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Disney pillages precious tale for 'Maleficent'

By By Michelle F. Solomon, Contributing writer
Published On: May 30 2014 09:52:18 AM CDT
Maleficent

Walt Disney Pictures

Call me a purist, but changing the plot of a nearly 400 year fairy tale can bring out my horns. But that's what Disney has done with the fable of Sleeping Beauty.

In 1959, Disney turned the fairytale into one of the now most treasured animated features. Now, 55 years later, Disney takes its all-time most popular villain, the horned Maleficent, lifting her from the pages of the storybook, keeping her mean (in this film she's not green, however) and adds a pinch of kindness and a dash of generosity. What?

In this age of kinder and gentler, do we really have to have a villain that isn't evil all the way through? Disney sugar coats Maleficent, and, horrors, changes the ending of the timeless fable, about a princess who is put under a spell that will put her in a deathlike sleep on her 16th birthday. The curse can only be broken by a true love's kiss. 

In the latest "Wicked" type craze where the lives of witches are explained prior to when we met them originally (Gregory Maguire was the one who decided to put a backstory to L. Frank Baum's most famous witch, the Wicked Witch of the West), Disney says "there's a lot about Maleficent we never knew."

The live action film introduces Maleficent as a youngster. She lives across the moat from the castle in her own enchanted land, inhabited with fantastical creatures and an army that is literally grown from trees. She meets a human boy (she's a fairy) and their friendship turns into romance. But as he grows older, he has eyes on a bigger prize — he wants to be king. After accepting a challenge from the dying king — bring him the head of the evil villainess — Prince Stefan betrays the love he perpetuated in the forest. And so things go from there.

He and his wife have a baby. Aurora is born, like in the original story, and Maleficent seeks revenge from Stefan's betrayal by casting a spell over her.  But in this story, the villain turns soft, befriending Aurora (Elle Fanning) and becoming somewhat of a nurturing mother over the orphaned girl. It all seems so odd having this black leather clad, horned Mistress of Evil's heart of stone turn to mush. In this reboot, there's a new villain in town. The tables have been turned and audiences will cheer for Maleficent while boo-hissing the villain of this story, who is now Prince Stefan.

To play its dark fairy villainess, Disney tapped Angelina Jolie (who also has billing as executive producer of the film; additionally, she and Brad Pitt's daughter, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, 5, appears briefly as a young Princess Aurora).  Jolie wears the role (and the large headdress of horns) well, sneering through overly bright red lips.

Jolie has always had the reputation of a dark side. Remember when she wore then-husband Billy Bob Thornton's blood around her neck in a vial back in 2001? The year before, she created a stir when she passionately kissed her brother, James Haven, at the Oscars. Clad in head to toe fetishwear as Maleficent more than suits her.

This is in no way Sleeping Beauty's movie — it's all Maleficent (and Jolie) all the time. Jolie goes at the larger-than-life role with gusto. She's a bonafide movie star and that mix of star quality and glamour gives Maleficent an air that jumps off the screen (the fact that it's in 3D helps, too). Elle Fanning takes on the role of the teenage Aurora. She's just plucky enough, constantly looking wide eyed and bringing a bit more daringness to the role than the dainty princess of the 1950s story.

Adding much comic relief are pixies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) and Maleficent henchman, Sam Riley, as a crow who is turned into a man by Maleficent. He's turned into a crow, a dragon, a wolf, or whatever else the villainess needs.

This Disney story is rather dark – CG enhanced monsters attack an army of soldiers, and this is a scary rendering of the fairy tale. Parents of kids under 6 may want to gauge their child's fright quotient and decide whether they want to hear middle-of-the-night cries about monsters under the bed in the days following a family outing to "Maleficent."

The movie will rake in millions at the box office and, no doubt, the No. 1 costume requested this Halloween for both adults and kids will be Maleficent.

Don't get me wrong: "Maleficent" is worth seeing as a live-action blockbuster, just don't get me started on this pillaging of a precious tale.