Once upon a time, in a far away land, Angelina Jolie, one of the most bankable and popular actresses ever to grace the modern screen brought to life one of Disney’s most iconic and beloved villains to life- Maleficent. A character so wicked, cruel and calculating she scared the very pants off you because she had no reason to be evil- it was merely something she chose to be. With Jolie’s talent amply supported by a competent director, writer, producer and creative crew, this movie would have introduced a new generation to Maleficent’s immortal menace without insulting or encroaching upon the animated feature that is now more than half a century years old and a story that is far golden than that. The movie would have struck a chord in old and new fans alike and it would have been a respectful entry to the re-imagination of fairy tales of yore that was able to enchant rather than disenfranchise.
The land of far away got their wish and all we got was “Maleficent”. Oh, doggie.
Although Disney’s animated film is a hodge-podge of aesthetic and confused story-telling, Maleficent has remained the stalwart. The reason why this character is so beloved, so feared and so reknown is because she needed no excuse to do the horrible things she did. It wasn’t just because she placed a deadly hex upon an innocent child just for not being invited to a party, but of just how calculated her hatred was. She was a patient predator who was prepared to wait sixteen long years as Aurora grew up to become a beautiful teenager all for that moment of vindication when the oblivious princess pricked her finger on that spinning wheel. And her viper-like nature didn’t just end there. In one of the most insidious plans a Disney villain has ever spawned, Maleficent lured Prince Phillip, who was to be Aurora’s savior into a trap and snared him quickly and decisively before locking him up into her dungeon. She swore upon some twisted, Hellish oath she would not kill him, instead she would keep him alive and able, enabling him to live a long life, the catch was, he would never be able to save the princess. No, he would languish for a century in captivity, festering in useless rage and helplessness until she let him go, a man far too old, shriveled and impotent to save his beloved, that he would most likely fall off his horse and die of a broken heart more than a broken neck. Diabolical. Cruel. Brilliant and without peer or compassion. That is what Maleficent was. She was as good a demon from the pit than a sorceress, a calling and reputation she savored like nothing else.
In “Maleficent”, the titular character is none of these things. This film has absolutely no conception of what it wants to be or whose movie it actually is. Yes, Maleficent’s name is the title, but halfway through the movie, it goes into territory we already know, and in a sense, it becomes Aurora’s story, except Aurora isn’t given the agency. You see, what I feel this movie was striving to do was to make an empowering message toward women, to encourage a sense of sisterhood and solidarity between women, but it isn’t any of this at the core. This may be incredibly disturbing to you, but what I feel “Maleficent” truly is, is a big-budget, colourful rape and revenge flick. Yes, you read that right. The movie starts with Maleficent (why would you call your child that if they are a pure and sweet soul?), a precious fairy (with horns) who resides in the beautiful realm of magic and nature. One day she comes across a young boy from the kingdom of men called Stefan and I guess they fall in love (?) before he leaves. Some time later, when the boy is a man (Sharlto Copley), his king asks him to hunt the adult Maleficent (Jolie) down and take away her greatest physical asset: her wings. Stefan tricks Maleficent with a promise of love and reconciliation before he drugs her and hacks off her wings. Unable to kill her, he discards her, and without dignity and feeling absolutely violated, Maleficent retreats to the forest, only for her influence to poison the trees and the land. Some time later, Stefan has a darling baby daughter Aurora and Maleficent decides to take her revenge. However, as she watches the youngling grow, she begins to feel remorseful for her rash actions and strives to redeem herself and to save the girl she had doomed for the sins of her father.
After reading that basic synopsis, do you see what I mean by the rape and revenge motif? Now, don’t get me wrong, rape and revenge happens to be an exploitation favourite of mine and rape fucking suck as do those who do it, but this is not something that should be inserted into a Disney film. No, Disney has not always been sunshine and roses in terms of content in their movies, but… Jesus. Although the act of Stefan wreathing off Maleficent’s wings is mercifully unseen, Jolie’s screams of agony can be heard and it gets to you. This is perhaps the most emotional moment of a vastly uninspired and blatant cash in and it’s not even the right type of movie to have it. Although “Maleficent” by virtue is not aimed for very young crowds, the studio-intended demographic falls between 10-16- kids aren’t stupid, but at the same time, something as forced and almost malicious as this should not be in a film that was made to cater to girls who can’t wait to get their hands on dolls and other merchandise. After this scene happened, I don’t feel I was able to sit back and enjoy the rest of the film impartially. Much as I love the character of Maleficent, seeing this sloppy narrative unfold before my eyes did not whisk me away into a fantasy land, as much as it forced Rivendell Lite scenery in my face. I was just constantly reminded about how not to make a worthwhile so-called family film. Now, before you tell me to stop comparing this film with “Sleeping Beauty”, yes, you with the snooty attitude, stop right there- “Maleficent” would simply have not existed were it not for Disney’s animated feature. Every design aesthetic, every instance of story when there was one, owes itself to that 60 year old flick that is now public domain. Even the song “Once Upon A Dream” (crooned masterfully by Lana Del Rey) is a direct reference to “Sleeping Beauty”. This movie wants you to compare and contrast what you see, it wants you to say “Hey, that’s that bit when…” it wants to draw that sensation of the familiar out of you because this movie is a direct tie-in and follow through.
Perhaps apart from the obvious confuddlement of the story writers and directors comes from how the character of Maleficent herself is portrayed. Yes, being witness to a character being stripped of something they value (cough female genital mutilation cough) is a terrible affair, but due to the fact we never see how Maleficent has hardened her heart and soul after the trauma she endured, we are never given the opportunity to care when she curses baby Aurora, nor do we give two hoots when she realises she has made a terrible mistake. We see her react purely to circumstances, she is not pro-active in what she does. As Aurora grows older, she watches from the shadows, but we don’t see her begin to feel the weight of her actions. When she reluctantly becomes close to Aurora, again, we don’t see her struggle with her decisions, she is strongly reactive and does not fulfill her own agency until toward the end, and that is only because the script says she must do this or that to atone. There is no natural, organic progression of Maleficent in this story. I am all for giving villains a sense of humanity, but remember, this movie would never have been made were it not for Disney’s effort. The character of Maleficent is strongly inconsistent, we don’t see her be cruel or master the dark arts or have the clout to gain the fear and awe of her servants or the humans. None of the goodness or consideration Maleficent shows is earned here- it’s strictly there to serve the purpose of the movie, nothing more.
It also doesn’t help that most of the other actors demand little to no interest. Elle Fanning is a good young actress and I enjoy her, but her Aurora is far too bubbly and positive, thinking everything is beautiful, she seems more enamoured with how gorgeous the world around her is rather than this mysterious and strange woman who has taken an interest in her. Sharlto Copley also is a fantastic actor who has proven he can stomp the ground like nobody’s business, but his King Stefan is less than one-note that he’s practically a non-factor and his accent was an aural UFO to my ears. What the heck was it? Juno Temple, Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville were absolutely intolerable as Aurora’s three bumbling pixie babysitters. They couldn’t do a damn thing right and were grating to the nerves. Flora, Fauna and Merriweather from the original movie would have slapped them so hard eerily CGI misshapen faces would have been pancakes. Dear lord.
So what is good about the movie? Only one thing, really- Angelina Jolie as Maleficent. If there was ever an actress right now who could play this role it is undoubtedly her. With her striking and regal features, I swear whatever cosmetic enhancements she underwent only emphasized what was already there. Her wardrobe and accessories are absolutely spectacular and they suit her appearance gorgeously. The way she carried herself, how she spoke, I could see Maleficent inside of her, wanting to get out and raise Hell. But noooooo, the story let her down, let her down oh so low. Whenever she was on the screen though, with that undeniable charisma, I was wide awake and almost enraptured by her. Even her voice was a close call to Eleanor Audley’s (the original voice of Maleficent), it was beautifully uncanny. The famous christening scene here was recreated word from word, action by action and in my mind was perhaps the best (if not most memorable for the right reasons) moment in the movie because it didn’t mess with perfection. It also gave Jolie the opportunity to express a hint of Maleficent’s sadism, the spark was there! Her chemistry with Fanning had a nice intention behind it, but whatever magic was there was immediately dashed by how lazy the dialogue was. Had she had been in a movie that bolstered her character’s agency as well as the story itself, this could have been a veritable match made in the House of Mouse.
Best part of the movie right here, folks.
This film tries far too hard to emphasize the importance of women sticking together, but it did not strike me as feminist, it was actually rather misandrist, troubling still because this film was directed by a man and wouldn’t you know it, Prince Philip is shoe-horned in just because the script demands the character to be there. He has no other reason to be in this movie other than to be a reference, no, merely an after-thought because he isn’t given any opportunity to endear himself as a solitary being. Stefan too is done a hideous disfavor- he is disgustingly one-note, all bluster and no true bludgeon. He is a petty, vicious individual who reacts purely by the numbers without considerable attention being paid to how he feels. In fact, one of the most grievious statements against men comes from when Maleficent is teaching Aurora the balance of nature, how humans stand for masculinity, all that is destructive and cruel, while nature is female, graceful, beautiful and blameless. What exactly is this moving trying to say here?! Without Jolie’s star-power, the original Disney film would have rolled at the mud and barked at it, and I’m being charitable by calling it “mud”.
“Maleficent” is a missed opportunity and although I have not seen all of the contenders, I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up on many a Top 10 Worst of 2014 List come December. Don’t waste your time, don’t believe the hype and don’t think this fairy tale has a happy ending for you- it doesn’t.
Review written by Bea Harper