Maleficent is Disney’s latest in a spate of Nostalgia Branding, a trend spawned from the enormous box-office success of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. Last year’s Saving Mr. Banks was a lesser movie than the movie it referenced, Mary Poppins, but the performances from Tom Hanks as Uncle Walt and Emma Thompson as writer P.L. Travers added enough heart to carry the otherwise schmaltz material. Next year, Disney will revamp Cinderella, and I am sure there are many more of these can’t miss financial opportunities to come. The logic is: if you see Maleficent, Disney gets your money. If you don’t see Maleficent, but the commercials and trailers remind you how much you loved Sleeping Beauty as a child, then Disney gets your money. In quite a few cases, they’ll get you coming, and they’ll get you going. The house always wins.
Maybe that is why I had a hard time letting myself go while watching this particular installment in Nostalgia Branding (Saving Mr. Banks, on the other hand, worked its magic all over me). It’s not a very good movie, to begin with, but I couldn’t help but think of a producer at Disney greedily rubbing their hands together while the box office figures roll in. Maybe if the story was tighter and the characters better developed, my mind wouldn’t have wandered there, but the story is so full of holes that there are plenty of opportunities to drift. Or nap. You could sleep through 10, maybe 20 minutes of Maleficent and not really miss anything. You could pay close attention through all 97 minutes and still be confused.
The premise of Maleficent is that you don’t know the story you think you know. The story you know is that Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a terrible witch who places a curse on newborn Princess Aurora (Jolie’s own daughter as a toddler, Elle Fanning as a teen). Maleficent returns 16 years later, transforms into a dragon, and tries to take the kingdom. Anyone who has seen Sleeping Beauty knows from Maleficent’s first, “Well, well,” that she is up to no good. Like all classic villains, Maleficent came clad in all black and with no back story. She was evil-incarnate (much like Darth Vader or The Wicked Witch of the West) and must be vanquished if the kingdom is to prosper.
Maleficent wants to take that same viewer aside and go, “Wait, if only you knew her side of the story. Then you wouldn’t be so quick to judge.” That’s the same mistake that George Lucas made with his Star Wars prequels, and Disney made with last year’s Oz The Great and Powerful. In the case of Maleficent and The Wicked Witch of the West, revealing the cause of their turn to evil actually undercuts their effectiveness. Before, we knew why they were terrifying incarnations of evil; now we know why and it turns out they are just scorned women. Not quite as powerful.
Maleficent follows the titular character through a significant amount of fairy-tale exposition: from a Lord of the Rings-esque battles to truelove’s betrayal at the hand of Stefan (Sharlto Copley in an awful, hammy performance). Maleficent casts herself as the villain and acts out in a despicable manner (cursing a newborn child will never net you brownie points). In an odd turn of events, Maleficent slowly becomes attached to the child. Aurora is a blond-haired beauty, and when her life is in jeopardy, Maleficent storms the castle lays anyone in her way to waste, and rescues the fair-haired beauty. The villain once again becomes the hero, a very similar story pattern to Martin Scorsese’s study of psychotic Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver. I don’t think that is what Disney had in mind, but it was something that I couldn’t shake from mine.
By casting the villains in this light, Disney (and Lucas for that matter) has inadvertently shown that anyone can become evil. And not just bad, but evil. All it takes is one or two instances of betrayal for someone to turn their back on an entire society. Could a similar theory be applied to real-life figures? Would a revision of Adolf Hitler’s past make him seem more human? Would we, or could we accept that? I certainly hope not. Why Disney asks us to do that seems both in poor taste and of poor judgment.
Maleficent may introduce a new generation to Sleeping Beauty, and if it does, I’ll take some solace in that. In the meantime, I just can’t shake the image of a producer watching a double feature of Taxi Driver and Sleeping Beauty and thinking, “I’ve got it!”
Directed By: Robert Stromberg
Written By: Linda Woolverton
Based on the screenplay of Sleeping Beauty written by Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, Milt Banta, and Erdman Penner
Based on the story “La Belle au bois dormant” by Charles Perrault and “Little Briar Rose” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Produced By: Joe Roth
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites
Walt Disney Pictures, Running Time 97 minutes, Rated PG, Released May 29, 2014.