We’ve seen several stories try their hand at reclaiming villains, telling the tales from their relegated and forgotten points of view; after all, history is written by the winners. This technique can be illuminating and fascinating when done right, like Grendel or Gregory Maguire’s popular Wicked novels. However, does the public really have that much knowledge of Maleficent? Did most people even know what her name was? For that matter, do most people even know what the real name of Sleeping Beauty is or do they, like myself, just indifferently refer to her as Sleeping Beauty? That relative audience ignorance provides a wide canvas to retell this woman’s story.
In an ancient kingdom, there were two lands, one with men and one with magical creatures. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a cheerful fairy with long angelic-like wings and a pair of horns coming from her head. She befriends Steffen (Sharlto Copley) an orphan with ambition to be the next king of men. He betrays Maleficent, drugging her and cutting off her wings to prove to the dying king that she is dead. Years later, and now king, Steffen has a christening for his new baby daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), and Maleficent shows up. She curses the young child, declaring that on her sixteenth birthday she shall prick her finger on a spinning needle, fall into a deep slumber, and only be awakened by true love’s kiss. Steffen destroys all the spinning wheels he can find and sends out his daughter into the countryside for protection where she’s raised by three fairies taking on the form of humans (Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, Juno Temple). It’s really Maleficent who helps raise her, watching over her and protecting her through the years, regretting the horrible choice she made in anger.
I’ll start by saying the reason you should see this film, by far, is Angelina Jolie (Wanted). She is terrific. You can readily tell how much fun she’s having with the character, and everything from her command, her physicality, her presence, her vocal delivery, is top-notch. She’s great from start to finish, the perfect embodiment of the character. Would you believe this is her first live-action film role in almost four years? Wow, did movie audiences miss her. If only the remaining movie was as good as Jolie.
It’s a shame then that just about everything falls into a rigid fantasy formula that squeezes any sense of magic dry. Maleficent is the queen of the fantasy half of this world, and after her betrayal by Steffen (more on that below), she seeks vengeance, cursing an innocent child and then remarkably caring for her through a hasty montage. It’s hard to ever accept Maleficent as a malevolent character, and I’m sure that’s by design by the Mouse House. She doesn’t do anything too scary and when the time comes she ends up making the right decisions. There isn’t really much of an exploration of her character here. There’s the pretense that she’s hero and villain but that falls away very quickly, especially with her loving relationship with Aurora. She wants to do right and feels terrible about the curse, but again that’s quickly taken care of. Aurora literally spends five minutes onscreen in her “eternal slumber.” It’s more like a magical nap. If the relationship between Aurora is what makes our heroine whole again, then the climax is saving Aurora, not getting vengeance against Steffen in a dumb CGI battle.
The magical fantasy world also feels oddly underutilized. At least in past Disney efforts like Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, the worlds at least felt like they had been explored, with many of the magical creatures pitching in during an Act Three battlefield. That isn’t the case here. The opening with young Maleficent (Isobele Molloy) introduces some strange creatures and some fairies, but they end up being little more than background dressing, meant to only communicate the change in Maleficent. In the end, it’s just Maleficent and her trusty crow (Sam Riley in human form) and that’s it. Question: if she can transform her pet into any number of creatures, including a dragon, then why didn’t she do this before? When she’s racing to save Aurora from pricking her finger, would a dragon have not been a faster mode of travel than a horse? Maleficent’s powers are also too ill defined, and her big weakness just happening to be iron feels trite, like her version of kryptonite. The fairy world and its powers aren’t given the examination it deserves. As a whole, the world of Maleficent feels less than magical. It feels more like a series of scenes rushing through a plot holding fast to the beats of recent Disney live-action hits.
I don’t think I’m reading too much into what is intended as a fantasy film for families, but Maleficent is one big analogue for rape. Hear me out. The title character falls in love with a man who likewise tells her he loves her but is just using her to his own advantage. He then drugs her drink and while she’s unconscious has his way with her, leaving her physically disfigured and feeling betrayed. She turns inward, rejects the outside world, and dwells in sadness and seclusion. She doesn’t tell others about her attacker until many years later. The public is quick to blame the victim. And then ultimately, once she feels “whole” again thanks to reaching out to others/support, she is able to confront her attacker and rise above his destructive influence, returning to some semblance of her former self. When looked at in its entirety, does that not sound like an intentional analogy for rape/sexual assault? Maleficent’s character arc mirrors the experiences of rape victims, and the fact that this kind of mature storyline is played out in a Disney summer family film is kind of extraordinary. It’s not so explicit that little kids will walk home asking mom and dad about the persistent nature of “rape culture,” but its presence and articulation is a start. As a rape analogue, it’s not offensively handled unless you are one who finds its very inclusion an offense for a PG-movie. Now, this storyline does transform the character in a way others may dislike. Rather than being a powerful agent of evil, she’s a woman who was victimized by a man and that’s why she turns toward the dark side. For some this will be a disappointing turn of events. I can’t say one approach is better than the other from a feminist point of view, but I credit Disney for following through with uncomfortable symbolism for rape to describe Maleficent’s arc.
The rest of the cast fill out their roles but lack the flare of Jolie. Copley (District 9) is proving that he may be best under the guidance of Neil Blomkamp. He was one of the better parts of Elysium but without Blomkamp he makes such mystifying choices as an actor. His voice and performance were powerfully wrong for Spike Lee’s unnecessary Old Boy, and his demeanor is all over the place with Maleficent. To his credit, the character is horribly underwritten and given so little mooring to try and understand his ever-changing decisions and temperament. Fanning (Super 8) is an innocuous Aurora though the actress has often showed much more ability. Here she just laughs a lot. Riley (On the Road, Control) is wasted comic relief and as a companion. The three color-coded fairies are consigned to broad comic relief, usually bumbling and getting into slapstick brawls with one another. I can’t imagine children finding them too funny.
Maleficent the character is given great care by Jolie, the actress. Maleficent, the movie, is slapped together and feels devoid of any sort of engaging storytelling or big-screen magic to leave a favorable impression. It’s a rather expected and unexceptional retelling that hits all the notes you’d expect, though without as many magical fantasy creatures, which seems like an oversight for a world of fantasy. The rape analogue is a bold choice for the filmmakers and deserves credit. I wish I could also give them credit for the storytelling and characterization, both of which are rather flat and rote. The special effects are likewise unremarkable. Outside of the rape symbolism, this is a movie you can likely predict every step of the way just looking at the poster. I was able to even predict the left-turn ending concerning “true love’s kiss,” though Frozen already got there first. If you have low expectations and simply want to watch Jolie and her killer cheekbones be fierce, then perhaps Maleficent is worth checking out. Otherwise, this villain’s retelling feels far too familiar and safe and underwhelming to be worth the effort.
Nate’s Grade: C