I’m going to admit this right off the bat: I was never excited or interested in a Maleficent movie. It isn’t that I don’t love the character. The exact opposite, in fact. I adore Maleficent because she’s one of the great Disney villains, a powerful sorceress with a wicked sense of humor who revels in her own villainy. Oh and she can TURN INTO A DRAGON! She was hardcore before that was a thing, cursing a baby to die because she wasn’t invited to a party. But you know what I never wondered when watching Walt Disney’s 1959 classic, Sleeping Beauty? Gee, what’s Maleficent’s backstory? What would possibly make her so damn evil? Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority with these thoughts because Disney thought they’d cash in on the current “You Don’t Know the Whole Story” trend of retelling popular fairy tales by completely botching everything that made Maleficent so badass and interesting to begin with.
Maleficent stars Angelina Jolie as the titular character who we first meet as an orphaned (this is Disney, remember), human-sized fairy with bird-like wings and horns. For some reason she’s the guardian of the Moors, the magical folk who live in peace and harmony opposite the humans who pretty much keep away from them because humans are a cowardly and suspicious lot. But one day a young peasant boy named Stefan wanders into their enchanted world of nature and the two become friends and eventually lovers. Maybe. It’s implied through montage. Unfortunately, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is an ambitious young man and when the dying King offers the kingdom to the one who can kill Maleficent he drugs her and cuts off her wings with an iron chain. Heartbroken and embittered by Stefan’s betrayal, Maleficent gets her chance at revenge at the christening of Stefan’s daughter, Aurora. From there on out it’s a quasi-retelling of Sleeping Beauty only with more incompetent fairy protectors, an equally uninteresting and dull Aurora (Elle Fanning), and an “evil” fairy whose heart grew three sizes after finding true love through the role of surrogate mother to the girl she cursed.
If it wasn’t abundantly clear I don’t have a high opinion of this story. I got to experience the classic animated movies of my parents’ childhood while growing up during the Disney Renaissance and since then I’ve seen the company try to recapture the love and magic of their previous films while incorporating new technology and altering our perception of the typical Disney Princess movie. I get what they’re trying to do, I applaud it even. The current movie going audience demands a different type of female lead and Disney is not exempt from this. If anything, they’ve been updating their heroines since 1989, making them more proactive characters instead of the passive damsels of the early classics. There have been hits and misses along the way, but there was always a sense that Disney was learning from what didn’t work. Lately, though, it feels like the harder they try to tell a story that subverts their own tropes, the more complicated and unnecessary the stories become.
I’ve made my thoughts on Frozen known, but Maleficent is just a hot mess of a movie full of clunky exposition, an over reliance on CGI, and a story that essentially neuters one of the great Disney villains by turning her into an anti-hero. This isn’t a new thing, by the way, especially if you’re a comic book reader. It’s very common for villains to be turned into anti-heroes after they gain any measure of popularity from the fans. How do you root for a villain? Well maybe they’re not as villainous as you think. Done and done, problem solved. Such is the case with Maleficent. But in giving her a backstory, the movie practically strips her of everything that made her likeable to begin with.
So where do I start with what doesn’t work? Oh, I know! How about the fact that Maleficent was, for all intents and purposes, raped. Yeah, that’s right. When Stefan decides that his love of power is stronger than his love for Maleficent, he drugs her and physically mutilates her body by cutting off her wings. The aftermath scene where Maleficent wakes up to find her wings gone is filmed in such a way that is disturbing and uncomfortable on so many levels. I’m certainly not the only person who’s written about this, but it begs the question of whether or not anyone at Disney read the script and questioned the message being sent by these scenes. For that matter, why did screenwriters Linda Woolverton and Paul Dini choose this as the primary motivation behind Maleficent’s actions? It’s no longer about asserting her power over the “offense” of not being invited to the christening. No, that extremely cold and villainous curse she puts on Aurora is now Maleficent getting revenge on Stefan for jilting her and taking her wings. Even the spinning wheel is just a conveniently placed item, in a throne room for some reason, for her to utilize as the weapon of choice. And because we don’t want Maleficent to be beyond complete redemption, she doesn’t even curse Aurora to die, only to fall into a “sleep like death” with the caveat of true love’s kiss added as a special little “fuck you” to Stefan who gave Maleficent her “true love’s kiss” when they were sixteen.
This isn’t a movie about a “strong female character” who does as she pleases. This is a movie about a woman scorned whose every action is predicated on what others have done to her. Specifically, what a man has done to her. And you can get all bent out of shape about me going all “femi-nazi” on this movie, but I really don’t care. I’m all for adaptations and I could even get behind a reinterpretation of Maleficent, but this movie takes all the wrong cues from the animated movie and butchers what could have been an interesting look into the creation of a villain. When talking about the movie to The Hollywood Reporter, Woolverton said this about Maleficent’s motivation:
We based this on the Disney movie, not the fairy tale. I was looking at that scene, and I had done some research, and the biggest surprise is that she’s a fairy, not a witch. I’ve always wanted to do a dark fairy story. Then I watched that scene where she curses the baby, and I’m thinking “well if she’s a fairy, where are her wings?” Suddenly it was “boom. Lightbulb. Oh! It’s the wings!” Then I worked backward from there to create the Stefan relationship.
I don’t know where she got the idea that Maleficent was a fairy, but fine, let’s go with that. If you take that angle, then why is she human-sized while all the other fairies in the live action movie are small? Is there a hierarchy of fairies? Were there other human-sized fairies? If so, what happened to them? Those are the questions I’d rather Woolverton asked because they start to form a different story. Even in the animated movie there’s obvious animosity between Maleficent and the three good fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. When Maleficent theatrically ponders why she didn’t get an invitation to the christening Merryweather clearly states, “You weren’t wanted.”
Now that’s a loaded statement. Why wasn’t she wanted there? What led to this bad blood between the humans, Maleficent, and the good fairies? If you think about the animated movie, as a whole, it’s more about a battle between Maleficent and the trio of fairies looking after Aurora. They bestow the gifts on the baby, one of which actually lessens Maleficent’s curse from death to sleep, they rescue Phillip from Maleficent’s castle, and in the final battle they give Phillip the shield and sword needed to battle her when she TURNS INTO A DRAGON! Hell, Flora practically guides the sword into the dragon’s chest for Phillip. This is a story about fairies battling each other using human pawns. Any prequel would have to include the origin of Maleficent but there’s also room to explore the world she inhabits in-depth.
The live action movie even sets up that there’s tension between the humans and the Moors, so why wasn’t that the story? Maybe make Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather major players in a battle that splits the world of the Moors over aligning with the humans because Maleficent descends further into darker magic in order to ward off the humans who she sees as a threat to her world and her people. Battles, political intrigue, and magic would all still be possible but the movie would have room to explore Maleficent as a character in her own right instead of trying to retell Sleeping Beauty through a revisionist lens.
And by revisionist, I mean they make every character who isn’t Maleficent nearly intolerable. Clearly this movie is not meant for an audience who knows the animated Sleeping Beauty. Despite Woolverton claiming Maleficent is taking its cues from the 1959 film, which is an adaptation of the French fairy tale La Belle Au Bois Dormant with the score and songs adapted from the 1890 ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Maleficent bares very little resemblance to its animated predecessor other than Jolie’s outward appearance and the inclusion of the curse on Aurora. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather aren’t even called by those names probably because their CGI, uncanny valley doppelgängers (played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) are so far off from the originals that it would be offensive to keep their names from the animated film. The movie goes out of its way to make the good fairies as incompetent as possible to the point that a young Aurora would’ve fallen off a cliff or starved if not for Maleficent’s interference during her childhood. All of that, however, is in service of bringing out her nascent maternal side that ultimately leads to the subversion of the “true love’s kiss” towards the end of the film.
Again, I understand what the movie was trying to do but the execution of it was poorly handled especially when Prince Phillip shows up so late in the story that you can see them telegraphing the big “twist” a mile away. Not that Phillip is all that interesting anyway. He and Aurora are about equal in terms of dullness. It’s sad really because there was some opportunity to give at least Aurora some character development but the movie opts for just having Elle Fanning smile a lot, cry, and fall asleep.
If I was going to harp on one more thing (and if you made it this far, congratulations and I’m sorry!), I’d say the actual climax of the film really misses the mark. Granted, Stefan’s descent into madness is interesting and the film definitely sets up what should be a huge climactic battle between Stefan and Maleficent, but the movie takes away the one thing that always belonged to Maleficent: SHE TURNS INTO A FUCKING DRAGON! Not so this time around. Nope, turning into a dragon gets handed over to Maleficent’s lackey Diaval (Sam Riley) while she’s busy being captured in a net of iron. Really, movie? I mean, you had one job. One. Job. Make sure Maleficent turns into a dragon and you couldn’t even make that happen. For all the faults of the movie I could follow the logic and the purpose behind certain decisions, but when you take an iconic moment away from your main character I have to ask how much Woolverton and Dini were paying attention to the original movie.
It’s not like there wasn’t a way to make Maleficent turning into a dragon work within the parameters of the story. Sure, she’s weakened by the iron net over her, but people get surges of adrenaline all the time that help them overcome a lot of things. Why not make that Maleficent’s final act? She’s already woken Aurora, now she just has to deal with Stefan. Seeing him through the net, ready to strike with his sword, she use her last ounce of strength and magic to turn herself into a dragon, whipping the net off and going on the offensive. She deals with the soldiers and then charges Stefan, but he manages to stab her with the sword as they both fall from the castle. It’s a dark ending, but since Aurora is supposed to be the innocent ray of sunshine and hope, she sees the sacrifice made by Maleficent and makes sure to unite the Moors and humans. But I guess that would’ve messed up the already jumbled tone of the movie, so whatever.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have it’s good moments. Angelina Jolie completely embraces the role of Maleficent and she has some fantastic scenes and great lines. Her interactions with Diaval are probably my favorite because the two actors have great chemistry. Sharlto Copley is woefully underutilized, but his scenes are still engaging as he falls further into madness. There are also some great designs on the Moors and the CGI is impressive, but it’s not enough to make the movie work as a whole.
I really wish I could’ve liked this movie more, but this doesn’t give me a lot of hope for the upcoming live action adaptations of Cinderella, Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast. Something’s getting lost in the translation here. The classic animated movies are timeless, but who knows how Maleficent will be viewed five, ten, twenty, or fifty years from now.