On one level, it’s silly to complain about Disney’s revision of Maleficent, the evil queen from its own 1959 "Sleeping Beauty."
After all, that animated classic was a highly sanitized version of the tale "Little Briar Rose" from the Brothers Grimm — a story that included, among other atrocities, near-cannibalism.
Yet here we are with "Maleficent," a new live-action tale starring Angelina Jolie as the title character. The actress certainly resembles her animated counterpart, with naturally refined cheekbones exaggerated only slightly to bring them to near-points and piercing eyes capable of radiating pure evil.
But this Maleficent is not pure evil. Instead, the fairy tale is turned on its head and the character is given a backstory of betrayal and physical abuse that, while not entirely justifying her actions, goes a long way toward explaining them.
We first meet her as a child, where she lives in a fairy land adjacent to a kingdom. The two worlds live in peace, we’re told, so the fairy land has no need for a ruler.
As a preteen, Maleficent meets Stefan, the future human king, who is a young boy attempting to steal a rock from the fairy world. The two begin spending time together and become closer as they grow up, leading to what Stefan promises Maleficent is "true love’s kiss."
But the ambitious Stefan, we’re told through narration, becomes enamored of the quest for power and neglects Maleficent, his visits becoming less and less frequent and eventually stopping altogether.
He eventually returns, but with an agenda to drug and kill his former fairy flame and thus gain the throne of the dying king. Stefan is unable to go through with the scheme, but the horrific act of physical mutilation he substitutes, while not killing Maleficent, turns her dark, indeed (and is good enough to get him the throne).
The new king marries, and his queen gives birth to a princess, Aurora. Maleficent shows up at the celebration to honor the baby princess and places the familiar curse on her: On her 16th birthday, Aurora will fall into a death-like sleep that can only to be reversed by love’s true kiss, which Maleficent believes does not exist.
The rest of the story follows the familiar plot in which the king sends his daughter away to hide under the protection of three bumbling, kindhearted fairies. But the tale is upended again when a traveling prince attempts to awaken Aurora with that kiss. Here, "Maleficent" takes a cue from another Disney tale you might have heard of — "Frozen" — with a feminist twist on the notion of true love.
I have no gripe with the changes; they work within the context of the new story, and I’m all for girl power.
But it is tempting to wonder why we feel a need to deny the idea that true evil exists and, instead, to provide a backstory containing explanation and justification for truly evil acts. Is it the horror of our own society, filled with weekly acts of senseless violence, that leads us to change a truly malevolent Maleficent who gets punished for her evil acts into a regretful, sympathetic anti-hero on a redemption quest? Perhaps we are desperate for an explanation.
The film looks great. But while it’s jam-packed with the latest special effects technology (at first, I thought it was an animated film), the story’s plotting and dialogue are so straightforward and simple that it feels like a much older movie.
Jolie is fantastic, menacing at one moment and adding prankster-ish levity in the next (to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, "She’s not tonally challenged, she’s just drawn that way"), and Elle Fanning is fine as Aurora. The film has its share of logistical problems but, hey — it’s a fairy tale, right?
I’m not sure of the film’s target audience. Scenes of incredible violence and some of the most frightening creatures I’ve ever seen depicted make it wholly inappropriate for young children, but it’s definitely not a movie for adults.
I guess I’ll sleep on it.