(Originally posted on July 1st, 2015 at http://apiusman.blogspot.com/)

Last weekend, as an unintended but welcome consequence of
participating in the Hugo voting process, I realized that after my almost three
decades as a well-assimilated American, I still was not familiar with one of
the greatest creations of American culture. I am, of course, referring to the
Disney classic movie, Sleeping Beauty. Suitably mortified, I suggested the
movie for our family movie night, and ended up renting both the original and
the “modern spin” version that is Maleficent.
I had reservations, having been burned to a crisp by the
atrocity that was Ever After, but the trailers promised great visuals, plus
Angelina Jolie in title role sounded intriguing.
Thus, a double-feature family movie night was on. Perhaps it
is not fair to compare a modern Hollywood production to a beloved classic. On
the other hand, since I had not seen either movie previously, sentimental value
was a non-factor in my case and my expectations would not be unreasonably
raised for one over the other.
*
First, Sleeping Beauty. In terms of storytelling, it is
straightforward and honest, the way children’s tales tend to be. The rules of magic are simple, the
threat and the possible salvation are laid out, all the characters are introduced
in the early scenes, and we more or less know how this ends.
Yet there are layers, too, and it’s a great demonstration of
how a story can be more complex than it seems while retaining its innocence.
Take the scene where Aurora meets the Prince in the woods. They have,
essentially, fallen in love before ever having laid their eyes on each other.
The meeting is just a validation of something that is already there. How? Why?
Is it magic, or destiny, or just a lucky coincidence? We don’t know, but by establishing
that both had dreamed of each other before their encounter, we, even as cynical
adults, are given enough reason to believe that true love is indeed in the
works.
Later on, we get a surprisingly dark yet effective scene
where Maleficent, having captured the Prince, torments him with visions of life
wasted and love lost, but there is something else. She is mocking the
traditional model of a heroic knight who defeats his foe and rescues a maiden,
denying the very possibility that the good can triumph. In her world, there is
only power and vengeance. No love, no hope, no joy except in denying love and
hope to others–a perfect combination of ancient evil and modern nihilism.
In the end, while the Prince is the nominal hero of the
story, a big chunk of the credit belongs to the good fairies. They free him not
just from physical chains of the dungeon, but also from despair, give him the
right tools (the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Righteousness- that’s right,
take this, nihilism!) and guide him along the way. Even in the final
confrontation, where the Prince, seemingly alone, has to defeat a fearsome
dragon, he is not, in fact, alone as the good fairies make sure the final
strike of the sword strikes home. Is there a deeper meaning to the way this
part of the story pays out? It is for the viewer to decide.
The rest of the story is simplistic by today’s standards.
True love’s kiss is just that. Aurora does indeed wake up, and aside from a
little comic relief, the story concludes exactly in the manner we had been
promised at the start. It’s not a bad lesson to modern storytellers always on
the lookout for The Big Twist. Some stories are beautiful just by their essence
and can be told effectively using neither irony nor misdirection.
And now, for Maleficent. Skeptical as I was, the visually
stunning opening scenes, combined with a hypnotic voice-over asking us to
challenge what we think we know of the story, gave me much hope. A part of me
wondered why a beautiful girl possessed of magic powers to heal and protect all
living things would have a name that literally means “causing or capable of producing evil,”
but I put it aside. It did, however, set the tone for the story: hauntingly,
darkly beautiful; self-aware in a detached, post-modern way, and often too
clever for its own good. In other words, mostly the opposite of the original
story it was meant to re-tell.
Maleficent is not the villain of old, but a horribly wronged,
heartbroken woman trying to heal her physical and emotional wounds through an
act of revenge. And other characters are just as unrecognizable.
The King Father is first a thief and a liar, then a cruel
coward, then a full blown lunatic obsessed with killing and destruction, his
daughter merely an afterthought by the time the story really gets going. The
brief moments where he shows glimpses of humanity are lost because they serve
no purpose to this particular version, and that’s too bad because he could have
been a great tragic character if handled by a more careful storyteller.
The fairies, who in the original are comical and lovable yet
powerful when it counts most, are reduced to incompetent, annoying, squabbling
hags who seem to understand nothing of life, or love. They disappear for large
stretches of the movie, only to come back and remind everyone how ineffectual
they truly are before slinking off again, not even managing to produce comic
relief, let alone serious magic.
Aurora is sweet enough, and does get a decent amount of
screen time. The best scenes that could really have been the whole (much
better) movie are between Aurora and Maleficent, the innocence and innate joy
of the girl slowly but surely melting the heart of the bitter, vengeful woman
and turning her into a loving maternal figure.
What about the Prince, you ask? Well, there is a Prince.
Unfortunately, he has nothing to do but look confused, and we see a mile away
that this particular character is entirely irrelevant.
There’s also a Raven who is turned by Maleficent into a
shape-shifter and spends some of his time being a semi-useful sidekick who
occasionally utters a word of wisdom before being turned into yet another CGI
creature.
“But, but…What about True Love’s Kiss? You promised!” says a
demanding, if unsophisticated, viewer who still thinks she paid the $10 to see
a fairy tale. Said viewer will, indeed witness a kiss, and the Beauty will wake
up, but that is all. The Big Twist so lacking in the original is found here. I
did not feel cheated, per se, only because the “surprise” ending was, in a way,
so tediously predictable, but neither was I satisfied.
The thought of Aurora ruling over the newly happy magical
kingdom under the wise tutelage of Maleficent should have been enough. But is
it? Is there room in the story for romance, for the quaint idea of “happily
ever after”? Well, the Prince shows up at the end, for now apparent reason, and
all I could think about at that point was “He wants MALEFICENT for his mother
in law? He must be either very brave or very stupid, and from the movie’s view
of men, I’d have to put money on stupid.” But by then, we are back to the
beautiful vistas and a hypnotic voice-over, and soon the end credits start
rolling to a suitably macabre remake of the original Sleeping beauty love song.
The movie stayed true to its vision till the very end. Unfortunately, the
vision is thoroughly at odds with the classic it was claiming to re-tell. While
it is possible to create a compelling story–NOT a true fairy tale, but perhaps
a dark fantasy–where the hero and the villain is one and the same, I don’t
think the movie quite gets there either. But then, maybe by preceding it by a
Disney classic, I set my expectations too high after all.
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