“Fairy tales are very old: they portray the landscape of the soul; they speak with the voice of the soul and carry many levels of meaning. Who can say where the story of the Sleeping Beauty originated and how it was transmitted from generation to generation? It may be descended from long-forgotten Bronze Age rituals- rituals which celebrated the sacred marriage of heaven and earth and others which mourned the annual death of the life of the earth and its regeneration in spring. The sacred marriage of king and queen, prince and princess is an image which is also woven into the rich tapestry of hidden or lost mystical traditions: Alchemy, Gnosticism and Kabbalah…I see this magical story as a metaphor for our own time and the urgent need for a marriage between our head and our heart, between our too-literal, linear mind which knows nothing of a deeper ground of consciousness, and our imaginal, instinctual, creative soul. This beautiful painting of the Sleeping Beauty by Burne-Jones conveys, I think, an image of the soul… From another perspective, the story can be seen as a metaphor of the reconciliation of spirit and nature or the reunion of the masculine and feminine aspects of spirit which have been progressively sundered during the last four thousand years.”
Now playing at the King of Prussia IMAX 3D theater, as well as in other venues within Philadelphia proper, Robert Stromberg’s new re-visioned “Sleeping Beauty” for the 21st Century is technically and technologically profound, founded upon the ineluctable, blinding talent and screen-presence of Angelina Jolie. She inhabits this role as if she is channeling a direct archetypal incarnation of the titular character. Yet she- even she- in the end, cannot associate the fragmented tones and characterizations of this back-story to Disney’s 1959 classic.
The first suspension of disbelief came in the beginning, and in seeing Maleficent’s childhood; if Maleficent was not always and intrinsically evil- if there was some sort of story we are to learn about how the events of the fairy tale came to pass- why did her parents give her a name like Maleficent? Luckily, considering the film’s entirety, such nomenclature actually does somewhat make sense (in terms of Maleficent’s duality), but only somewhat- and only after learning Maleficent’s entire life history, from Aurora’s beginning to the film’s end.
Secondly, the way the film denigrates the three colorful and loving fairies so charming to the Disney classic into functional and annoying clowns seems very dishonest, very lazy and very wasteful of three extraordinary actresses (Oscar-nominated Imelda Staunton among them.) Their names are even changed from the original appellations to three goony new names. One may understand the need to focus upon Maleficient’s character arc, but Flora, Fauna and Merryweather (now “Thistletwit”, “Knotgrass” and “Flittle”) held some of the most memorable moments in the original film. They are now goony caricatures with no semblance of intelligence. The original film at least tried to make them semi-coherent. And the iconic dress-changing-color scene is relegated to one exceedingly irritating culmination of an even more antagonistic scene. Their dialogue is inane, at best. Also, a key plot point involving one of the fairies also shifts from the 1959 version (also intrinsic to the original fairy tale, found in most cultural retellings and in all versions) in order to dramatize the larger story of Maleficent’s anger toward King Stefan.
All that aside, the film has its redeeming qualities and beautiful moments. They are mostly to be found in all the actors involved- Sharlto Copley, Angelina Jolie, Brenton Thwaites, Elle Fanning, Imelda Stanton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville are all excellent. Despite the script, the direction by Stromberg is very assured and focused, moving the story along for an intense and action-filled ninety-seven minutes.
The goodness of the film also lies in its depiction of a complex, paradoxical titular character, and in its refusal to paint Maleficent as completely evil. As in life, the story is complicated, and retold in such a way that we reevaluate the nature of evil, loss and forgiveness. And by the end, when we find out who the person narrating this tale from the very first frame actually is, “Maleficent” comes full circle and is actually, to some degree, a very heartwarming interpretation.