Five years the original ‘Maleficent’, Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie returns to Disney’s beloved fantasy world for an all new adventure.
Since the release of ‘Maleficent’ in 2014, Walt Disney Pictures has continued to find tremendous success exploring live action worlds inspired by the studio’s animated classics. Films like ‘Cinderella’, ‘The Jungle Book’ and, most recently ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’, have captured the hearts and minds of audiences the world over. Now, with the release of ‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’, Jolie’s dark fairy rises once again.
“Angelina Jolie created something truly unique with the first movie and with this character,” says director Joachim Rønning, who alongside Espen Sandberg, helmed both the Academy Award nominated 2012 film ‘Kon-Tiki’ as well as the Disney franchise sequel ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” in 2017. “It was a bold move by Disney at the time, creating a sort of antihero who you weren’t sure was good or bad.”
“I always wanted to come back, because I loved doing the first one,” says Jolie. “I loved what it said about people and how they’re not always what you think they are and not always what you assume. We wanted to make sure we had the right story and knew what we wanted to say about this unique relationship.”
Although the animated ‘Sleeping Beauty’ portrayed a fiercly antagonistic relationship between Maleficent and Princess Aurora, ‘Maleficent’ offered a new perspective, revealing that the bond between Jolie’s dark fairy and Elle Fanning’s young beauty was more akin to that between a mother and daughter.
“They may be messed up in many, many ways,” Jolie continues, “But they have a very honest relationship. That’s what I value most with my children is they are who they are with me and they know who I am, and they accept me, flaws and all.”
“This movie is very much about human emotions,” adds Fanning. “We are in this fantastical universe, but it really boils down to the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora, and that will always be what draws me to a story.”
“Maleficent started out very girlish,” Jolie continues. “Very soft and very trusting. Then she was harmed and became hardened. Eventually she grows to love Aurora and to be soft again in that wonderful, warm way that a nurturing woman is, and she realized that wasn’t a weakness but was actually a strength.”
Although Aurora may have accepted the good in Maleficent’s heart, the same cannot be said about the citizens of Ulstead, a kingdom adjacent to the Moors where Maleficent reigns, ruled over by Michelle Pfieffer’s Queen Ingrith.
“It's almost like the original story,” Jolie continues, “Where we go back to our own corners. We go back to where [Aurora is] the beautiful, good princess and I’m the outcast that is evil and hunted… [But] what makes a family, and what is it that brings them together? Is Aurora better suited to a life spent running around barefoot in the Moors with fairies, where all creatures are treated as equals, or is she meant to be living in a castle in the human world with human problems and concerns?”
“Aurora embodies kindness and compassion,” says Fanning, “And her biggest strength is her good heart and wanting to do good, which is such a beautiful quality.”
When the story begins, Aurora is in love and ready to be wed Ingrith’s son and Ulstead’s heir apparent, Harris Dickinson’s Prince Phillip. While Ingrith doesn’t mind her son marrying a human royal, she is decidedly less fond of the princess’s connection to Maleficent.
“Queen Ingrith is damaged and has been betrayed by a lot of the men in her life,” says Pfeiffer, “but she’s got her eye on the goal and nothing will get in the way of that... nothing.”
“[Michelle] went dark, and she went for it with no apologies,” Jolie laughs. “Michelle is a very good person and a wonderful mother. Because she is the opposite of the queen and actually values who she is and how she holds herself, she is able to commit to playing the villainy with gusto... and it comes across with a nice icy elegance.”
“It’s always fun playing a villain,” adds Pfeiffer. “The challenge is finding the humanity in a character like Queen Ingrith, because there is always the option of just playing it all one color and just being pure evil, but my favorite villains always have a humanity about them so that you kind of feel sorry for them while hating them at the same time.”
With opposing forces played with by such acclaimed talent and with such fantastic intensity, it was up to Rønning to build that conflict into an intriguing narrative.
“With any story, I look at the emotional core,” he explains. “The heart of the story. One of the reasons the first ‘Maleficent’ was so successful is because it had a very strong and relatable emotional journey for the audience, and in our story Aurora is basically moving out, which is something all parents dread, and that’s exactly how Maleficent feels… We wanted [the sequel] to be bigger and better, but at the same time we needed to respect what audiences loved about the first film. But our goal was to create a universe and make it feel big and rich, where we can actually live in the movie and be in the movie.”
“In the end,” says Jolie, “This film says a beautiful thing about encouraging people to be of their own true nature and of people accepting each other’s own true nature and finding family in that.”
In bringing Maleficent to the big screen, filmmakers drew on hundreds of years of myth and legend.
There’s no telling exactly when tales of magical faerie folk began to be told, nor can their origin be traced back to any singular text or, even, a specific culture. Magical beings have captured imaginations throughout recorded history. What we commonly think of today as a fairy – a small winged creature with a unique connection to nature – has been a part of European folklore for centuries. Of course, Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is no ordinary fairy and to understand where her tale begins, one must look back at the stories that started it all.
Although the character of Maleficent was created specifically for Disney’s 1959 animated film, the origins of the 'Sleeping Beauty' story appears to have originated in the pages of 'Perceforest', an anonymous collection of history and fable written in the 14th century. In it, the Maleficent character antecedent is known Themis and, rather than being a fairy, she is said to be one of three goddesses who are invited to bless the birth of a new princess (here named Zelladine). Similar to how the Disney film unfolds, Zelladine is cursed by Themis with an eternal sleep. The sleep is not caused by the prick of sewing spindle, however, but instead by a flax seed. It is also, disturbingly, not true love’s kiss that awakens Zelladine. She is instead impregnated in her sleep by her love, Troylus, and awakens nine months later when her then newborn baby attempts to nurse against her finger, inadvertently sucking out the flax seed and breaking the spell.
In the 17th century, Italian poet Giambattista Basile offered his own take on the fable with a tale known as ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’. In this telling, Zelladine becomes Talia and she winds up giving birth to two children, Sun and Moon. Oddly enough, the Maleficent style antagonist is wholly removed from Basile’s version. The flax seed curse that Talia suffers is simply her fate, foretold by wise men and mystics.
In 1697, author Charles Perrault finally published what is arguably the most famous version of the fairy tale, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’. Although both the sleeping princess and the dark fairy that curses her are unnamed in this iteration, Perrault borrows from Basile’s story to name the heroine’s children. Instead of Sun and Moon, they are christened Jour (“day”) and Aurore (“dawn”). It is from here that Disney’s Princess Aurora was named.
Perrault’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ also introduces another antagonist for a second part to the story, set after the birth of Jour and Aurore. It is revealed that the grandmother of the twins on the Prince’s side is secretly an Ogress Queen Mother with devilish plans to devour her grandchildren. Although one would be hard pressed to describe Michelle Pfeiffer as an Ogress, there are several elements of that early character that help form her Queen Ingrith in the new movie, including her parental relationship to Aurora’s love, Harris Dickinson’s Prince Phillip.
When the Brothers Grimm included a version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in their 1812 collection, they did so under the title ‘Little Briar Rose,’ after their renamed Princess. Despite the title, ‘Briar Rose’ introduced several enduring elements to the tale, mostly notably in the form of true love’s kiss as the antidote to the sleeping spell.
In 1889, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was famously adapted for the stage as a ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Among the ‘Swan Lake’ composer’s contributions to the story was an expanded role for its version of Maleficent, an at first unnamed dark fairy who eventually became known as Carabosse. In 1921, Tchaikovsky’s ballet was staged in London by Sergei Diaghilev with the Carabosse role in particular being highlighted by a dramatic intensity that would fuel Disney’s animated version just a few decades later and that would help influence director Joachim Rønning in crafting ‘Mistress of Evil’.
“These Disney films are always big and beautiful,” says Jolie of the new production, “It’s one of the reasons it’s a privilege to be a part of them. But on this one, Joachim saw it as an opera, like a big, intense opera. It is a very big scale, and there are very interesting new worlds to see.”
While the new film may boast extravagant sets, intricately detailed costumes and feature cutting edge special and visual effects, at the heart of ‘Maleficent’ is a story that has been around for centuries. As the tale is retold again and again, narrative elements may evolve and specific details may change, but it’s a safe bet that, as long as stories are being told, the tale of “Sleeping Beauty” will endure.