Although my childhood coincided with the late 80s and early 90s renaissance of Disney’s animation brand, my favorite Disney film is not “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” or even “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s “Sleeping Beauty.
As I write this, “Maleficent”, the re-telling of this 1959 classic, has a perfectly polarized Rotten Tomatoes score of 50% among critics. Any work that builds upon another risks such a reaction. Die hard fans will mourn the loss of beloved aspects of the original, while those who are unfamiliar with the source will not recognize the subtle allusions that have been woven into the overall structure.
(Spoilers for both films follow)
Some writers have claimed that “Maleficent” is refreshingly feminist and that its storyline corrects the somewhat outdated “traditional” fairy tale approach of early Disney films: Prince meets Princess, rescues her, then lives Happily Ever After. But the 1959 version of “Sleeping Beauty” had already subverted this tradition. Despite the title, the main character of the story is not the princess Aurora–nor is it her love interest, Phillip. Most of the dialogue, screen time, character development (and agency) belong to the three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merriwether. Not only are they female, they are also elderly, overturning the notion that youth should always take center stage in a narrative. They are the ones who soften the effect of Maleficent’s curse, then proceed to take charge of the situation by proposing a solution to the king–one that involves a great deal of sacrifice on their part. In order to raise Aurora, the three fairies will have to give up magic (a crucial part of their identities) for sixteen years. There are many potentially interesting stories buried in this premise which both “Sleeping Beauty” and “Maleficent” overlook. Yet even without the details of these missing years, as a child it was always clear to me that this was a film in which “three old ladies did all the work.”
Seen in this light, Prince Phillip ends up as one of the most impotent, ineffective “heroes” in the Disney canon. Not only does he get captured and imprisoned by the villain, he is rescued by a trio of older women who proceed to arm him AND clear his path to Maleficent. They even enchant his weapon and guide its flight into the dragon’s breast, reducing his role to little more than a glorified sidekick. His only real contribution is the “kiss of true love”. The film “Maleficent” is acutely aware of this and takes the opportunity to up the ante even further by removing his sole accomplishment in the original: waking Aurora from her curse. In a scene that emphasizes his utter uselessness, Maleficent puts Phillip to sleep and totes him around the castle like a helium balloon. When his kiss fails to rouse the princess, the sweet, romantic moment from the original turns into near farce. Phillip then disappears from the picture until the very end, missing all of the major battles and contributing nothing to their final outcome. At Aurora’s coronation, he is not placed in a ruling position by her side; he witnesses the ceremony as a spectator, from a distance. The modern tale cleverly builds on themes of female empowerment that were already present in its predecessor.
In some ways, re-imagining an existing work is much more difficult than writing a new story because of the long shadow cast by its source. It boldly invites comparisons and promises to destabilize the original narrative in a believable fashion. It must cater to fans while remaining coherent for those who have little or no knowledge of the original. The most successful re-imaginings filter the plot of its source through the lens of an alternate perspective. Tom Stoppard’s brilliant “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” accomplished this by focusing on two of the minor courtiers from “Hamlet”. It weaves a completely new story around the framework of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Hamlet and Ophelia become minor characters, but their personalities and even their words remain intact. Everything in Stoppard’s play is paradoxically familiar and foreign–we are still in the world of “Hamlet” but the gaps have been filled in, the blank spaces bursting with new color.
Unfortunately, many revisionist works (including “Maleficent”) choose to abandon their original frameworks and create alternate realities in their place, which lessens the burden of explanation. These stories avoid answering the difficult questions of plausibility and motive by rewriting history. Continuity questions no longer need to be dealt with; “good” characters can be depicted as “evil,” while villains can be given brand new, sympathetic back stories. The occasional allusion may link such stories to their sources, but they always feel as if they are missing something.
“Maleficent” begins by inserting Aurora herself as the narrator, who declares that people have gotten the true story wrong. Like many fans of the original, I was eager to see these new “explanations”. Why did Maleficent cast such a cruel and unyielding curse? Why did she turn herself into the dragon? Would she still die at the end, or would this be revealed as a hoax? The alternate reality context meant that none of these questions would be answered–a disappointment to those who expected to see the same story told through a different point of view. Re-imagined works that stray too far from their original framework will become naturally divisive. Those who can forget the original or enjoy the occasional allusion will come away satisfied. Others will mourn the lack of continuity and missed opportunities. “Maleficent” is obviously a work of careful craft and deliberation, but ultimately, it feels like a film that is content to be “good” rather than aim for greatness.