In the last 25 years, movies have caught on to the appeal of showing villains to be misunderstood and sympathetic. The Iron Giant, Despicable Me, Megamind, and Wreck-It Ralph all showed that just because people think you’re evil doesn’t mean you have to be. 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! took a character audiences knew as a villain and sympathetically showed what made him that way.
Maleficent continues the trend, taking the horned witch who haunted the screen in 1959’s animated classic Sleeping Beauty and showing her tragic and woeful backstory. It’s the Disney equivalent of Wicked, but it does a thorough job of painting Maleficent as the misunderstood, flawed heroine of a much larger story than the one audiences are familiar with.
In the world of Disney’s new interpretation, Maleficent is first shown as a young, orphaned fairy, living in a lush realm called The Moors with other magical creatures. When a boy named Stefan stumbles upon it, he and Maleficent becomes friends, and eventually fall in love, before he ultimately leaves her.
Years later, after Maleficent has grown into a strong woman played by Angelina Jolie, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) returns and earns Maleficent’s forgiveness – just to betray her again, in a truly malicious and cruel way, and to ensure his place in line to be King (all of which, naturally, makes Maleficent a little annoyed).
The first third of the movie is wholly original, showing Maleficent as a complex person and taking time to fully develop her relationships with each character in the film. When the King and Queen have a baby daughter, and Maleficent curses the child to prick her finger on a spinning wheel needle and fall into a death-like sleep, the movie begins showing the events of the animated classic from a new perspective. With the backstory Maleficent provides before getting to the familiar territory, what once seemed straightforward now appears quite different.
Jolie delivers one of the most enjoyable performances she’s given in the last decade as the tormented fairy. With prosthetic cheekbones, stark makeup, and a fearsome pair of horns, Jolie is easily lost in the character of Maleficent. She carries herself differently and finds a wide range of emotion in what began as a rather one-dimensional character.
Elle Fanning is charming and likeable as the innocent princess Aurora and Sam Riley has fun as Maleficent’s shape-shifting lackey, Diaval. Sharlto Copley, on the other hand, who has fallen into the unfortunate rut of hamming it up as exaggerated villains in Elysium and Oldboy, continues his routine of overacting as the maniacal king Stefan.
The danger in movies like Maleficent is that knowing too much about a villain’s backstory can sometimes leave them seeming more tame or toothless. (Hannibal Rising, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and the Star Wars prequels all have their detractors for that very reason.) Much like Wicked, though, Maleficent manages to not just make its central “bad” character interesting but to enhance your appreciation of her character. After seeing Maleficent, you’ll never watch Sleeping Beauty quite the same way again.