When I was younger, Sleeping Beauty was a classic favorite. Like most young girls growing up in the middle of the Disney Renascence, I loved the songs and the story and I found Maleficent to be particularly terrifying. To this day, I would still rank her among the scariest Disney villains. The wicked fairy who turned into a larger than life dragon is still quite the iconic image for Disney. The latest venture back into the world of classic stories is another in a long line of revisionist films in which the villain is transformed into a misunderstood anti-hero and the "real" story is told through the eyes of a character who was previously denied a voice in their original tale. The last example, in theaters at least, was Oz the Great and Powerful in which we learned how the Wicked Witch became wicked and of course, Once Upon a Time has been doing the villain into anti-hero into hero take for three seasons now. Most of these ideas are following in the rather large footsteps of Gregory Magurie's "Wicked" saga in which the Wicked Witch of the West is given a name and a voice and a story that cannot be reduced to "ugly witch tries to kill a good girl." Where Maguire succeeds is in his character of Elphaba--that her story is outside of normal anti-hero woman tropes; her love life factors in, but only much later. How she became "evil" is a series of events beginning with her birth. And this is what Disney--be it Oz the Great and Powerful or Maleficent--fails at. They are still stuck in 1959. The moral of this new bright and shiny Maleficent movie? Don't have sex. Sex is bad. Virginity is good.
I want to do a quick, down and dirty plot explanation before moving into the problems I have with this film--and, to be fair, what I did like about the picture. Be aware that this is NOT spoiler-free. We are told from the first few moments that this is not the story we have been told before, but that what we are about to see is the true version of events. Long ago, there were two kingdoms, the human one and the fairy kingdom (called for some inexplicable reason The Moors). The two kingdoms were incredibly different--the human or "real" kingdom was populated by men who warred and were gluttonous and envious and revengeful. The mythic fairy kingdom--the realm of the divine--was beautiful and glorious, an inner sanctum only accessible by those who were magical and pure themselves. The king of the human land hated the fairies and wished to see them destroyed, but a tentative peace has been established at the start of the film. Inside the divine realm lived a little fairy by the name of Maleficent who was--as you might expect--good and kind and proper. She heals trees and is friends with the various mythic inhabitants that live in her realm. She's also an orphan because this is Disney and all heroes are orphans or have lost at least one parent (no, I'm not kidding. You tell me one famous Disney figure who has both parents living happily with them). When she is still quite young, a human boy wanders past the threshold of the mortal and into the divine. Heads up--in mythology, transgression into the divine never ends well.
What I Liked
--Angelina Jolie was born to play this role. When this movie was announced and you heard who would play the lead, I bet most of you said, "of course." She is deliciously wicked and broken in the role. She wears the leather costumes with ease and those prosthetic cheekbones fit her to a T. You can tell that Jolie had a lot of fun with this role, really sinking her teeth into doing some good ol' fashioned scene chewing.
--The costumes are to die for. Or at least Maleficent's are. The snake skin horned head wrap is stunning and I imagine there will be an Oscar nomination for the film's costuming department. The costuming for Aurora is perfunctory; it gets the job done. The princess is rendered in soft virginal hues of pink, peach, gold, and blue.
--The curse scene was the best in the film. Straight up Disney brought to life, and I'm not going to complain. Jolie had a ton of fun filming that one, and it works for her.
--Let's talk about sex. This movie is predicated on the fact that sex is wrong and virginity is to be celebrated. I gave this deceleration to my mother as we left the theater, to which she responded "what?!" What essentially happens to Maleficent, her driving motive for the whole film, is a loss of sexual innocence and purity. The removal of her wings as she sleeps is a stand in for both the wedding night and, as I mentioned, rape. It is this incident that turns Maleficent into the mistress of all evil; while she was still virginal and pure, even though she knew the ways of the world and the wickedness of man, she was still "good." The writer of this film decided that they only way to make Maleficent an interesting character was through sex, motherhood, and most damning of all, a man. Once she meets Stephan, her entire center becomes the love she bears for this man. We are told nothing about her life in between Stephan's visits, only that when he is gone, she mourns for him. And when he robs her of her sexual power--takes her divine feminine--she becomes a leather clad, staff wielding, baddie. The land of the divine, the fairy land, becomes dark and sinister, thorns overtaking the flowers and peaceful nature because Maleficent has lost her heart (and virginity). The woodland creatures live in fear of what Maleficent has become, a sexually aware woman who's entire modus operandi is focused on a man. Now, I am not trying to diminish rape even in the slightest, but this movie is one giant fail of the Bechdel test because everything revolves around a man: be it the dying and vengeful king; young boy Stephan; teenage heartthrob Stephan; horrible father Stephan; and crazed Stephan who must die. You almost expect Maleficent to pull out a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream and her Adele "21" CD and sing "Someone Like You." It is only when Maleficent if gifted her sexual power back--in the form of her divine angelic wings--does she manage to conquer the man who stole it from her in the first place.
--The three fairies, who were the best part of the Disney move, are incredibly annoying and shrill. They are the comic relief of the film and spend more time shrieking and fighting with each other than they do anything else. In the Disney film, they are actually quite helpful and powerful. Another case of turning women into simpering idiots, I suppose.
--A lot of quiet moments of no action or advancement. Now, I complimented Jolie in this role and I meant it. But too much of this film is the director having Maleficent sitting or standing and simply looking. She spends a lot of time watching and gazing and the director takes advantage of Jolie's looks and makeup and costuming to find ways to light her and angle his camera to capture her beauty. It was fine the first few times because she does look incredible, but after awhile, I began to get annoyed with the constant close ups and focus on her cheekbones and eyes.
--Maleficent doesn't turn into a dragon. I am going to repeat that. Maleficent doesn't turn into a dragon. Good lord--even ONCE got that part right!