‘Maleficent’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’: Both Are Equally Authentic – Which is to Say Neither Is


Angelina Jolie in Maleficent, courtesy of Disney Enterprises

I’m very particular about the kinds of animated films that I enjoy, and the ones I do enjoy I hold sacred.  My tastes skew to hand-drawn animation, and there’s not a whole heck of a lot of it anymore. One of my favorite classics  – especially if we’re talking about family-friendly, all-ages fare – is Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959.) I liked it quite a bit, and I think that a lot of people agree with me. For  many of them, this is the definitive version of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale. It’s the one they probably crib from when it’s story time for the kids. But is it really “Sleeping Beauty?” How faithful is it? Surely more so than Maleficent, the companion film Disney is releasing in May. Actually, no. No it’s not, and that’s okay.

You see, there are quite a few versions of the story and not all of them agree on the particulars. That’s one of the things that I enjoy about folklore and fairy tales: They keep changing. Sometimes these changes are the results of mistranslations or other errors, and sometimes they’re intentionally made for political, religious, moral or artistic reasons. That’s okay. Like I said, stories change, and before you bristle up too much about writers injecting their own ethics into good old fashioned fairy tales, I hasten to add that many, if not all, of the original stories (or the ones you and I call original) were written to educate as well as entertain. In many cases, the fairy tales we enjoy today were originally bloody, crude and sexually explicit, but have been toned down for modern parents and their children.

Scholars like Bruno Bettelheim, C.G. Jung, and others looked at fairy tales and found not only stories to amuse children, but also symbolism and allegory meant to enlighten perceptive adults – or those about to become adults. As a child, “Little Red Riding Hood” was one of my favorite fairy tales, mostly because of the scary, talking wolf that menaced Red Riding. It was only after I became an adult that I became aware of the tale’s allegorical nature: It’s a cautionary tale meant to warn pubescent girls about the dangers posed by kindly men who may not actually have their best interests at heart.

Writer Angela Carter was justifiably famous for her re-imagined fairy tales. In her classic short story collection The Bloody Chamber, Carter brought the sex and blood back to the old stories with a vengeance: “Little Red Riding Hood” inspired three werewolf stories, alone – one of which was adapted by director Neil Jordan into The surrealistic horror film The Company of Wolves (which you really must see.)The Bloody Chamber is an sexy, gory read – just like the old stories used to be. (Werewolves? Wow. Let me know if you don’t understand the sexual symbolism inherent in werewolves.) Carter is just one of many authors who have the ever-mutable  taken fairy tales and put it to their own uses – something people have been doing forever

Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. A delightful film, Sleeping Beauty, but it’s hardly the heavy stuff of Angela Carter. It’s devoid of overt sexual content (I said overt) and only mildly violent. In other words, it’s nothing like the old versions of the stories. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Trust me when I say that there are some very creepy versions of the story out there – but it’s a good thing, either. It’s just a thing. As much as I love Sleeping Beauty, it is just one version of a story that has been passed down for centuries. If there was ever a definitive version of  the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty”, you and I probably missed hearing it by a few hundred years. All we have now are versions – plural – and the one that you heard as a kindergartener isn’t any more authentic than the Walt Disney film, like, say, Maleficent.

Directed by Robert Stromberg, Maleficent is Disney’s newest interpretation of the “Sleeping Beauty” tale (the version they shared in 1959), this time told from the perspective of the wicked fairy queen, played by Angelina Jolie. The trailer shows a lot of monsters and action, and there are hints that Maleficent may be a sympathetic character. If anything, it is more reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings movies than anything from the Brothers Grimm. It looks like what it probably is: A big, splashy fantasy action film. As you can probably imagine, not everyone is happy about that. People have criticized it as being “unfaithful” to the original Disney movie, or the fairy tale, or both. I hope that you can see at this point that this is an absurd objection. Others, I am sure, are concerned that it’s not suitable for children. This, too, is absurd. If you must know why, Huffington Post has a slide show about the “original” (Again, that term.) fairy tales.

There’s no point in arguing about this kind of thing, but we’ll do it anyway. After all, that’s what we do: We tell stories, argue about them and then tell them again. We all have versions we prefer, but the versions we prefer will eventually take their place in history next to some new generation’s “authentic” and “faithful” retelling of Sleeping Beauty.