Disney’s proclivity for ill-advisedly resurrecting its “glory days” is fully evident in Maleficent, the studio’s new re-imagining of the iconic villain from their 1959 animated fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. In taking a fresh look at the title figure, one whom generations have loved to hate for more than fifty years, the film has the opportunity to present a unique origin story about the source of Maleficent’s inbred hatred. But that potential is ultimately wasted in favor of a flat redemptive arc that undermines the original characterization of the once deliciously evil fairy. The end result is much in the vein of Tim Burton’s 2010 take on Alice in Wonderland: heavily reliant on CGI, beautiful to look at, but otherwise narratively empty, sentimental, and overblown.
Building on the familiar plot of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent casts its protagonist in a decidedly sympathetic light. The tale opens in the fairy’s youth; Maleficent is a powerful fairy, one to whom the other magical creatures generally defer even at her young age. One day, Maleficent meets a young boy, Stefan, from the nearby human kingdom, who has been caught stealing. Maleficent spares the boy and forms a friendship with him, and on her sixteenth birthday, Stefan gives her what he calls “true love’s kiss.”
But Stefan has great ambitions, which lead him to take up service to his king. When the king is humiliated by Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), who thwarts his attempts to claim her moor, he tells his men that whoever kills the fairy will inherit his kingdom upon his imminent demise. The now-grown Stefan (Sharlto Copley) returns to Maleficent’s moor and stabs her in the back (literally), managing to steal her magnificent wings. Bringing them to the king, he implies that he has killed Maleficent, and thus earns his crown.
When Maleficent learns that Stefan betrayed her for his ambition, she vows revenge, and with a hardened heart, she declares herself the ruler of the moors. Soon after the king welcomes a newborn daughter, Aurora, and reluctantly allows three good pixies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville) to bless the child with gifts (a scene which mirrors the animated film, with similar dialogue). But Maleficent interrupts the proceedings to grant her own gift: a curse that will sentence the new princess to death upon her sixteenth birthday, a curse that can only be reversed, as she gleefully tells Stefan, with “true love’s kiss.”
From here, the film veers off the animated story’s narrative path, with Maleficent keeping a watchful and wary eye on the young “beastie” as it grows under the inept care of the three pixies. Her vigil is at first borne out of her hatred for the girl and what she represents, but soon enough, Maleficent finds herself drawn to Aurora (Elle Fanning) as she grows. Over the years, against her will, Maleficent takes on the role of protector and de facto mother for the girl. As Aurora’s sixteenth birthday approaches, Maleficent discovers that even she cannot halt the forces she has put into motion, building to an explosive final confrontation with a now-delusional and paranoid King Stefan.
As I stated before, it’s a gorgeous film, filled to the brim (perhaps overly so) with shadows and back-lit shots that frame Jolie lovingly, drawing attention to those brilliant cheekbones (courtesy of a truly wondrous makeup team). Yes, there are others in the cast (Copley’s over-the-top rages and Fanning’s relatively bland ethereal blondness among them, though neither really makes a mark) but the movie belongs to Jolie. And even while the actress is not given too terribly much to do–through much of the film, her presence is marked by stillness, her eyes and slightly cocked head speaking eloquently for her–Jolie is nonetheless the highlight of Maleficent, her arresting persona capturing the essence of her regal animated counterpart even while the script undermines that inner ferociousness.
Speaking of which … here’s the main problem with the film, in a nutshell: Maleficent, as originally conceived in the earlier Disney film, is the very construct of evil. It’s in her name, for God’s sake–she is malevolence personified, her wrath so uncontrollable that it would extend to a mere baby, just because the child’s parents did not see fit to invite her to a party. And really, that’s all it is that motivates her to cast her curse in Sleeping Beauty: so offended is she that these mere mortals do not want her there that she assures them their daughter will eventually die.
Do we really need to understand anything about this creature’s back story to understand why she did what she did? Is it necessary to elucidate every element of her motivation? Some people are just wicked, and there’s no rhyme or reason about it. That’s what makes the original version of Maleficent such a fascinating character: there are no limits to what she may do, and that is both terrifying and thrilling. And that is why Jolie’s version of the character–chillingly beautiful though she may be–simply does not work, because we know she has limits, and there are no surprises that she can truly offer.
What’s most distressing about the recasting of Maleficent is that the film chooses to make her a victim, subjected to Stefan’s treachery in a way that screams “rape;” he essentially drugs her, then steals her wings, which she considers the essence of herself. The howls of lament that Maleficent lets loose when she discovers her wings are gone are haunting, as is the expression on her face when, afterward, she wraps herself in a cloak and stumbles to her feet. Why Maleficent’s innate humanity has to come from her subjugation and humiliation, I don’t know. But this determined undermining of the character is, at its core, utterly unpleasant to watch.
There’s one particular moment where the film could easily have shifted down an intriguingly different narrative path. In the christening scene, Stefan begs his former love not to cast the curse on his daughter. This piques the fairy’s interest; she tells him she “likes” to see him beg, and commands him to do it again, indicating that he should do it on bended knee. As the king sinks to the ground, he glances at a group of men, one we assume is his council–it’s not for sure; they are never seen again–who stare at him in utter disapproval as Stefan begs for his daughter once more. Maleficent’s power over Stefan in that moment speaks volumes; it sets up the possibility for political intrigue that could easily weaken Stefan’s rule, giving Maleficent even more leverage over the source of her ire. Instead, all that was set aside in favor of forcing Maleficent to tap into some long-dormant maternal instinct in order to trigger an otherwise implausible redemption.
Because women, am I right?