Maleficent is based on Sleeping Beauty. Sleeping Beauty is literally hundreds of years old. Yet here is a spoiler alert: this post will discuss the plot of Maleficent in great detail. You’ve been warned.
Of all the villains re-imagined and popularized by Disney, Maleficent might just be the most fearsome of the pack. She has none of Gaston’s goofiness or Captain Hook’s insecurity; she has powers beyond what Cinderella’s stepmother could ever imagine. She revels in wickedness, basks in cruelty. She’s petty and violent and bitter. She can hold a grudge like a toddler holds a teddy bear: with all her might, close to her heart. Maleficent is the stuff nightmares are made of. She is fury in human form.
At least, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty is. Maleficent in Maleficent? Not so much.
This is Maleficent’s fatal flaw: If you’re going to make a movie about one of the most legitimately terrifying Disney villains of all time, you’ve got to keep the “terrifying” and “villain” in there somewhere, instead of just the “Disney.”
As the movie begins, a British voiceover tells us of two kingdoms — one human, one magical — that were once at war but now live side-by-side. The peace between them is maintained through a tacit agreement to never, ever speak to one another, not unlike a truce between freshman roommates who realize they have nothing in common but also nowhere else to live. A winged, young Maleficent from the magic side befriends Stefan, a human boy. So already, we’re spending about twenty minutes of a ninety minute movie with a Maleficent who is innocent and good-hearted, a wide-eyed, giggling free spirit.
But in the inciting incident for Maleficent’s spiral into wickedness, there’s the promise of a darker movie ahead. Stefan, who Maleficent knows, trusts, and once loved, gives Maleficent a drink to make her fall asleep, and then he cuts off her wings. In other words, he roofies her and assaults her while she’s passed out. She wakes up to find him gone, and when she feels what he’s done to her body — not to mention her emotions — she lets out this incredible, anguished howl. It was stunning to see, as the kids say, that Disney went there.
After treading water in the scene-setting pond for so long, the movie seemed to be picking up speed and grit. Surely this was a sign that at least the next third of this film with Maleficent as anti-hero: vicious, violent, dangerous. Like a villain.
Instead, we get only one scene of villainy. It’s the scene you already know: AND ON HER SIXTEENTH BIRTHDAY SHE WILL PRICK HER FINGER / A SLEEP LIKE DEATH / GREEN SMOKE EVERYWHERE. Wicked Angelina Jolie is phenomenal. I’d spent so much time thinking of her as that earthy, globe-trotting celebrity mom I’d totally forgotten she could do this sort of thing. If only we’d been able to see more of this.
Alas, that is the first and last time we see Maleficent do anything evil. After cursing Aurora, Maleficent opts to lurk around the little princess’s hideaway. It’s almost like Maleficent wants to develop an attachment to this girl she’s doomed to an untimely sleep-like-death. So Maleficent gets ten minutes to be a woman scorned, and then she spends the rest of the movie learning to love again and trying to undo the one badass, evil thing she did.
Even in the epic, movie-ending battle, Maleficent doesn’t get to kill Stefan. She takes the high road away from his jugular. It’s only after she lets him live that, when he attacks her again, their tussle ends in his — conveniently guilt-free — fall. If you’re thinking, “Hey, isn’t that exactly how Gaston dies in Beauty and the Beast?” you would be correct! Linda Woolverton wrote that screenplay, too.
I worry what this means for future revisionist “from the bad guy’s POV” flicks from the people who brought us some of the greatest villains of our time. What’s next? Does Cruella De Vil wind up working at an animal shelter? Are we giving Captain Hook a long-lost crocodile love? Will 2015 introduce us to Ursula: Underwater Motivational Speaker? Humanizing evil is all well and good; criminals aren’t designed in a lab and raised in a vacuum. Show us how Maleficent got that way, fine. But taking the villainy out of these villains is like taking the poison out of Snow White’s apple.
A movie like Maleficent assumes that children can’t handle villainy, or don’t want to, a thesis that runs contrary to some of the greatest children’s stories out there, including Maleficent’s source material. Part of childhood entails confronting villains in fiction as a kind of rehearsal for witnessing or experiencing villainy in real life. Kids need and want to see the Wicked Witch of the West just as much as they need and want to see Dorothy. Imagine how dull, how purposeless, children’s literature would be if every horrifying villain were excised from the pages: if we had no Miss Trunchbull, no White Witch, no Big Bad Wolf.
It feels like these filmmakers think that, in order to humanize a bad guy, the bad guy must be put in a context that proves he is really a good guy. It’s the villain-as-victim, the poor, unfortunate soul who is really just heartbroken, misunderstood, or lost. As if there is no such thing as a bad guy: only a good guy who nobody gets, who is just waiting to be redeemed. As if being misunderstood or heartbroken is justification enough for an act of evil; as if we would forgive all the world’s killers, if we just got to know them better. As if that would excuse their violence. As if humanizing a character means removing every trace of evil from them. As if humanity and evil are somehow mutually exclusive, instead of deeply intertwined.
Other problems with Maleficent include, but are not limited to:
-The three “good” fairies who are aggressively idiotic for reasons unclear (it is also unclear why such good actresses had to be saddled with such dopey roles, or why the king would entrust his daughter to these nitwits who, until Aurora’s christening, he had never met.)
-A young Maleficent, played by a miscast Isobelle Molloy, who could not evoke Jolie’s Maleficent’s presence and strength less. Molloy has been costumed like My Imaginary Well-Dressed Toddler Daughter after a tumble through the Free People catalog. She seems like a sweet kid, but where’s the fire? Was Maisie Williams too busy laughing in the face of death to swing by the set and knock this one out of the Moors?
-Ambiguous magical abilities that come and go as called for by plot, not dictated by character. How can Maleficent turn a crow into any animal she chooses, even a man, but not make her own wings grow back?
-Poor casting choice for both young and grown Stefan. His high voice is no match for Jolie’s tenor, and his meek, slowly deteriorating mind hardly seems like the kind of thing that would have captivated an adolescent Maleficent in the first place. He seems like he’d sooner get his face cut on her (100% amazing, best part of the movie) cheekbones mid-kiss than sweep her off her feet.
-The mysterious absence of anyone in the entire kingdom even close to Aurora’s age, the only exception being the prince, who we barely see.
-Weak writing. This is a huge disappointment because Woolverton’s Beauty and the Beast is just about ***flawless. But the most memorable line from Maleficent is “Well, well,” which tells you everything you need to know about both the lameness of the script and the power of Jolie’s delivery.
-Special effects that are not all that special, given that they appear to have been lifted straight out of Snow White and the Huntsman and/or Frozen. The “true love’s kiss” twist is also just like Frozen, but I’m not all that upset about it; I can support the trend in film that values female friendship and devotion just as much, if not more, than romantic love, especially a movie for children who are far more likely to relate to mother/daughter sister/sister devotion than to heterosexual courtship.
-Sleeping Beauty only sleeps for approximately three minutes.