Fairy tales, as they used to be written, were more about stark contrasts between good and evil, with different characters or places representing either side. Nowadays, however, we're tired of such strict morals and need the story to feel more personal by having the conflict take place within the same character or place--that's why so many characters are written as being neither strictly good nor evil. We need to see how a single character can be when he chooses to act on the good or on the bad.
Maleficent was built around this difference between then and now. In many ways, it echoes Disney's original animated movie; the gifting scene even borrows lines directly from it. But it isn't simply an exact rendering of the movie from animation to live-action, and I think they found a good balance between familiarity and newness. The main character who exemplifies the good/evil conflict is, of course, Maleficent. She stands in contrast to Stefan, who faces the same conflict but handles it differently.
Much of this is nothing new. We've seen villains turned into sympathetic characters. We've seen true love mean other kinds of love than romantic (in Frozen and Once Upon a Time). But this movie was still a rather sweet retelling of the importance of choosing love over bitterness. Stefan abandoned love for greed and power. Maleficent, hurt by his malice against her, refused to believe in love anymore and sought vengeance. Then she, through watching Aurora, began to love again--while Stefan, consumed by guilt and the fear of losing his power, let his rage and violence grow even more. Somehow, the final conflict between Maleficent and Stefan was very much like the final sequence in Sleeping Beauty, where Philip must take on weapons of virtue in order to slay the dragon of evil.
The movie kept us guessing nicely about how the conflict would be resolved. We all know the story already, but this version was different. Maybe Philip would come in and break the curse, or maybe not. For a moment, I thought it might be Diaval, but then there was too much of an age difference there. I did think it might be Maleficent, but then they brought in Philip and so I thought that it must be him, after all. But, no, this movie presented true love not as something fated by destiny but as something that must grow. Philip and Aurora liked each other right away and possibly do have a future together. But their love had not grow yet. Maleficent, by taking care of Aurora and spending time with her, had cultivated love. She came to love Stefan's daughter the way he, who never spent any time with her or cared at all to get to know her, never would.
While the Moors did have a bit much of a Dr.Seuss/Bridge to Terabithia/Avatar look, the character arcs in this story made up for it. This role really was perfect for Angelina Jolie--and the scenes with baby Aurora were marvelous. Maleficent reminded me of Morgan le Fay from the King Arthur legends and Mystique from X-Men, maybe with a dash of Mary Poppins. One of my biggest complaints was the cover of "Once Upon a Dream" for the credits. I love that song, but that version was terrible. After watching the movie and feeling pretty favorable about it, it was such a shocker to hear that song and want to quickly run out of the theatre.
End credits song aside, Maleficent brought into balance the familiar elements of Disney's animated tale and a more modern approach to conflict. With this wave of fairy tales, I'm now looking forward to seeing Cinderella next year (especially after looking at the cast and crew list).