“Beastie” is what Maleficent calls her. “Aurora” is her name, or Dawn, if you want a translation. “Sleeping Beauty” is what we’ve always called her, especially since Disney’s badly received 1959 animated feature of the same name. (“Disney imitating Disney” is what New York Herald Tribune critic Paul Beckley called the companion movie to the earlier Disney masterpiece “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” thereby summing up the original lack of love for the film which gained a good deal later.)
Aurora in “Maleficent” is a beautiful girl who sees only beauty in the world. When she first lays eyes on black-clad fairy Maleficent hiding behind a tree, Aurora smiles brightly at the witch who cursed her birth and says that she recognizes the woman who has been a figure in the shadows all her life. “You’re my fairy godmother” Aurora chirps.
Not quite. But thereby hangs this tale.
There’s a feminist twist to this new free adaptation of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale that is so good it really deserved a much better movie. That feminist twist seems to be the product of writer Linda Woolverton who also wrote “The Lion King.”
The world first saw Maleficent in the 1959 animated feature “Sleeping Beauty.” If she looks to you in that movie a little like Cruella DeVille in the subsequent “101 Dalmatians,” there is a good reason for it. The same Disney artist – a fellow named Marc Davis – worked on both and seems to have given them their visual personality.
You should know that Perrault’s original fairy tale makes no mention of her, only in passing of a “large evil fairy.” Perrault’s story is called “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” and if you think Walt Disney was, paradoxically, responsible for more traumatic scares in vulnerable children than any other filmmaker in American history, you should know that Perrault’s original tale has it that the king’s wife after Aurora’s 100-year sleep is really an ogress who can’t wait for her husband to go off to war so that she can have what she really wants: “tomorrow evening for supper I want to eat little Dawn.” (Translated by Christopher Betts.)
Those original fairy tales didn’t kid around, as any shocked reader of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Perrault well knows.
The look of “Maleficent” is more interesting than it is either powerful or enchanting. The director of the film is first-timer Robert Stromberg, a special effects wizard who worked on “Pan’s Labyrinth” and one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, which won’t surprise you in the slightest. You’ll see family resemblances between the creatures in “Maleficent” and those movies.
Quite the most powerful effect the movie has going for it is the face of Angelina Jolie, that biological miracle of eyes so big and cheekbones so sharp her beauty would be cruel if it weren’t for the softness of her huge lips. With the natural shape of her face, she is, in life, beyond the perfect analogue to what the artists conceived of in their original animated version of “Sleeping Beauty.”
You don’t have to be a genius to know why Jolie – who more and more wants to direct – wanted to make this movie. That creative feminist spin on the original retold Disney tale is so good that no one could blame her for wanting to add her face to the mix.
She is so very, very good here just by showing up and wearing blood-red lipstick and the horned crown of the costume that the sluggishness and mediocrity of the film are enough to sadden anyone.
Still it’s only 97 minutes long, after all, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone with a 6-year-old daughter from seeing it just because of its lugubrious tempo.
It’s a very good story which explains her evil much better than Disney’s original. She becomes a remarkably visualized character, however indifferently told the tale winds up being.
The film is a decidedly mixed blessing but a blessing nevertheless.
2.5 stars (Out of four)
Starring Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning and Imelda Staunton. 97 minutes. Rated PG for scares and meanness.