There she lies, fair Sleeping Beauty,
Cursed to slumber and to wait.
Those who kiss for wealth or duty
Cannot change her dreamless fate.
Only true love can awaken
And unlock her heavy eyes.
Fear not that she is forsaken.
Love will find her where she lies;
He will come, and she will rise.
MPAA rating for Sleeping Beauty: G
MPAA rating for Maleficent: PG
Now that my cable has been restored after a bad storm knocked it out for a few days, it’s time once again for a Cartoon Comparison, this time between Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty and its subversive live-action counterpart Maleficent. Sleeping Beauty was the last cinematic fairy tale of Walt Disney’s lifetime and really the last traditional fairy tale until The Little Mermaid thirty years later. Since it’s widely considered one of Disney’s best, modern Disney executives decided to use it (and Alice in Wonderland) to kick off their crusade to translate the entire canon to CGI-filled live-action. So how do these two compare?
I’ll be honest: Despite its reputation, Sleeping Beauty has never been among my favorite Disney films, which is why I haven’t reviewed it until now. Even compared with Disney’s classics, I’ve always leaned more toward Cinderella and Fantasia, simply because I grew up watching them more. I probably saw Sleeping Beauty once or twice as a kid and not since, and I was pleasantly surprised when this latest viewing reminded me of why it truly is a Disney classic. At first, some of the opening animation appears simple and angular, like an illustration from the Middle Ages, but as it continues, backgrounds become increasingly detailed. Close-ups of stone walls and tree trunks border on photo-realistic, and the layering of the forest adds beautiful depth as trees stretch away into the distance. As much as I love Disney’s follow-ups like One Hundred and One Dalmatians or The Jungle Book, the animation quality clearly started declining after this, making Sleeping Beauty, in a sense, the height of early Disney animation.
Not so much, though, when it comes to the story. One thing I always associated with Sleeping Beauty was its namesake being rather boring, and indeed Aurora herself is basically a placeholder, a damsel in distress who doesn’t do things as much as things happen to her. What I forgot was how enjoyable the fairies are. The three colorful fairy godmothers Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather are the true protagonists here, first blessing baby Aurora, then hiding her away from the evil Maleficent, raising her, and playing a key role in the famous climax. Their likable bickering over method and favorite color adds humor to scenes that otherwise might be dull. Likewise, Maleficent is a memorably evil villainess (voiced by Eleanor Audley, who also voiced Lady Tremaine in Cinderella), whose dragon transformation is the most thrilling scene of the movie.
While the film and the story it’s based on are undoubtedly classics, Sleeping Beauty does have more than its fair share of flawed fairy tale logic. For instance, why does King Stefan ban spinning wheels and force his kingdom into sixteen years without thread when Aurora is hidden anyway? Why do the fairies bring Aurora back to the castle the day of the curse rather than the day after, just to be safe, and then promptly give her some risky “alone time?” Why do the fairies put everyone to sleep when, for all they know, Aurora’s true love could be right there and unable to awaken her if he’s asleep too? Regardless of little plot holes like these, Sleeping Beauty has that timeless Disney touch that still captures imaginations, especially during the forest dance between Aurora and Prince Philip as they waltz to Tchaikovsky.
And then, fifty-five years after Sleeping Beauty, someone at Disney had a grand thought and asked, “Why is Maleficent so evil? She just wants to curse this baby out of spite for not being invited to her christening? Traditionally, evil villains are so old-fashioned, so why don’t we turn her into a good guy?” Thus, borrowing a page from Wicked minus the musical numbers, what should have been dismissed then as a foolish idea became 2014’s Maleficent, a film I fully intended to dislike. I’m not wholly against these live-action remakes, but Disney should be trying to honor and flesh out its classics, not transform them into their opposites.
As I watched Maleficent, I began to accept that it’s honestly not a bad film nor a bad fairy tale. It’s just not Sleeping Beauty, and unfortunately the comparison does make it a bad film. Gone is the line about Maleficent using “all the powers of hell”; instead, she’s just a cute little girl fairy who happens to have big devil horns and eagle wings and a name implying harm and destruction. She starts out good, the guardian of a magical realm called the Moors, whose one meaningful relationship with a human ends in betrayal, pain, and bitterness. As far as villain backstories go, I can actually accept this; the writers do a decent job in providing a reason for Maleficent’s hatred. Once the baby Aurora is born, though, and we get a re-creation of Sleeping Beauty’s opening scene, the sorry consequences of these story changes play out.
Eventually, Maleficent’s rage dwindles to annoyance as she watches Aurora from afar, repeatedly saving her from the thoughtlessness of the three “good” fairies, renamed Knotgrass, Flittle, and Thistlewit, whose bickering loses all its likability when it becomes clear what morons they are. Over the course of sixteen years, Maleficent and her shapeshifting raven Diaval (not Diablo as in the cartoon) are Aurora’s real caretakers, and by the time the curse is to be fulfilled, Maleficent tries first to cancel it and then to break it. Something just doesn’t feel right about giving all these laudable duties to the villain; in making Maleficent good at heart, every other character suffers. The three fairies, or pixies, are negligent fools; Aurora’s father King Stefan is the real villain, an obsessive monster who cares more about killing Maleficent than about his own wife and is nothing like his cartoon counterpart singing “Skumps!”; even Prince Phillip is deprived of everything that made him an appealing character in the original. By the time “true love’s kiss” rolls around, the story borrows a page from Frozen, reminding us that true love doesn’t have to be romantic in nature. That worked in Frozen because it was original; don’t mess with something that is supposed to be romantic!
Basically, everything worthwhile about Maleficent is original. Every time it thinks for itself, it entertains (the magical Moors, the battle scenes, Diaval’s transformations). Every time it tries to borrow from Sleeping Beauty, it pales in comparison (the fairies and their gifts, Aurora and Phillip’s unmemorably unmusical meeting, Phillip’s ineffectual kiss). Perhaps fans of Angelina Jolie could look past all this, but I’m not one of them, and nothing in her turn as Maleficent changed that. I did rather like Elle Fanning as the buoyant Aurora, but most of the cast was intentionally unpleasant, with the girl power message effectively ruining every male character. It’s not just I as a man who felt that way too; my VC felt the same distaste.
Maleficent is a prime example of where Disney should have left well enough alone, letting its past animations speak for themselves. It might have worked better as an original story, but when a voiceover tries to convince us that this live-action subversion with the cool visuals is the real story, it loses credibility. Please, I know the real story, and it’s from 1959.
Best line from Sleeping Beauty: (Merryweather, as Flora uses her as a dummy to make Aurora’s dress) “It looks awful.” (Flora) “That’s because it’s on you, dear.”
Best line from Maleficent: (Aurora, practicing to tell her aunties) “You’ve been very good to me…well, except that time you fed me spiders.”
Rank for Sleeping Beauty: List Runner-Up
Rank for Maleficent: Dishonorable Mention
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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