A Reminder That ‘Maleficent’ is a Live-Action Retelling Done Right

To quote FSR’s chief film critic, Rob Hunter, “As far as rape/revenge fantasies go this is probably the most Disney-like.” Rob’s assessment of Maleficent is in jest, but it does get at the heart of what distinguishes this retelling from so many other live-action — or “live-action” — retellings of classic Disney tales. Maleficent, the villain origin story starring Angelina Jolie and directed by Robert Stromberg, approaches its story from a new perspective. While the film isn’t without its faults, its merits provide a framework to understand how Disney remakes can succeed and bring a fresh set of eyes to a familiar narrative.

Maleficent, which now has a sequel subtitled Mistress of Evil, revisits the story of Sleeping Beauty, a fairy tale famously brought to the silver screen by Disney in 1959. The animated original has become the story we’re all familiar with: in a faraway kingdom, King Stefan and Queen Leah are blessed by the birth of a daughter, Aurora. At the baby’s christening, the evil fairy Maleficent curses the child, proclaiming that on her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Aurora grows up, yadda yadda yadda, falls in love, yadda yadda yadda, pricks her finger and falls into a deep slumber, yadda yadda yadda, Maleficent is defeated and true love’s kiss breaks the spell.

This Disney classic is notable for its stunning animation style and lighthearted humor, but ask any fan and they’ll tell you that what really makes this film remarkable is Maleficent herself. Voiced by and based on the features of Eleanor Audley, (who also voiced Cinderella‘s wicked stepmother — talk about a great villain resume) Maleficent is delectably devilish and blows every other character out of the water with her high camp mannerisms, iconic line deliveries, and — the cherry on top of this bad bitch sundae — her ability to turn into a goddamn dragon. That it took 55 years for Disney to realize she should be the star of the show is totally confounding.

But thankfully, they eventually did. The 2014 film turns the tables on the fairy tale by imagining Maleficent’s backstory. In this retelling, she’s a young fairy girl who befriends and then falls for the future King Stefan (portrayed by Michael Higgins and Jackson Bews as a child and Sharlto Copley as an adult). As the two grow up, Maleficent, first played by Isobelle Molloy and Ella Purnell, then Jolie as an adult, becomes the protector of the Moors, a forest realm bordering the human world. The young Stefan serves a king who intends to conquer the Moors for its bountiful resources and who promises that the soldier to kill Maleficent will inherit the throne. Stefan, driven by his ambition, abuses the trust Maleficent has in him to drug her and steal her wings, which he presents as proof of her demise.

Stefan successfully inherits the throne and Maleficent, embittered by the betrayal, turns the Moors into a dark realm and swears revenge. When King Stefan, enjoying the fruits of his despicable labor, has a child, Maleficent sees the right opportunity to strike with the vengeance she’s been planning. As was the case in the original film, she curses the child.

However, while Aurora is sent away to live outside of the kingdom under the not-so-watchful eye of three benevolent but inexperienced fairies, Maleficent becomes a de-facto protector of the child. She becomes charmed by the young Aurora, played by Vivienne Jolie-Pitt and Eleanor Worthington Cox as a child and Elle Fanning as a young woman. Maleficent slowly but surely grows to care for the girl, eventually coming to regret her decision to punish Stefan by cursing his innocent daughter.

The reformation of Maleficent as a villain isn’t itself a groundbreaking story; there are the expected moments of emotional resonance, and it’s not hard to see the beats of the climactic battle coming. But what anchors the film and elevates it beyond a boilerplate cash-grab remake is Jolie’s marvelous performance that plays with both sides of the character: hero and villain.

When Maleficent awakens from her drugged state to discover her wings ripped from her back and Stefan gone, her anguish is palpable. The cruelty of such an assault is writ across Jolie’s face as she processes this trauma and sobs. Despite this being a Disney movie, the rape allegory is barely concealed and is clear enough to see under the magical surface. This scene carries with it an emotional weight that could have felt unearned were it not for Jolie’s performance. Her response to Stefan’s actions is harrowing, her cries bone-chilling. Jolie’s measured performance resists histrionics but delivers a full picture of Maleficent’s distress with gravitas.

When Maleficent goes full baddie, Jolie offers just the right amount of wicked, campy indulgence. Grinning like the cat who ate the canary as she curses a newborn, Jolie’s Maleficent is as diabolically fun as the animated original character, but here she carries with her a sense of indignation. Rooting for the villain has never come easier than when it’s been made clear the real monster of this story is the king.

Rather than completely undercutting Maleficent’s villainous traits with a sympathy-garnering backstory, the film balances the two sides of the character. It deepens her narrative with a feminist retelling, but also allows her to be delightfully devious as she commands a room and holds everyone in the palm of her hand as they quake with fear.

Conversely, as Maleficent softens, Jolie imbues her performance with just enough warmth. The character never loses her edge, but she does grow to genuinely care for Aurora and the film affirms the idea that their bond supersedes any blood ties to King Stefan when it is Maleficent’s affection for the girl that is able to stir Aurora from her slumber. Turns out that a motherly love was the truest of all.

What distinguishes Maleficent from other, recent live-action remakes — in addition to, you know, actually being live-action — is the new perspective and the faith put in Jolie’s performance. Thanks to Jolie’s genuinely affecting work, Maleficent’s assault is given the weight it deserves and the film is able to handle the feminist retelling with care. Maleficent’s goals of shielding the Moors from being exploited by humans affords the film a narrative of environmental protection that, while perhaps not the focal point of the story, indicates that the film has some worthwhile ideas on its mind and its heart in the right place.

While Maleficent isn’t flawless — it’s a touch too CGI heavy, and frankly, just because this is a darker retelling doesn’t mean the color palette must be as drab as it often is — the film does certainly demonstrate that there are new ideas to be gleaned from Disney remakes. At a time when it increasingly feels as though a remake is just an excuse to rehash ideas without a true sense of imagination in order to rake in money, Maleficent showcases the potential for a film to offer a fresh perspective, a welcome update on a classic fairy tale, and a gloriously rich character that an actor can truly sink her teeth into. As far as Disney live-action goes, Maleficent is a villain worthy of a following.

Anna Swanson: @annaswnsn Horror movie junkie, fan of Old Hollywood, defender of Grease 2.