Over our lifetimes, Disney has done a magnificent job bringing fairy tales to life with movie animation. So we really can’t blame them if they want to play around with one of the old familiars, Sleeping Beauty, and turn the emphasis into something completely different. After all, fairy tales, belonging generally to the entire culture, are told differently by everyone who re-tells them, kind of like familiar Bible stories, right? But I digress.
The central character here is not Sleeping Beauty at all, but Maleficent, the fairy who put the curse on Sleeping Beauty that caused her deep sleep because of the pinprick in her finger from a spinning wheel. This is more Maleficent’s story.
Maleficent (played compellingly by Angelina Jolie, who can act convincingly even while wearing horns on her head) is a fairy. She’s born into a magical land, called The Moors, with Pixies and all manner of whimsical creatures, who live in peace and harmony “because they need neither king nor queen” (never mind the political commentary). The neighboring people are the humans, but their king is cruel and vicious. The two realms live uneasily apart until one day a human boy, Stefan, happens to meet the young girl Maleficent, and they form an unlikely friendship. Yes, we would love to have a romance like in “The Little Mermaid,” between the mythical and the human, and we almost do, but human aggression and greed gets in the way (never mind the social commentary).
The militant king decides he wants to conquer the land of The Moors, and shows up with a resplendent army of knights in shining armor, banners waving and menace unfurled. The formerly kind and benevolent Maleficent is forced to defend her homeland using her magic, which introduces her to her own violent side. The defeated king, in a rage of revenge, promises his very kingdom to the one who can defeat Maleficent, and Stefan tricks her into taking a sleeping potion, and then cuts off her wings and presents them as a trophy to the king.
Maleficent wakes up horrified at her own disfigurement and now really gets in touch with her dark side. She now protects her realm with dark magic, and enlists the aid of a spy helper, Diaval (Sam Riley), whom she can change from human to crow and back again at will.
Meanwhile, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), now king himself, becomes even more malicious than his predecessor, but despite his malevolence, manages to have a sweet baby girl named Aurora (Elle Fanning). Maleficent puts a curse on the girl, that on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deep sleep, and can only be awakened by true love’s kiss.
The twist here is that the baleful Maleficent no longer believes in true love, since she has become so ensnared in her own brokenness and vindictiveness. But the child who’s supposed to be hidden comes to the attention of Maleficent and she can’t help but be charmed, despite her acidic self.
Yes, we now introduce the themes of repentance, redemption and salvation, though of course those words aren’t used, and we certainly wouldn’t want to espouse any particular religion here. Suffice it to say that the meaning of “true love” can be expanded, as can the concept of peace between neighbors.
All in all, it’s a visual delight, and Angelina Jolie’s superlative acting somehow keeps it from it from tottering into silliness. “Maleficent” is perhaps a little dark for the little ones, but with enough substance to maintain the interest of older children, as well as the inner child in all of us.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.