The movie, that is. There was nothing wrong with Angelina Jolie’s performance as the classic Disney villainess of the same name. In turns ethereal, vengeful, spiteful, sorrowful and funny, Jolie gives one her best performances as Sleeping Beauty’s twisted fairy godmother. And the movie, written by one of The Mouse’s favorite scribes, Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland), is blatantly—almost aggressively—feminist, which is terrific and makes for some legit girl-power moments that had little girls cheering in their seats. It’s just…not very good. And that’s too bad because it was almost an instant classic along the lines of Frozen.
The problem is that script doesn’t hang together and the direction, courtesy of first-time director Robert Stromberg (two-time Oscar-winning art director for Alice in Wonderland and Avatar), is flat and boring and at times awkward and outright bad. An eye for visuals is not the same thing as being capable of visually telling an interesting story. Sharlto Copley is woefully miscast as Maleficent’s childhood friend turned adult nemesis, King Stefan—what the hell accent was that supposed to be, anyway?—and Aurora was not a real person but a girl-shaped plot device. Poor Elle Fanning, she really deserved more to do.
But the movie was called Maleficent, not Sleeping Beauty, so why does it matter if Aurora wasn’t compelling or the evil king was so comically cartoony he ought to have had a mustache to swirl, or if there were gaping holes in the logic and function of the story that amounted to the script going, “Yadda yadda yadda” in the audience’s face? It matters because Maleficent made a number of genuinely interesting choices and one truly brilliant one, and all these things that fell short of actual, quality filmmaking brought those better elements down, resulting in a mediocre movie.
The absolute best thing about Maleficent was the unapologetic feminist plot about Maleficent, a powerful fairy, being betrayed and mutilated by her childhood sweetheart, Stefan. Maleficent has beautiful wings, which are symbolic of her great feminine power, and the human king is jealous and fearful of her. In a bid to win the dying king’s favor, Stefan roofies Maleficent and cuts her wings off. The implication is plain—Stefan has raped Maleficent. She trusted him, loved him even, and he abused her trust and affection and took something that was not his to take.
The “morning after” scene is searing and painful—Maleficent awakens and immediately knows something is wrong with her body. She shakes, she makes an unearthly sound. I saw this at a regular movie theater with a paying audience of mostly girls and their mothers and it was dead silent as Maleficent wailed and limped away from the scene of her rape. It’s brutal and graphic—an emotionally harrowing metaphor that is especially timely. And it made the men in the audience squirm, even as the women watched in a two-toned kind of sadness. Sad first because Jolie’s performance is evocative and immediate, but sad also because that scene can easily be extrapolated into a story we’ve all heard before, and one that too many of us have experienced first-hand.
But from there, instead of building on the momentum of Maleficent’s recovery and spiritual rehabilitation, we decamp to a less-interesting story in which bumbling fairies raise a bland girl in a forest. There are moments of that other, better movie peeking through, particularly between Maleficent and her faithful friend, Diaval (Sam Riley, On The Road). Honestly, I could’ve done with less Aurora and more Diaval. The only Aurora scenes that mattered in the entire movie were the ones in which she confronts Maleficent, alternately deeming Maleficent her fairy godmother and an irredeemable villainess.
The movie would’ve been sharper if this was all Aurora ever said—she really wasn’t necessary to Maleficent’s story except that we know that Maleficent watched over Aurora because the fairies raising her were idiots. I would’ve much preferred to see the friendship grow between Maleficent and Diaval, so that when Diaval chose to stay with Maleficent, that moment really mattered. The “redeemed by a child’s love” thing with Aurora was much less interesting than the angry, damaged Maleficent still being capable of forming a meaningful friendship that ultimately brought her solace and companionship.
I also would’ve preferred that Maleficent got her wings back by her own power, and not because Aurora freed them, especially since Aurora never confronts her father over his despicable actions. She knows someone stole Maleficent’s wings, she’s able to put it together that it was her father, but instead of taking this plot to its logical conclusion and having Aurora gain agency by standing up to her father and calling him out, as she did Maleficent, Stefan just falls to his death in a direct rip-off of Beauty and the Beast.
Still, Maleficent delighted the children in the audience. By the end, girls were clapping and cheering as Maleficent regained her wings. I just wish the movie had the sand to stick with the darker theme and carry the rape allegory all the way through the film. That’s the kind of thing that allows a movie to age with its audience—girls love it as children because it’s bright and colorful and protagonist is interesting and cool. But they love it as women as they come to understand the story that’s really being told under that colorful surface, the one about healing and moving on and that even if your “wings are taken”, you can still get them back and be whole. Unfortunately, Maleficent doesn’t commit to that narrative well enough and I don’t think the movie will hold up to repeat viewings over time. Girls will outgrow it, which is a shame because the message it’s trying to impart is—sadly—timeless.