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Non-Review Review: Maleficent

As portrayed in the classic 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is an absolutely fascinating character. Like so much in that film, she is woefully under-developed, but brilliant character design by Marc Davis and sterling voice work from Eleanor Audley helped to fashion an iconic characters. In spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that Sleeping Beauty establishes so little about her, Maleficent endures one of the most recognisable and memorable characters in the Disney animated canon.

So, if a live-action villain-centric feature film was going to tackle one of the classic villains from the studio’s rich history, it makes sense that Maleficent would be chosen. Angelina Jolie seems almost born to play the role, carrying herself with a regal grace, an icy detachment, an impeccable sense of comic timing and spot-on vocal impersonation of Eleanor Audley. The production design on Maleficent is absolutely stunning, with the movie occasionally seeming like an animated classic brought to life.

If only the same amount of enthusiasm had been invested in the script.

All fired up...

All fired up…

It’s a bit of understatement to describe Sleeping Beauty as a “problematic” animated film. Part of this comes from the source material. As a fairytale, Sleeping Beauty is something of a feminist nightmare. A pretty young princess is sent to sleep by an evil witch and is awoken by a handsome and heroic price who decides to imply consent from the fact that she is lying there in a coma. It would have been very difficult to strip out all the uncomfortably sexist subtext to the story.

And, for the most part, the classic Sleeping Beauty doesn’t try. It is, as Mark I. Pinsky rather acerbically noted, “the third – and, thankfully, the final – time Disney made what is essentially the same movie.” Quite a few of the movie’s problems are introduced – or at least enhanced – by creative decisions made in the production of the story. The queen is anonymous and absent, the fairy godmothers are ineffective at best without a strong male character to do the heroic stuff, Aurora barely registers as a pawn to be fought over.

Something Wicked this way comes...

Something Wicked this way comes…

Maleficent is the only female character with any agency in that film, and the movie is decidedly hazy in defining her. She has an army and castle, so is she a ruling monarch? Why was she so offended at not being invited to the castle for Aurora’s celebrations? Why does everybody seem to hate her so much? There are lots of gaps in the script to Sleeping Beauty, but those gaps allow Maleficent to seem a fascinating and engaging character.

Maleficent is spared the sexist tropes commonly associated with female Disney villainesses of the era. Her outrage at the social snub seems more like pride than the raw vanity exhibited by contemporary and earlier antagonists such as the evil stepmother in Cinderella or the witch in Snow White or Cruella DeVille. Similarly, Maleficent seems quite in control of her mental faculties and decision-making, unlike the borderline psychotic post-menopausal female foes such as Cruella in 101 Dalmations or the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland.

Awakening the sleeping beauty...

Awakening the sleeping beauty…

So a lot of the choices made in the production of Maleficent feel somewhat confusing. What is added to the character of Maleficent by reducing her to a bitter and jilted lover, wounded by a man and striking back in the most petty and vindictive manner possible? How does the suggestion that Maleficent needs to embrace her own maternal instincts as a “fairy godmother” enhance the character? Rather than a queen in a castle commanding an army to her cold and sinister ends, Maleficent suggests the character is a bitter loner striking out emotionally and irrationally.

To be fair, Maleficent does make a few small efforts. For one thing, the movie seems to acknowledge how creepy the Sleeping Beauty legend is, even if it stops short of coming right out and condemning it. Early in the film, Maleficent is herself the victim of a violation while drugged into unconsciousness, in a scene designed to evoke the obvious creepy subtext of the classic fairytale. Similarly, Prince Phillip hesitates when he finds a pretty sixteen-year-old girl lying asleep in he bed chambers.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

“This doesn’t feel right,” he observes. “I barely know her.” It’s a nice concession to the creepy underpinnings of the old story, as is the eventual twist on “true love’s first kiss.” However, there’s a sense that Maleficent is a movie afraid of being too provocative or too challenging. For all that Philip may acknowledge how creepy this is, he still kisses a girl in a coma. Maleficent is a movie willing to acknowledge some of the uncomfortable realities of its source material, but it’s unwilling to follow through on either a blistering critique or an attempt to properly fix them.

Aurora’s mother remains a non-character here, as she was in the classic. She is not given a name here, nor any agency. She appears in the big throne room sequence from the original film, and is only referenced in a single film thereafter. This scene could be an attempt to draw attention to how superfluous she was in the classic film, but it reads like lazy plotting – a decision made because it makes the arcs of the other characters easier, rather than because Aurora’s mother is a character in her own right.

The darkness at the edge of frame...

The darkness at the edge of frame…

Maleficent herself is redeemed here through the power of motherhood, finding her basic decency when she is able to get over her broken (or “stolen”, to borrow the language of the film) heart by being cast as Aurora’s “fairy godmother.” She is a jilted lover redeemed through motherhood. No longer a queen leading an army, she is a recluse with a male henchman. (A male henchman who has a stronger sense of decency and conscience that seems to play some small part is setting Maleficent’s moral compass.)

Most pointedly, and even at its most optimistic and enthusiastic, Maleficent seems to reject the idea that a queen could rule without a king. Maleficent does not redeem her own right to lead or rule as a strong and independent woman, she seems to fight for that of Aurora, who still handily bumps into the handsome and charming Prince Philip on her sixteenth birthday. Maleficent is careful not to be as explicit in this implication as Sleeping Beauty was – reversing the order in which it states Aurora’s right to rule and her inevitable nuptials – but it is still there.

Any witch way but loose...

Any witch way but loose…

Still, Maleficent looks pretty. The production design is quite lovely. The make-up on Angelina Jolie makes her look very much like the animated character brought to life. Several shots and sequences are homaged and framed in a loving manner, with the production team doing an excellent job at recreating some iconic moments in live action. There is a lot of love that went into look and feel of the film.

Then again, the fact that Maleficent looks beautiful should not be a surprise. Robert Stromberg makes his directorial début on the film, but has a long history in production design – working on films like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. However, Stromberg’s lack of directorial experience shows just a bit. Running only ninety-seven minutes, Maleficent is a short enough blockbuster – but it feels like it could do with some tightening up. The  movie’s more dynamic sequences occasionally feel a little cluttered and it feels like the movie isn’t sure what to do with its characters outside of the eponymous anti-heroine.

Sleep on it...

Sleep on it…

The script from Linda Woolverton is disappointing. Aside from the plotting and gender issues, the film is weighed down by predictable characters and terrible lines. We’re told how a young boy snuck into Maleficent’s realm to steal jewels, but wound up “stealing something much more valuable.” (In case you don’t get it, Maleficent later confirms that it was her heart.) King Stefan is a woefully generic bad guy. The movie’s “thawing the ice queen through the power of frolicking” sequences are so cliché that you expect a catchy pop song playing over them.

Jolie herself is great, even if the surrounding cast can’t quite measure up. Managing to make the movie’s corny lines and awkward character beats work much better than they should, Jolie reminds viewers why she is one of the best leading ladies of the modern era. Elle Fanning is solid in the underwritten role of Aurora. That said, the decision to make Maleficent’s sidekick crow a stereotypical Irishman is rather surreal, particularly given the casting of Englishman Sam Riley in the part.

Maleficent feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. It takes one of the more intriguing and fascinating characters in the Disney canon, and reduces her to a bunch of sexist archetypes. Maleficent is defined as a jilted lover and a surrogate mother figure, with little space or consideration given to any other possible interpretation. It makes it seem that leaving the character under-developed in the classic 1959 film may not have been such a bad idea, if this is the alternative.

4 Responses

  1. So I guess ‘Kingdom Hearts’ remains the better of the alternatives?

    • I must confess I’ve never played Kingdom Hearts. How is it as a mega Disney crossover? (Also: how great would it be to make a sequel today with all the Marvel and Star Wars characters?)

  2. Great review as always.

    Oddly I’m reminded of ‘Wicked’, a nominally feminist film that in fact makes an admittedly uncomplex but still fearsome and powerful villainess with true agency into a supposedly sympathetic weakling by giving her a cliched backstory of heartbreak and betrayal. Filmakers need to learn that the trope ‘behind every bad woman is a bad man who made her that way’ is sexist against women. Why can’t we have a villainess who is bad on her own terms?

    One aspect I will quibble with though is the three fairy godmothers. In the original film they had bumbling qualities certainly – but they are brave and capable and their help is absolutely crucial in saving the day. Here they are brainless, quarrelsome cowards, who make everything worse. That is certainly a change.

    It is a peculiar sort of modernisation to take the most heroic female characters in the film and turn them into idiots.

    • Thanks Ross!

      I’m actually not too hot on the fairies in the original – they give Philip his sword and shield, but why do they need him to lead the charge for them? Also, their silly magic fight gets Aurora discovered. But yes, they were infinitely better than the three featured here.

      As far as the “behind every bad woman…” cliché that you correctly observe, I was just thinking – there’s no male equivalent for that, is there? If a male villain’s back story involves a female character it’s always that they either (a.) are dead, or (b.) rejected him. And those plots tend to reduce the female character to a plot object.

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