What makes bad guys bad? We’ve always been told that Sleeping Beauty was cursed at birth by a wicked fairy caught up in a jealous fury because she was not invited to the christening. In the classic 1959 Disney animated version of the story, she has a name that contains the root syllables for evil and for grand-scale power, a combination of malevolent and magnificent: Maleficent. And in the climax of the film she transforms herself into a fire-breathing dragon to prevent Prince Philip from getting inside the castle to wake Sleeping Beauty with true love’s kiss.
Now we get to see her story, meeting her first as a friendly young fairy who sweetly says good morning to all of the magical creatures in the fairyland that abuts the human world. No one is supposed to cross that boundary, but Maleficent meets the young human boy Stefan when he crosses the boundary to try to steal a jewel. They become friends and, as they grow older, they care for each other. But Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is ambitious. He steals her wings, and is thus able to marry the king’s daughter and ascend to the throne. When their baby, Princess Aurora, is born, Maleficent arrives at the christening for the curse we all remember — on her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle and then fall into a deep, permanent sleep, to be awakened only by true love’s kiss.
Director Robert Stomberg, who worked with Tim Burton as a visual effects and production designer, keeps a more consistent tone in the settings than in the storyline. The fairy settings are imaginative, with some enchanting details. Maleficent herself is brilliantly designed with wings that seem part-bat, part-eagle and cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass. The script feels pieced together and uncertain. The reason to see the movie is Jolie, clearly having a blast and giving a performance filled with heart, wit, and spirit. As in the Disney version, Princess Aurora is bundled off to a remote cottage under the care of three bickering pixies (poorly used Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Leslie Manville), to keep her from ever seeing a spinning wheel. Maleficent cannot keep away and watches the Princess constantly, as a baby, a toddler (played by Jolie’s daughter because she was the only little girl who was not afraid of the scary Maleficent costume), and then as a young woman (Elle Fanning, whose role consists primarily of smiling, but does that very well). The sunny, loving qualities of the young Princess (enhanced, perhaps, by the wishes of the three fairies at her christening), begin to melt Maleficent’s heart. But the curse cannot be undone.
The classic tale can be undone, or at least rearranged. A handsome prince, a fire-breathing dragon, and, yes, a sleeping beauty all come together, with some clumsy switches. The real enchantment here is not the story but the star.
Parents should know that this film includes fairy-tale peril and violence with fire, swords, scary-looking creatures, and a fire-breathing dragon, characters injured and killed, death of parents, betrayal, and some disturbing images.
Family discussion: What other stories would you like to see from the villain’s point of view? Why did Stephan and Maleficent have different responses to fear and disappointment?
If you like this, try: “Stardust” and Disney’s animated classic Sleeping Beauty