If a gang of knife-wielding toddlers ever presses you for the name of the best Disney film, Sleeping Beauty (1959) is a pretty good answer. It has everything you expect from those features animated during Walt’s life: a simple story translated from a fairy tale; beautifully painted castle and forest scenes; a baddie that you can really root against, and all that. But it also has more: widescreen; a wild and luminous colour palette; and a score borrowed from some bloke called Tchaikovsky. Today’s animators are given to cooing about its invention and daring. I’d join them if I had a switchblade raised to my knees. Even if I didn’t.
Which brings us bloodlessly to the latest film from Walt Disney: Maleficent. This is what they call a ‘reimagining’ of the studio’s original Sleeping Beauty movie. It is live-action rather than animated. It shifts its attention away from Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty, and on to Maleficent, the villainess...or is she? And, in what is the most wonderful innovation of all, it’s also grade-A awful. They’ve taken the best and put it among the worst. Reimagining accomplished.
I suspected it would be terrible from the very first shot. No sooner have you donned your 3D specs than the camera swoops across a 100-mile vista of fields and farmhouses and rainbows and castles and elves, all of them fresh out of a computer. Your eyes water at the spectacle. Your heart fails against the cinematic sugar-rush. Already, it seems as though this movie suffers from the same failure of imagination as, say, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012): it doesn’t find enough wonder in the simple idea of fairies and goblins, so it compensates with a thousand special effects. And then it keeps on compensating. Only ten minutes later, there’s a massive battle featuring a magic dragon and tree-people lifted from The Lord of the Rings.
Into this Land of Overkill flies a human-sized fairy with a pair of feathery wings on her back and a pair of leathery horns on her head. This is the young, prelapsarian Maleficent — and isn’t she just the most popular girl in the magical forest? The sprites titter and preen as she flies past. The trees bow their branches in adoration. All is lovely and uncomplicated until...she happens upon a boy from what is, the narrator tells us, the greedy, nasty, shallow and jealous realm of humankind. An infatuation ensues. Followed by a kiss that, the narrator also tells us, fails to be ‘true love’s first kiss’. Uh-oh.
Here’s what happens next. Maleficent grows up to be Angelina Jolie. The boy grows up to be an ambitious bannerman from Game of Thrones. He hacks off his former fairy-friend’s wings to become king. She responds by affecting an evil English accent and cursing his first-born daughter. And then we’re more or less into the plot of Sleeping Beauty. And so, do you see? It was all down to something that happened in Maleficent’s childhood. This is the fairy tale via Freud.
It’s easy to understand, perhaps even sympathise with, what the makers of Maleficent are trying to do. Those original Disney fairy tales were always drawn with broad pen strokes, so why not complicate them a little? Why not install a psychiatrist’s couch in the Gingerbread House. But, sadly, Maleficent doesn’t live up to its own premise. From the moment the young Maleficent appears wearing bright-red lipstick and delicate eye-shadow — probably the juice from puffleberries and the pollen from tickleflowers, but still… — this one is as manipulative as the rest of them. The magic folk are mostly photogenic and charming. The humans are mostly cruel. And thus the audience is corralled towards the pen marked ‘Team Jolie’.
Admittedly, Jolie helps pull you there with an engaging performance, as does Elle Fanning as the sidelined Sleeping Beauty. But none of it is enough to redeem Maleficent’s final variation on the source material. Here, it’s Maleficent herself, not some Prince Charming, who wakes up Aurora with a peck to the forehead. She’s a childless mother who has found her motherless child. Which is lovely, if you can see past her claiming dominion over all fairyland, enslaving the local wildlife and cursing the child in the first place.
Besides, there are villains more deserving of rehabilitation. The way I hear it, the hunter that killed Bambi’s mother had just split up with his wife, he’d been drinking all day, and afterwards felt so guilty about what happened that he set up a shelter for injured animals and campaigned for the hunting ban. So where’s his movie? Get on it, Disney.