issue rather that the faults of the actors themselves. It’s also almost unrelentingly dark in tone – in fact, the only really jarring moments come when some of the ‘fairyland’ creations are just too cute or winsome.

Its main strength, though, its retelling of a familiar story recasting heroes as villains and vice versa, is also its weakness. This film relies heavily on its dialogue with its predecessor – watching it requires almost constant lining up and paralleling of content, theme and issue. It’s fundamentally rather rewarding, but whilst doing it, there’s a nagging doubt that the film only survives because of it – and, without the earlier Disney offering, Maleficent is only half a film.

Film information from imdb.com

 

Ma*lef"i*cent (?), a. [See Malefic.]

Doing evil to others; harmful; mischievous.

 

© Webster 1913.

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