I wrote one of my first reviews for Maleficent – years ago before I truly started to work on them like I have the last year. Let’s look back and see how much my thoughts have changed since 2015.
Maleficent was not the first live-action remake (or, in this case, adaptation) of one of their beloved classics. That honor belongs to the nineties’ The Jungle Book, though many may wish to choose 101 Dalmatians instead, seeing as how the former received a second remake in 2016. As I said, Maleficent was not the first, not even of the modern era – but it is the one that kicked the process into high gear, bringing with it many more remakes and adaptations in recent years. I have enjoyed all of them, even those that some have dismissed because I enjoy Disney and its plethora of work. Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie as the title character, is one of my favorite films in recent years – with its careful re-examination of the characters and their dynamics, paving the way for a new look at how society views the damsel Princess, the wicked witch, or the dashing prince. For those reasons and more, Maleficent proved that Disney could take its tried and true formula and give it a bit of a twist, a little change in the flavor text, to breathe new life into its repertoire.
One of the trailers shows that it was not all changed, though – showing the animated scenes next to their live-action adaptation, helping to recapture the magic of one of the final films that Walt Disney worked on or personally oversaw before his death. Sleeping Beauty haunted Disney for years – it effectively killed the princess genre for them until The Little Mermaid in 1989 revitalized it with new action-driven plot lines and well-rounded characters whose depth went beyond being royalty and needing to be saved. We all love to judge a film by the mores of the day. Sleeping Beauty has always been my favorite Disney film, Princess or otherwise. It’s a story I love, with characters that I adore and sequences that still intrigue me. Seeing a new version of the story was something I looked forward to for years while it was being made. Maleficent did not disappoint me.
Elle Fanning, the younger sister of Dakota Fanning, was cast to play the role of Aurora, a young and naïve hopeful as well as compassionate and witty; Aurora had more agency in this version. Her character was, obviously, still placed under a sleeping curse – it wouldn’t be a Sleeping Beauty tale without it – but there was far more complexity, and nuance to the tale than any version had attempted before. Fairy tales were always about teaching a lesson or a cautionary tale, designed to frighten children into being good as much as they were designed to be full of whimsy and fantasy. A lot of changes were made to Sleeping Beauty when Disney adapted it for the first time. So it was only natural that more changes would be made when it was adapted again – over fifty years later.
Rather than beginning with the birth of Princess Aurora, the story begins much earlier – when Maleficent was far younger. In Maleficent, the title character is played by three actresses – Angelina Jolie carries the film, but we also meet Isobelle Molloy and Ella Purnell, the latter of whom turned in a brilliant performance as Maria Grey in Belgravia as the younger versions of Maleficent. She is introduced as a powerful fairy in the Moors, where fantastical beings live in harmony away from the human lead kingdoms surrounding them. However, this harmony is broken when Stefan arrives to steal from them, an event which three fairies alert Maleficent to – and then complain about her quick response because they were blown aside by her big wings.”
Stefan, like Maleficent, is played by several actors throughout the film – initially by Michael Higgins, then briefly by Jackson Bews, and primarily by Sharlto Copley. The three fairies, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville), and Thistlewit (Juno Temple), are a different take on the Three Good Fairies – Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. Where the bumbling idiocies are played for laughs in Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent, their glaring incompetence is quite a bit more pronounced in this version. Stefan, for his part, is ambitious, cunning, and cruel – at least when he needs to be. It’s when he tries to be these things that his inadequacies are more obvious. Stefan is not nobility here but a servant to the King who dreams of grander things. Rather than be satisfied with what he has, which earns him Maleficent’s interest, he craves more. And he will do whatever it takes to get it. The exact depths of his depravity are left up to your imagination, as several of his more villainous actions were cut from the film’s final version.
The conflict between the kingdom that Stefan calls home and the Moors, home to Maleficent and the other fair folk, rises considerably because of the King’s greed and fear of a power he could not control. First, King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) makes a big speech about how they must crush the mysterious creatures that live within. “Creatures,” mind you, that have done nothing to humanity (as far as we know – the sequel hints at previous conflicts but still maintains that it happened within the Moors, meaning that the human in question trespassed on their lands). Humiliated for his efforts, his impending death presents a critical opportunity to Stefan – one he grabs with both hands and some iron chains.
Sam Riley plays Diaval, a version of Diablo, who was Maleficent’s faithful pet raven in Sleeping Beauty. Still a raven in this film, he is given human form so that Maleficent has somebody she can speak to during those stretches of the film when she would otherwise be alone. Save for incompetent minions. Brenton Thwaites plays Prince Phillip, whose role is ironically reduced, considering he was the first Disney Prince of the original princess films to have a name, a personality, and a role in his film. Still, with what little we get of Phillip, it’s clear that he is a charming character – if only he had been able to return to the sequel, which gave the character a much larger, more complex, and more critical role in the story, we might have gotten to see the true depth of his performance as the character. Finally, Hannah New plays Princess Leila, whose only appearance is to be present when her daughter is cursed – and while we see the consequences this has on Stefan, arguably, Leila could have had a more dynamic position on all of it. After all, her husband sits on her father’s throne because he killed Maleficent – who was alive enough to curse their child.
This version delves more deeply into a brewing conflict between the fair folk and humanity, working to explain why certain events would transpire in the way that they do. The reason behind Maleficent’s curse is given a dark call back to the long-standing relationship between Maleficent and Stefan. How it’s broken is equally turned on its head. Maleficent had some misses, as all films do – even those heralded as perfect do, just wait – but its highlights more than make up for those misses. Some of them can be undone by deleted scenes, which provide more context and depth for certain characters but detract from the overall, more streamlined story being told. As it was, most of that material is, for lack of a better term, immaterial, especially after the sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, did a fine job of filling in some of these blanks (poor Princess Leila was not one of them).
From the famous “finger pricking scene” to true love’s kiss, the story was reimagined for a modern age. Much can be forgiven because we may see a new version in the distant future. One of the best changes the story offers is the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. In this version, the pair know each other for all of Aurora’s life – from the moment the curse is placed until long after it is broken. Though, how they know one another is carefully crafted for the film. Aurora views Maleficent as her fairy godmother, always watching while the three good fairies bumble their way through raising her – Maleficent is there to pick up the slack. Diaval, too. This change is central to the theme of love that the film is carrying out – romantic love is not the only kind of love, and its message is truly beautiful. Then, of course, is the Dragon – the change that most love to complain about, but I find interesting. After all, it was set up well before the end. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
Disney has a long track record to go off of and a plethora of films in their catalog for which it can adapt its classics for a new generation. 2023 alone will see The Little Mermaid and Peter and Wendy released – the former of which is going to be a powerhouse of a film, in my humble opinion, and the latter of which I am keenly looking forward to. Even beyond, 2024 is currently set to have Snow White, with Rachel Zegler playing the title role and Gal Gadot set to dazzle and terrify as the Evil Queen. However, Disney is not done, and I look forward to seeing adaptations of such stories as Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, and Brave, alongside the already announced adaptations of Hercules and The Sword in the Stone. There is a lot to anticipate in the coming years. One thing is for certain, if they continue to reinvent characters like they have with Maleficent, then there is nothing they cannot accomplish.
I look forward to sharing my thoughts on Maleficent: Mistress of Evil with you next week!