Wednesday, April 30, 2014
YEAR 1959: MALEFICENT
1959's SLEEPING BEAUTY may have been the first fantasy-film I saw on the big screen, since I have an intense memory of the end scenes-- Prince Philip's flight from Maleficent's castle with the help of the three fairies, and the climactic duel between the princess and the villainess in her dragon-form.
A number of elements in the Brothers Grimm story "Little Briar Rose" and its congeners had to be changed to please the ethos of the audience Walt Disney sought to please. Even as a kid, I noticed that one substantial change: that the "sleeping beauty" of the title doesn't really sleep very long, any more than the rest of the court within the enchanted castle. This change certainly came about because Disney's adapters wanted Princess Aurora to "meet cute" with Prince Philip. Were they worried about the inappropriateness of a princess marrying up with the first fellow who came along and kissed her into wakefulness? In addition, the thorn forest that grows up around the castle isn't put there by a good fairy, seeking to protect the castle for centuries until the destined prince comes along: the thorns are just a last-minute defense by Maleficent, sent to delay Philip. They certainly add to the colorful background of the climax but don't serve any narrative purpose.
In the Grimms' version, one of the thirteen fairies is simply excluded from Briar Rose's christening because the king and queen don't have enough plates for all of them. OK, little hard to believe, given that they're ROYALTY, but then, how often do folktales focus on detailed motivation? The excluded thirteenth fairy curses Briar Rose and has her curse mitigated by the twelfth fairy. After that, the thirteenth fairy is never seen again, though in some tellings Briar Rose has a later encounter with another villainess, an Ogre Queen to whom her prince is related.
Obviously a feature film needed a more prominent villain, one who could be punished at the conclusion for having visited such an evil fate on a helpless victim. In the film Maleficent is excluded because she's just plain evil, and she justifies her reputation with her curse and her subsequent attempts to bedevil Aurora. The character's design is plainly intended to give her a resemblance to the Christian Satan, a visual reference followed up literally in the climax, when Maleficent confronts Philip, claiming to unleash on him "all the powers of hell." It's a neat mythic touch that she chooses to change into a dragon to fight the prince, since Revelation in the New Testament equates Satan with "the great dragon."
Maleficent was killed dead at the end of SLEEPING BEAUTY, and I prefer to remember her that way, taking no notice of any later "revivals."