‘Maleficent’ – A Hopeful Sign For Future Fairy Tale Reboots

It’s obvious to most frequent moviegoers that the creative machine that churns out Hollywood movies threw a belt about a decade ago. Production companies still manage to rake in a multimillion-dollar profit by attracting crowds to the ticket booths with enticing previews that all-too-often lead to disappointing films. What’s more, when a group of sleep deprived writers can’t nail down an idea for their next script, it seems like they just pull a random book or VHS tape off the shelf and start dissecting.

Like most kids in this country, I was a Disney nut growing up, and while Aladdin was always my favorite, I liked Sleeping Beauty for the dragon, knights and green fire. When I first saw a preview for the Maleficent reboot, I thought it looked great. Then I thought about Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack the Giant Slayer and Red Riding Hood and seriously reconsidered spending the eleven dollars for a ticket.

I grew up on fiction and fairy tales, studied the elements of a “good story” in college and spent far too much time at the local theater in my teenage years. As far as films of my beloved childhood stories go, I was more or less pleased with Lord of the Rings, ecstatic about Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight and charmed by Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Where the Wild Things Are.

A surprising amount of people don’t know that the story we have come to know as Sleeping Beauty originated from Briar Rose, a five-paged fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm about a perfect princess (the flattest character in the history of story telling) who is cursed to die on her sixteenth birthday by a magical relative who was not invited to her party. As this plot is bland and (dare I say) petty, Disney had to add a lot of spice to create their 1959 animated film, and fifty-five years later, director Robert Stromberg added a bucket-load more to create Maleficent.

I know, I know. How dare I knock a Grimm classic, but bland is perfectly fine when the purpose of the fairy tale is to provide a simple moral lesson. However, for a film, we have much higher expectations.

The original elements of the fairy tale are all preserved: a curse, a princess who falls into an eternal slumber and the magical trump card of true love’s kiss. However, Stromberg saw past the tradition of keeping the focus on the princess, and instead, chose the villainess, Maleficent as his protagonist. That’s right. Protagonist. The dark, brooding, cruel Maleficent who is given no backstory in the Disney movie and about three sentences in Grimm’s tale is molded from the flat, “evil” archetype she has always been into a complex, relatable, character whose internal and external journeys are equally intricate.

Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of the mirthful woodland fairy girl turned dark enchantress leaves nothing to want. I’ll admit she’s not one of my favorite actors, but her elegant and commanding air gives an authority to her presence and a strength to her isolation, which creates the perfect Byronic heroine that is Maleficent.

There are three elements in Stromberg’s addition to the Briar Rose tradition that make it a model for all future reboots:

  1. Resourcefulness – If I think back to the Disney Maleficent of my youth, four things come to mind: Horns, Staff, Raven and Dragon. Not only are all these things present in the film, but they are finally given context. She conjures the staff as a walking stick to help her after her wings are amputated. The raven was about to be killed by a hunter before she rescued it and turned it into a man (her servant). Her signature horns are explained to be a characteristic of a powerful fairy. Though she doesn’t transform herself into a dragon like she did in the Disney film, she does upgrade her raven to a fire breathing beast instead.
  1. Innovation – While transitioning Maleficent’s character from evil to complicated, certain elements of the original story were altered with precision and respect to their original purpose. There are too many to list here, but the one that stands out most is how she watches Aurora grow up from afar, secretly intervening to protect her from danger despite the curse she set on her. This change cuts through the cliché of an irrevocably evil character and shows us viewers a side of self-doubt, curiosity and regret that we can relate too.
  1. The Fairy Tale Moral – The purpose of a fairy tale has always been to pass on a moral lesson. More often than not, this means the characters who represent an immoral principle in the story will meet a ghastly fate. In Grimm’s Cinderella for example, the evil stepsisters are so willing to do whatever it takes to win the heart of the prince, they cut off their toes to fit into the glass slipper, showing acts of avarice as being tantamount to self-mutilation.The deviation from the good guy/bad guy trope allows an opportunity for the film to shift the moral lesson from “don’t be hateful, dabble in dark magic and plot to murder children” to one focused on the contrasting principalities of nurturing and destroying life. Maleficent transitions back and forth between heroine and villainess as her value of human life changes. On the one side, her would-be true love who betrayed her pushes her toward hate and destruction, while on the other side, Aurora pulls her back to a place of compassion and love.

To Be Honest…

–   The writing was a bit cheesy at times, but it’s a fairy tale film. It should be!

–   Aurora’s portrayal of happy innocence made her seem like a dim-whit.

–   The king transitioned from innocent to power-hungry to straightjacket loco with almost no explanation (the definition of a poorly developed character).

All of these things considered, Maleficent is still a shinning example of a great reboot and is definitely worth the price of a ticket.