On paper, the sound of a Sleeping Beauty remake focusing on the character of Maleficent sounds awesome. Sleeping Beauty released in 1959, and the main villain still remains up there with the greatest villains in Disney history. It’s also a visually competent remake, with fairly good CGI, and it rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.
But when I first watched this movie about 3 years ago, I hated it. It felt like a betrayal of everything I liked about the original Sleeping Beauty. Its part of the reason I decided to do this blog series on Disney remakes, so I could give it the thrashing it deserved.
Maleficent began production shortly after 2010’s Cinderella became a massive success. Angelina Jolie joined the project early on as the title character. At first, Tim Burton planned on directing the movie, but chose not to pursue it. Robert Stromberg, the production designer for Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, soon signed on as the movie’s director. Joe Roth, one of the movie’s producers, said that if Jolie didn’t take the title role, the movie probably wouldn’t exist. “She seemed like the only person who could play the part.”
For all of this movie’s faults, I would agree that Jolie is fantastic in the role. She nails the menacing look and the charisma when Maleficent is being evil. Yet she also handles the more dramatic moments very well. It is hard to imagine anyone else performing the role better.
Ella Fanning took on the role of Princess Aurora in May of 2012, and Sharlto Copley signed on as Aurora’s father, King Stefan, shortly after. Copley also does a fairly good job at his role, as a bit of a tyrant king. Fanning on the other hand is given very little to work with. She spends most of the movie just being happy and kind.
During production, 15 different versions of the script were written. At one point, the king was half-fairy, and was Maleficent’s cousin. They shot the scenes involving the fairy king and queen, but completely cut them out of the final film.
There isn’t much more information about the production that’s worth talking about, so let’s get into how it performed. Released in May of 2014 (bumped up after The Good Dinosaur got delayed), Maleficent performed fairly well, earning $758 million on a budget somewhere between $180 and $263 million. It still remains the biggest financial success in Jolie’s career. It ended up being the fourth highest grossing movie of 2014, behind Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
The reviews were mixed, with an approval rating of 54% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 5.7/10. The Globe and Mail was very positive, “for the thematic richness of its story gloriously personified by Angelina Jolie in the title role.” That’s pretty much the only quote from that review I could find that didn’t sound pretentious. The Chicago Tribune gave the movie 2.5/4 stars, saying that the formula works for Maleficent. He praised the performances, but said the movie is overall unremarkable. The Daily Telegraph wrote “This Disney reimagining of Sleeping Beauty lacks true enchantment, but Angelina Jolie saves the day.”
As much as I agree with the sentiment that Jolie’s performance is really good, it doesn’t save this movie for me. I’m all for changing aspects of a movie in a remake, in order to make things feel different. Apart from how the Cinderella remake turned Cinderella into a far more passive character and some of the story additions feel kind of phoned in, I like most of its changes from the original. I also like that Dumbo tried to do something different – it’s main flaw is that it focused way too much on the humans, with too many incomplete subplots and child actors who cannot act. But when you fundamentally change pretty much every character to the point where they’re unrecognizable, you’ve taken it way too far.
In the original, Maleficent is pure evil. She’s only a couple steps short of being Satan himself. She didn’t have a backstory and she didn’t need one. In this movie, she used to be really nice, but became angry when a former childhood friend betrayed her and cut off her wings. I understand the allegories behind that scene and what they were going for, but it feels unnecessary. The king in the original is a fairly kind king, is personal friends with Prince Phillip’s father, and clearly cares about his daughter. In this version, he’s a tyrant who blames Maleficent for everything, even though he’s the one who betrayed her.
But the worst of all would be the fairies. In the original, the three fairies are the main characters. They sometimes struggle a bit when they try to live their lives as humans, but they’re still wise, competent, and genuinely good caretakers for Aurora. You can fully understand why the king would entrust Aurora to them until her 16th birthday arrives. In this movie, they’re ugly, annoying and incompetent. Maleficent needs to frequently step in to save Aurora from these inattentive buffoons. That in itself feels like a betrayal of the title character. No mistress of evil would care what happens to the princess. She’s the one who cursed the princess in the first place, so why should she care if Aurora dies early because of the fairies’ incompetence. Their scenes in this movie range from pointless to annoying. Also, why would Stefan trust them to give his daughter blessings when mere days ago, his kingdom was at war with the fairy kingdom?
Beyond that, the only noteworthy thing about the fairies is that one of them is played by Imelda Staunton, the actress who portrayed Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies. At some point I’m going to go through all those movies on this blog, like I did with the books a while back.
The movie also has a lot of inconsistent writing. The main example I’ll use is how iron affects fairies. Early on, it’s explained that iron burns fairies to the touch, when Maleficent shakes the hand of a boy who is wearing an iron ring. You occasionally see Iron burning Maleficent’s flesh during some of the fight scenes, yet she also uses her wings to strike knights in one battle without suffering any burns. You’d also think that she’d be smart enough to wear something to protect her from the iron, but there is nothing protecting her wings, nor is she wearing any kind of armor. Sometimes iron burns her, and sometimes it does nothing. On that front, the opening battle scene feels like a cheap version of a Lord of the Rings fight, without any dramatic weight whatsoever.
Probably the most iconic moment from Sleeping Beauty was when Maleficent turns into a dragon, to stop Prince Phillip from reaching Aurora. She doesn’t even do that in the remake. She simply transforms her raven servant into a dragon instead. This just feels wrong. Even if you’re turning Maleficent into an anti-hero (or anti-villain), she should still be the one who turns into a dragon. She should still be the main threat to King Stefan’s army.
Another awkward moment is the way Aurora is awoken. In both the original and the remake, the princess’s death-like sleep can only be awoken by true love’s kiss. Prince Phillip awakens her in the original, and it’s not like they didn’t know each other already. It still follows the classic Disney Princess tropes, but they did fall in love over the course of an afternoon in the forest. I’m willing to accept that when neither of them are the main characters. But this movie takes a page from the previous year’s Frozen, in that the Prince’s kiss doesn’t work. Instead, it’s Maleficent’s kiss that awakens Sleeping Beauty. Yup, the mistress of evil – whose very name literally means evil – truly comes to love Aurora as a daughter-like figure.
This twist on the true love trope started getting old less than a year after Frozen released.
(You know what the greatest villain in Disney’s animation history totally needs?
A back story involving a love interest. Ugh)
I didn’t hate this movie as much this time round as I did the first time round, but I rolled my eyes plenty of times while rewatching it. I don’t like this movie and I never will, and from what I’ve heard, last year’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is even worse. That said, the movie has plenty of fans and I would never try to take it away from them. If you enjoy this movie, good for you. I wouldn’t personally recommend it to anyone and I would much sooner recommend the original Sleeping Beauty.
Next up is the 101 Dalmatians remake from the mid-90’s, followed by the very good Jungle Book remake. Although it’s not strictly a remake, I will be looking at 2018’s Christopher Robin. After that, this series will skip straight into the Renaissance era. There are plenty more remakes yet to be released, but unlike some of my other blog projects, I’m not sure if I’ll keep up with them after this series is done with the remakes that are already out. I’d probably only look at the ones that actually make changes from the original.