Last week we compared Disney’s 1950 animated Cinderella to their 2015 live-action Cinderella. This week we’ll look at another – the one that was the first in what will likely be a long line of live-action reimaginings: Maleficent, compared to its source material, Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Now the way we did it last week was to compare each element, but this time it will work better if we look at each film separately before we get into those specifics.
So. Sleeping Beauty.
Here is a movie that watched Cinderella, noticed that it was all about mice and a cat, and decided to be all about women instead.
Not really the main character so much, though. Just… other women.
And that is fair enough, as we shall see. The story begins with Maleficent showing up to a Christening all pissed off that she didn’t get invited. So she curses the baby to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday, AND DIE.
So the problem here is that baby Aurora is basically a plot device in her own movie. She did nothing wrong. Her parents barely did anything wrong. Maleficent is just spiteful.
But there are three “good” fairies who are very familiar with Maleficent, and who decide to set aside everything else to help try to protect the baby from having to die at 16 just because the self-declared “Mistress of All Evil” was annoyed that anyone could possibly not want to invite her to stuff.
Merryweather is able to gift the baby with an amendment to the curse: that she doesn’t have to die, just drift into The Sleeping Death (™ Evil Queen from Snow White) until she receives True Love’s Kiss (™ Evil Queen from Snow White).
Then the three fairies disguise themselves as peasant women and raise the baby in a random cottage in the woods.
Later on, their magic is integral to helping Prince Phillip defeat Maleficent. If you haven’t seen this one in a while, give it another look. You’ll be surprised at how often they step in to basically do the dude’s job for him. We’re surprised THEY didn’t just kiss Aurora.
In the unimportant meantime between evil fairies cursing babies to die and good fairies using a human version of a handsy sack of potatoes to defeat said evil fairy, we have a short and creepy “romance,” two annoying kings talking about how great it will be when their children bone and produce grandchildren while their servant gets fall-down drunk, and a lot of incredibly unnecessary pig men.
Overall, we have to wonder why Disney’s animation department didn’t realize earlier on that it’s more fun for everyone involved if you change up a fairy tale to make the characters more likable and worth rooting for. Right from Snow White we can see that they’d really rather be making a movie about the dwarves. Then with Cinderella they really liked those mice. At least in this one it’s three good fairies.
And then there’s the question of why Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather don’t end up on more Zombie survival lists. These ladies are HANDY.
Fast forward to 2014 and it’s time for Maleficent.
Of all of Disney’s live-action reimaginings, so far this is the only one that has completely shifted gears about its villain. Cinderella (2015) isn’t sympathetic to the stepfamily. Soon we’ll have a live-action look at a young Cruella De Vil and honestly… we don’t see that one going for much villain sympathy.
But Maleficent makes Maleficent its protagonist (fancy that), and gives us plenty of reasons to sympathize with her.
First, she gets a reason to be ostracized from the human kingdom, as the king is just trying to conquer Maleficent’s fairy realm out of jealousy and fear. And second, she gets one hell of a reason to have an issue with Aurora’s father.
The film also isn’t afraid to have its protagonist be wrong. She does something terrible, and it isn’t long until she begins to deeply regret it.
And while Maleficent has completely shifted where our sympathies lie (and where they most certainly don’t), it still manages to be respectful to its source material by both enhancing a couple of things (like Aurora and Maleficent, to start), and simply by being a film that unapologetically allows its female characters to run the show.
Maleficent is the better film. Let’s look at specifics to see why.
We begin with the brief and creepy romance.
Everyone and their mother has talked about the non-consensual kiss at the end of this story that saves the day, but do you remember how uncomfortable the meeting between these two is?
She’s dancing with an owl, as you do, and he (and… his… horse… OK. Sure. Why not.) spies her from within the trees and is delighted by what he sees. And no, it’s not because SHE’S DANCING WITH A FREAKING OWL.
So he sneaks up on them, yanks the owl away (RUDE) and proceeds to just grab her. K.
And he doesn’t stop grabbing her for a significant amount of time, which, naive though she may be, compels Aurora to get snippy with him.
For about a minute.
Honey. We know you’ve only met three people ever but there are other people out there in the world, men, even, who know better than to get handsy and then be smug and unrepentant about it and you know what, here’s a picture of Prince Phillip in chains:
The real reason they fall in love is that Aurora has been having a dream about some man, and apparently Phillip has been having the same dream except that he’s the man and his dream is about her, so it’s all good. Cool. We buy it.
In the updated version, Prince Phillip sees Aurora talking to herself and accidentally startles her. While many of the images in this version mirror the animated version (particularly the hand-kissing), this moment is comparatively muted and, thankfully, not creepy. And its main purpose is probably for Diaval here to go all fanboy about it and be like, “Hey! He could be the answer to your problem!” And Maleficent’s like, “THERE IS NOTHING GOOD IN THIS WORLD AT ALL EVERYTHING IS AWFUL AND I AM THE AWFULLEST.” She says that verbatim. That is a line in the script. We promise.
On to the other unimportant background noise.
Also pigmen happen.
In the updated version, we have King Stefan becoming progressively more paranoid, abusive, and inclined to spend hours talking to severed wings. (Not pictured. Because. Yeugh.)
We also have fairies being incompetent, and Maleficent learning that she probably shouldn’t have condemned an infant to an early death.
It takes some time. But that’s what happens when you preface your curses with, “She will be beloved by all who meet her.” That includes you, you knob.
Let’s talk about those good fairies now.
Best part of the movie.
The good fairies in the animated version are incompetent at the domestic stuff, which makes you wonder how they’ve managed to feed themselves and a growing child for sixteen years. Maleficent answers this: they didn’t. Maleficent (via her crow) is solely responsible for the fact that Aurora survives to later prick her finger.
In Maleficent the fairies are completely useless except as comic relief, although they do try, it has to be said. But in Sleeping Beauty, they really are the driving forces behind all of the action.
So, hang on. Why did they need Phillip? There probably is an answer in there somewhere, between the lines if anything, about fairies (if they’re good) not interfering excessively in things. But we like the way that Maleficent deals with this much better.
Maleficent brings Prince Phillip to Aurora in desperation, even though she doesn’t believe him kissing Aurora will work. It doesn’t.
But this does. It follows that something like this should have worked in the animated version too. There she had three attentive fairy godmothers and two loving parents. How difficult is this?
When it comes to Aurora, Maleficent does more work making her a character with some resonance to her. This is very useful at the moment where Aurora is turning 16. In Maleficent, her plan is to go and live with Maleficent in the fairy realm, and this plan is destroyed when she learns that she has been cursed, and quickly figures out that Maleficent did it.
In the animated version, she’s sad because being the princess means she can’t marry that douchebag she just met in the woods.
Also, in Maleficent Aurora gets to save the day rather than just being saved herself when she releases Maleficent’s caged wings just in the nick of time.
Now it’s time to talk about the Mistress of All Evil herself.
Animated Maleficent wrote the book on nonsensical villains. She shows up at a Christening and curses a baby. Then she throws multiple temper tantrums and turns into a dragon. We’re still not sure why.
This is probably why Maleficent is the first live-action retelling (lately): it needed to be made. There was a burning question here: what is wrong with this woman? Why is she doing these things they make no sense.
We get to see her childhood. Her magic at this point is used to heal, and occasionally to protect, and even as a young fairy she is looked to for wisdom. She meets Stefan, a poor, orphan human.
As you might expect:
On her sixteenth birthday, he gave her a gift: true love’s kiss. Look. That would be sweet, if we hadn’t seen the rest of the movie.
Stefan returns to fairy land after some years have passed and betrays Maleficent, because by bringing back her severed wings, he will be able to claim the right to inherit the throne from the vengeful and dying current king.
After this, Maleficent changes. She creates the staff to help her walk. She turns a crow, Diaval, into a man to save his life, but mostly because she needs a winged spy. When she learns that Stefan cut her wings off to become king, she forcibly makes herself the queen in the fairy realm.
And then she gets to be fun.
“The princess can be woken from her death sleep. But only by… true love’s kiss.”
As fun as it is (we maintain) to watch female characters go on power trips, it’s always better when you get to understand why they’re doing it, even if the explanation doesn’t justify the actions.
Interesting thesis of the film: if you are wronged, you can’t fix everything by taking it out on someone innocent, even if doing so hurts your aggressor. Also that by earning Aurora’s love, loyalty, and forgiveness, Maleficent ultimately is made whole.
It has been pointed out that since this story was designed deliberately to be a rape-revenge allegory, having the fixer-of-all-evils be a magical baby is a little disconcerting. We think that’s a point to be aware of, but we have a fairly easy time separating the mother/daughter dynamics of Aurora and Maleficent from Stephan entirely. We see Aurora as more of a stand-in for the future and for young women, kind of the way Prim and Rue are in The Hunger Games trilogy. Older women are supposed to protect and aide younger women at all costs, not hurt them out of spite.
So, those are our thoughts! We love both of these movies (particularly the cake/dress-making scene in the animated version which we already mentioned but have to mention again because yessss) and are really excited about what the success of a movie like Maleficent means for movies in the coming years.
Personally we hope they’ll do Disney’s Kissing the Witch but… we won’t hold our breath.
All caps from Disney Screencaps, except Denise as Cruella in Twisted.