Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Guest Post: De-constructing Sleeping Beauty

For the record, I hated the Angelina Jolie movie Maleficent.  It started by ripping off visuals from the Lord of the Rings, and even the lesser Narnia films ... which were also Lord of the Rings rip-offs.

One of the biggest betrayals? They didn't use Tchaikovsky. How do you do something around Sleeping Beauty without Tchaikovsky?

Anyway. It was terrible. I hated it with a burning passion.  How? Why?  I live-posted it to Facebook last year.

Dear Disney: at the 12 minute mark of your film Maleficent, you have stolen the narrator and the CGI (and some lines and music) from Lord of the Rings. And Ents. You should be sued by the Tolkien estate.
And the twit who wrote Wicked. She should sue too.

Maleficent, 24 minute mark ... Minas Morgul is acting up again, is it?
Disney, screw you bastards. Screw you with a hot poker.

Maleficent -- for the good fairies, they cast Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter.....
I have this urge to use a power drill on my brain.

Maleficent, 40 minute mark, congratulations, you've managed to get to the 10 minute mark of THE ORIGINAL CARTOON.

Maleficent -- the good fairies are now the three stooges while Maleficent takes care of the kid.
Disney, never run into me in a dark alley. There's a baseball bat waiting for you.
Yeah, so I wasn't happy.  And by the 50 minute mark, Maleficent turned into Magneto. There was at least 20 minutes of setup before she turned "evil," her character is inconsistent, it's thin on plot, heavy on meaningless "action." I got to the 50 minutes mark, and stopped caring. These stories spit on the original stories by making the good guys stupid, evil, or completely inept.

And then, Marina Fontaine, who was born in the Soviet Union, had never seen either Sleeping Beauty or Maleficent.  You've seen her here before, defending Joss Whedon, and even heard her on my radio show.

Hehhehehehehehe. Then the fun starts.


De-constructing Sleeping Beauty

by Marina Fontaine

Last weekend, as an unintended but welcome consequence of participating in the Hugo voting process, I realized that after my almost three decades as a well-assimilated American, I still was not familiar with one of the greatest creations of American culture. I am, of course, referring to the Disney classic movie, Sleeping Beauty. Suitably mortified, I suggested the movie for our family movie night, and ended up renting both the original and the “modern spin” version that is Maleficent.

I had reservations, having been burned to a crisp by the atrocity that was Ever After, but the trailers promised great visuals, plus Angelina Jolie in title role sounded intriguing.

Thus, a double-feature family movie night was on. Perhaps it is not fair to compare a modern Hollywood production to a beloved classic. On the other hand, since I had not seen either movie previously, sentimental value was a non-factor in my case and my expectations would not be unreasonably raised for one over the other.


First, Sleeping Beauty. In terms of storytelling, it is straightforward and honest, the way children’s tales tend to be. The rules of magic are simple, the threat and the possible salvation are laid out, all the characters are introduced in the early scenes, and we more or less know how this ends.

Yet there are layers, too, and it’s a great demonstration of how a story can be more complex than it seems while retaining its innocence. Take the scene where Aurora meets the Prince in the woods. They have, essentially, fallen in love before ever having laid their eyes on each other. The meeting is just a validation of something that is already there. How? Why? Is it magic, or destiny, or just a lucky coincidence? We don’t know, but by establishing that both had dreamed of each other before their encounter, we, even as cynical adults, are given enough reason to believe that true love is indeed in the works.

Later on, we get a surprisingly dark yet effective scene where Maleficent, having captured the Prince, torments him with visions of life wasted and love lost, but there is something else. She is mocking the traditional model of a heroic knight who defeats his foe and rescues a maiden, denying the very possibility that the good can triumph. In her world, there is only power and vengeance. No love, no hope, no joy except in denying love and hope to others—a perfect combination of ancient evil and modern nihilism.

In the end, while the Prince is the nominal hero of the story, a big chunk of the credit belongs to the good fairies. They free him not just from physical chains of the dungeon, but also from despair, give him the right tools (the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Righteousness- that’s right, take this, nihilism!) and guide him along the way. Even in the final confrontation, where the Prince, seemingly alone, has to defeat a fearsome dragon, he is not, in fact, alone as the good fairies make sure the final strike of the sword strikes home. Is there a deeper meaning to the way this part of the story pays out? It is for the viewer to decide.

The rest of the story is simplistic by today’s standards. True love’s kiss is just that. Aurora does indeed wake up, and aside from a little comic relief, the story concludes exactly in the manner we had been promised at the start. It’s not a bad lesson to modern storytellers always on the lookout for The Big Twist. Some stories are beautiful just by their essence and can be told effectively using neither irony nor misdirection.


And now, for Maleficent. Skeptical as I was, the visually stunning opening scenes, combined with a hypnotic voice-over asking us to challenge what we think we know of the story, gave me much hope. A part of me wondered why a beautiful girl possessed of magic powers to heal and protect all living things would have a name that literally means “causing or capable of producing evil,” but I put it aside. It did, however, set the tone for the story: hauntingly, darkly beautiful; self-aware in a detached, post-modern way, and often too clever for its own good. In other words, mostly the opposite of the original story it was meant to re-tell.

Maleficent is not the villain of old, but a horribly wronged, heartbroken woman trying to heal her physical and emotional wounds through an act of revenge. And other characters are just as unrecognizable.

The King Father is first a thief and a liar, then a cruel coward, then a full blown lunatic obsessed with killing and destruction, his daughter merely an afterthought by the time the story really gets going. The brief moments where he shows glimpses of humanity are lost because they serve no purpose to this particular version, and that’s too bad because he could have been a great tragic character if handled by a more careful storyteller.

The fairies, who in the original are comical and lovable yet powerful when it counts most, are reduced to incompetent, annoying, squabbling hags who seem to understand nothing of life, or love. They disappear for large stretches of the movie, only to come back and remind everyone how ineffectual they truly are before slinking off again, not even managing to produce comic relief, let alone serious magic.

Aurora is sweet enough, and does get a decent amount of screen time. The best scenes that could really have been the whole (much better) movie are between Aurora and Maleficent, the innocence and innate joy of the girl slowly but surely melting the heart of the bitter, vengeful woman and turning her into a loving maternal figure.

What about the Prince, you ask? Well, there is a Prince. Unfortunately, he has nothing to do but look confused, and we see a mile away that this particular character is entirely irrelevant.

There’s also a Raven who is turned by Maleficent into a shape-shifter and spends some of his time being a semi-useful sidekick who occasionally utters a word of wisdom before being turned into yet another CGI creature.

“But, but…What about True Love’s Kiss? You promised!” says a demanding, if unsophisticated, viewer who still thinks she paid the $10 to see a fairy tale. Said viewer will, indeed witness a kiss, and the Beauty will wake up, but that is all. The Big Twist so lacking in the original is found here. I did not feel cheated, per se, only because the “surprise” ending was, in a way, so tediously predictable, but neither was I satisfied.

The thought of Aurora ruling over the newly happy magical kingdom under the wise tutelage of Maleficent should have been enough. But is it? Is there room in the story for romance, for the quaint idea of “happily ever after”? Well, the Prince shows up at the end, for now apparent reason, and all I could think about at that point was “He wants MALEFICENT for his mother in law? He must be either very brave or very stupid, and from the movie’s view of men, I’d have to put money on stupid.” But by then, we are back to the beautiful vistas and a hypnotic voice-over, and soon the end credits start rolling to a suitably macabre remake of the original Sleeping beauty love song. The movie stayed true to its vision till the very end. Unfortunately, the vision is thoroughly at odds with the classic it was claiming to re-tell. While it is possible to create a compelling story—NOT a true fairy tale, but perhaps a dark fantasy—where the hero and the villain is one and the same, I don’t think the movie quite gets there either. But then, maybe by preceding it by a Disney classic, I set my expectations too high after all.

[Editor's note: No. The movie sucked. The original was superior. Not your imagination.]


  1. "While it is possible to create a compelling story—NOT a true fairy tale, but perhaps a dark fantasy—where the hero and the villain is one and the same"

    'Frozen', sort of.

    Take care.

    1. Congratulations. Now you know why I didn't like Frozen. This is why I'm no fun.

  2. Great review! Would love your take on several recent movies!

  3. Maleficent...? Was that the one where sleeping beauty done by Bollywood? Is that the one?

    Nope nope. That one was at least followed the original story pretty well. Made in 2011. It also wasn't done by Disney if I recall correctly. Anyway, that one I liked pretty well, except they made the prince such a dunderhead.

    The music was off, but not a deal breaker.

  4. I love this article. Very glad I never saw "Maleficent."


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