Disney’s first stab at Sleeping Beauty (1959) was kind of a mess. It confused love with lust, the prince was one of the most inept heroes that’s ever been put on screen and the main villain, Maleficent, curses princess Aurora seemingly because she didn’t get invited to a party. So it would make sense that Disney would want to give an origin tale to what would end up being one of its more iconic villains. What we end up with is a little back story and one of the most perverse reimaginings of the original story that’s been made in any medium.
The story of Maleficent starts when she is but a young fairy and meets a boy, Stefan. Over the years, the two become friends and eventually lovers. All of that changes when the king decides he wants to take over her home, the aftermath of which leads to the now grown Stefan (Sharlto Copley) betraying her trust in order to secure his place as the new king. Cut to the birth of his daughter, Aurora, and you have what could be the makings of an actual motive for Maleficent’s cruel obsession over the future Sleeping Beauty.
What actually happens is quite the opposite (thar be spoilers ahead, but the movie is a few years old and terrible so who cares). While in the original, Malifecent agonizes for years trying to find the location of the hidden princess, writer Linda Woolverton decides that she should know her whereabouts from the get go, becoming a fairy godmother type instead of the villain she was set up to be. While turning her into a hero could possibly work in the hands of more talented people, it just falls flat on its face here. Whether it is the fault of the script or the poor direction (Robert Stromberg, in his first and hopefully last major directing role), is anyone’s guess. No reason for the character change is given; in one scene Maleficent is scowling at the young child, in the next she is saving her life, because reasons. Jarring scene jumps and lack of explanation are problems that plague the film throughout, leaving you to never truly care about or understand her change into the protagonist.
The other characters are barely worth mentioning, this is Angelina Jolie’s film and no one else’s. The three fairies (names changed in order to disassociate them from their superior previous incarnations, apparently) exist for no other reason than some bad comic relief. The prince, so central to the original story, is nothing but a needless footnote, and Aurora’s father has been turned into a paranoid lunatic. Couple that with the at times laughably bad acting (Copley’s attempt at a Scottish accent being one of the main offenders) and you’ve got a film that goes to a place so bad that not even true love’s kiss can’t save it.
In the end, the worst problem this film faced is that we already knew what happened in Sleeping Beauty. If you are going to make such drastic changes to such an old story, you had best make sure they work. And in the case of Maleficent, almost none of them do. The result is an uneven mess of a story. It did look expensive though. So it’s got that going for it, I guess.