The current vogue for recasting classic fairy tales for postmodern tastes really isn't current at all. Feminist writer Angela Carter did it in the '70s with her short-fiction collection The Bloody Chamber, and the '80s had the surprisingly dark Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. Noted fantasy editors Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling kicked off their adult-oriented Snow White, Blood Red anthology series in the '90s, and the following decade saw the launch of writer Bill Willingham's superb comic-book series Fables, an obvious precursor to ABC's popular Once Upon a Time.
Disney caught on years ago, with animated features such as The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and, most recently, Frozen centering on heroines who don't need no stinkin' rescuing.
Maleficent, though, is the studio's most dramatic reimagining so far: an often dark and unapologetically feminist live-action retelling of what might be Disney's most depressingly patriarchal yarn ever. Look, I appreciate Sleeping Beauty as much as the next person—the design and animation are superb, the music is terrific, and it's just a lot of fun. But, c'mon—the most interesting character was never the cursed princess or the put-upon king or the valiant prince. The most iconic and striking images from the film have nothing to do with its title character, and everything to do with its villain, a fairy sorceress who was perfectly happy to murder a child because she didn't get her invitation to the infant's christening.
In FX-artist-turned director Robert Stromberg's extravagant subversion, Maleficent's motives are entirely more sympathetic. When the story begins, the title character (played in early scenes by an assortment of child actresses) is a lovely and benevolent creature who will one day become the protector of the Moors, a magical land that borders a very human kingdom. She falls in love with a young thief whose ambitions will eventually lead him to commit a ghastly betrayal. When the dying King Henry promises his crown to the man who kills Maleficent, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who had once pledged his love to the powerful fairy, drugs her and amputates her wings.
The story begins in earnest when an embittered grown-up Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) crashes the christening of King Stefan's infant daughter to bestow her famous curse: On the girl's 16th birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep that can only be broken by true love's kiss.
In the scenes that follow, Maleficent makes some fascinating and engrossing departures from Disney's 1959 classic. Maleficent can't bring herself to wash her hands of Aurora's fate. When the girl is spirited off to a woodland cottage by her three fairy protectors, Maleficent inserts herself into Aurora's life, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. The emotional meat of the film is the relationship that develops between the naive girl (eventually played by Elle Fanning), who sees nothing but good all around her, and the woman who has experienced breathtaking cruelty firsthand.
Maleficent is not subtle in its machinations; you'll probably see where it's going the first time Jolie bares her teeth at an infant Aurora and growls, "I hate you." Getting there, though, is surprisingly fun, thanks in large part to Jolie's fantastic performance. Her polarizing off-screen persona works to the film's advantage. Jolie's Maleficent is by turns heartbreaking, sincere, calculating, and downright feral; by dint of the actress' performance and her sheer, towering presence, she's as much an author of the film as its director or screenwriters. Some viewers will be disappointed that she never gets to be truly evil, but that is, of course, the point.
Maleficent is not simply a matter of swinging the storyteller's gaze in the opposite direction. There's no "he said, she said" scenario; Stefan is undoubtedly the villain of the film, and his path is not one of redemption. (Some reviewers have gone so far as to call the film a kid-friendly rape/revenge flick.) Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) gets a similar pantsing, rendered here as a sweet but ineffectual doofus who must be literally pushed into action. The only male character who becomes truly sympathetic is Maleficent's raven sidekick, Diaval (Sam Riley), reimagined here as a kind-hearted shapechanger.
I didn't have the problems other reviewers have expressed concerning Maleficent's uneven tone or its overblown visuals, though it must be said that the movie is so aggressively digitized that it makes the "live-action" descriptive almost a misnomer. Still, Maleficent's homeland, with its Brian Froud-inspired creatures and cracked-out Thomas Kinkade flora, is lovely to behold, provided your tolerance is high for CG imagery.
Pretty as it is, though—and as much fun as it may be to watch Disney trounce all over one of its own films—Maleficent must ultimately rise or fall on the merits of its central character, and Jolie gives her one hell of a set of wings.