Aurora, the snoozy heroine of Disney’s animated classic Sleeping Beauty, isn’t exactly known for taking charge. Among her questionable talents are injuring herself on a spinning wheel, falling head over heels in love with the first guy she meets, and not waking up ever. If retaining a sense of personal agency is the mark of a memorable identity, Aurora is a stiff. Even compared to other old-fashioned princess-victims, she comes up short; she makes Snow White look like Wonder Woman. The real creature of fascination was always the blackly diabolical Maleficent and everybody knows it.
But still, this is Disney. Nice people are supposed to win. So how to reverse-problematize and commodify the bad guy into a sympathetic franchise builder? By dumping everything that dulled it all down in the first place, that’s how.
[NOTE TO READERS: It's a plot-heavy film. More than the usual amount of details follow. If you're extremely touchy about that sort of thing, you might stop here.]
That’s actually what’s right and workable about this live-action fantasy. The story, explains an unseen female narrator, was never told properly to begin with. The version we all know wasn’t how it really went down. In fact, if we’re going to get gritty about it, Maleficent’s (Angelina Jolie) story has more in common with I Spit On Your Grave than you had been led to believe.
Born into a magical land, young Malifecent (Isobelle Moloy) is a sweet, innocent fairy with really cool horns and powerful wings. She befriends and eventually falls in love with Stefan (Michael Higgins), a misunderstood boy who eventually finds his way into the inner court of cruel King Henry (Kenneth Cranham), an enemy of Maleficent’s land who wants to conquer it and all of its inhabitants. Discarding his affection for his childhood best friend, Stefan (now Sharlto Copley) accepts the King’s challenge to kill her in order to win the crown at the hour of the King’s death.
Losing his murder nerves in the clinch, Stefan mutilates Maleficent by ripping off those majestic wings, leaving her for dead and robbing her of her greatest physical strength. One problem with that -- she's still magic. And furious. Revenge, fighting, fire, gigantic thorns, curses and comas ensue, but also a twist involving Maleficent’s relationship with the wide-eyed (and, admittedly, still pretty dopey) Aurora (Elle Fanning), one you don’t need to know about until it unfolds before your eyes.
Oh yes, your eyes. About that… skip the 3D on this one. For whatever production-based reason (or perhaps the horrible 3D glasses provided by the theater where I saw it), Maleficent – save for Jolie’s incredible costumes and prosthetic razor-cheeks – is so intent on showboating every digital beauty trick in the book that it becomes remarkably ugly, packed to the breaking point with an oppressive quantity of whimsical creatures, psychedelic flowers, buzzing comedy-fairies and battle-trees. Nothing on screen chills and lets you marvel at the wonder of it all. It just kicks you in the face over and over.
Setting aside that irritation, Maleficent’s revisionist herstory is full of heart, resembles Frozen more than a little bit, and passes all the tests Bechdel could invent short of sending adult Aurora off in the arms of a lesbian wood nymph. Meanwhile, Jolie is the embodiment of the grand diva movie star here. She glides and stalks and raises one eyebrow like she invented the idea of being a complicated villainess. When she’s on screen, all the other glitches and annoyances fade away. Her Maleficent is a little too much of everything, but more good than bad, just like this film.