I can’t think of a more apropos way to return to the old stomping grounds. Maleficent is an old favorite character to many, including me. Have you seen the film yet? Are you looking for a spoileriffic guide to let you know if it’s worth your time? If so read on, because this big budget burst into the box office is not to be missed.
Yes, summer blockbuster season has arrived once again, and this time a challenger has arisen to steal away profits from the mouths of Disney and Marvel studios in order to deliver them… right back to Disney studios. Disney is apparently planning on bolstering its Avengers 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy profits (read: all of the money) with reimaginings of their more classic works, starting with Maleficent; a live-action remake of Cinderella is to follow in 2015. Given Maleficent‘s massively successful opening (netting about $70 million its opening weekend), it’s reasonable to assume that live action rehashings will continue so long as the consumer cash taps continue to flow, but Disney’s next project post-Cinderella is anyone’s guess. My money is on a gritty reboot involving Gepetto.
The choice to start with what is arguably Disney’s most chaotically evil character is a bold one but one that seems to have paid off: in spite of a relatively weak second act the reviews have been positive, for the most part.
And admittedly, were I in the position to choose a villain to remodel as a sort of antihero I probably would have made the same choice (though it’s difficult not to draw parallels to another well-known black-clad villainess redrawn as a hero). Between the titillating imagery and the practically blank slate Maleficent herself presents as a character, this story is ripe for the picking and was practically a guaranteed money-maker from the get-go. I mean, Maleficent is one of Disney’s most beloved villains entirely because she is evil for the sake of being evil. Much like Batman’s Joker, she just wants to see the world fall into chaos. Who wouldn’t want to see a film about how she became such a terrifyingly awesome force of entropy?
And for the first half hour of the film, things go swimmingly. Angelina Jolie delivers a stunning performance as the title character, melting into the role as seamlessly as massage oil into the creamy thighs of a supermodel. This new telling casts Maleficent as a strong, eagle-winged fairy of the Moors, which border the lands of King Henry, a greedy king always trying to conquer and pillage his neighbors. After a young, orphaned (not yet king) Stefan wanders into the Moors, he and Maleficent become fast friends. Eventually the two drift apart as Stefan grows to love human pursuits and Maleficent becomes the protector of her realm. However, when King Henry declares that the person to defeat Maleficent would win the crown after his death, Stefan uses his cunning to worm his way back into her good graces… and then drug her and cut her wings off with a frigging steel chain.
A man using the trust of a woman he supposedly cares about in order to drug her and violently mutilate her? Hoo boy, I wouldn’t take my kids to this one!
But, Maleficent is a strong creature, one not opposed to revenge either. So she picks herself up, dusts off, and waits for a time to strike. Soon she learns King Stefan has a child. Perhaps it would be a good time to visit?
And when things go all pear-shaped for him when Maleficent shows up at the baby’s christening, we are all on board. This is what everyone is here to see. She shows up in the iconic black suit with the iconic green flames, ruby lips stretched into a terrifyingly beautiful smile. The sequence is line for line, a complete reenactment of the original christening from Sleeping Beauty, with vastly different meaning and implication. That scene is easily the highlight of the film: of course she’s there to punish Aurora for the sins of Stefan. Of course he literally begs her to stop, supplicating himself in front of his entire court.
God, how delicious the tableau is during the whole scene, particularly because the audience is rooting for her. “Yeah, you go, girl! Curse that defenseless infant!” Because at that point, from a storytelling perspective Aurora isn’t even really a character yet, she’s an object, one that Stefan happens to find very precious. We don’t think about the fact that this little girl is just a baby. Maleficent is vengefully using her power to take the life of a child. And the fact that that’s the last thing on your mind while she tears Stefan’s life apart in one fell swoop, that’s friggin’ scary.
It’s especially disturbing when you consider that as a character, Stefan is written in a pretty poor fashion. Yes, Maleficent has every right seek her revenge upon him, but part of what makes revenge good is what we know about the recipient’s background. Compared to Maleficent, we know very little about King Stefan’s motivations.
As the film plays out, we know that he once cared for her, but then stopped for some reason. That would be easy to write it off as typical teenage fickleness if it weren’t for the fact that every other aspect of his character just sort of… plays out, like some kind of predestined act of fate. He decides to stop hanging out with her for no reason. He decides to start climbing the social ladder, even though the film specifically calls out his lack of attachment to both the human race and material possessions. He decides to go after the throne because…? I have no idea. And then he decides to be a bad king, bad father, bad husband, bad human being, just terrible all around. He has no redeeming traits whatsoever, so by the time we’re halfway through the film the script has to take the easy way out and paint him into the “paranoid psychosis” corner because there’s nowhere else to go. He transforms from what might have been a reasonably good villain character to a cardboard cutout with a Snidely Whiplash moustache stuck on the face.
The film’s narrator chalks it up to “falling into the greed and temptation of humans,” but I’m not buying it. It would be one thing if that broad generalization about the human race were matched by the behavior of at least most of the humans, but other than King Stefan and King Henry, all the humans behave in pretty decent, reasonably good fashion. Nearly the entire second act is spent using Aurora’s childhood to prove that oh-so-tired point, “not ALL humans are bad, just SOME of them!” You can’t try to paint humankind as a complicated animal with the ability to be or become inherently good, and then have one character just be completely evil for no reason. That angle might have worked if Stefan had had even one iota of redeemable character, just one ounce of repentance at the end that hints at the good person he once was. Obviously the film fails in that regard. Though I have to admit, the irony of having Stefan, rather than Maleficent, act the “chaotic evil” alignment is not lost on me.
I’m guessing that in reality, act two was originally about Maleficent and Stefan’s budding relationship and the subsequent fallout, but was deemed too dark for a film aimed at children. Instead, the redemption angle was crammed in with all the grace of a champagne glass being delicately filled with a live manatee. Maleficent follows Aurora around, making sure that she stays alive long enough for the curse to take effect, but instead ends up forming an attachment to the girl and decides to find a way to revoke her curse, which can’t be undone. It hits all the exact bullet points you’d expect; we’ve seen this story before a hundred times. This conflict is the last to be introduced and the first to be resolved–It’s like the story doesn’t even need it in the first place.
However, the redemption angle does lead to a large chunk of the film’s denouement–that is, the princess waking from slumber, the kingdoms uniting, and the narrator finishing the tale with as close to “happily ever after” as one can reasonably get without dragging into the cliché. Clearly, the writers and producers wanted it in the film very much on purpose.
I suspect this is because of the way the conflict is resolved–it’s not Prince Phillip’s kiss that brings Aurora back from sleep, but a gentle kiss on the forehead from Maleficent herself. Yes, that wonderful plot device that Disney has already used time and again, most notably in both Frozen and Once Upon a Time, the strongest love is not the love formed between teenagers in the space of a few weeks, it’s the familial bonds that keep us together throughout our lives.
You would think that the execs at Disney feel guilty for bringing up multiple generations in the belief that all their problems can be solved with brief heterosexual romance or something.
I’m hardly the only writer to talk about the feminist themes, particularly those alluding to violence against women in particular. Many film critics have noted that while there are some great messages put forth by the film, only Angelina Jolie and her character seem to be equipped to carry them out, as opposed to the rest of the cast.
Honestly, though, we can’t pretend that this film is a victory for feminism. Lest we forget, ultimately, this story is about a man violating a woman by mutilating her in the most gruesome fashion imaginable, whereupon she takes her revenge by violating the autonomy of another woman (albeit a tiny proto-woman). Yes, Maleficent‘s character grows as she comes to realize that this was the wrong thing to do, but I find little comfort in the message “you can overcome the hurt of your past by taking care of your attacker’s baby.” This film almost has it. Almost. But its theme is kind of wishy-washy, the characters are all over the place, and overall I feel like there were enough opportunities to fix both story and characterization that were just missed.
The film does have a few things going for it, though.
Between the flawless visual effects, the stunning cast performance, and the omnipresent if underdeveloped themes, the building blocks of a good film are all there. Furthermore, Maleficent is a film that, though rife with female empowerment, presents itself as entertainment “for everyone,” not just “for girls.” It’s a strong blow against the theory that people don’t like standalone female protagonists, a theory that seems to be particularly strong among action and comic book movies (though there have been a few steps in the right direction announced).
While it isn’t a sparkling example of perfect filmmaking, Maleficent is definitely an unforgettable epic, and one that will hopefully inform filmmaking to come over the next decade. Though this is a very adult retelling of the story, it is one that Disney would do well to continue. After all, now the Millenials are the ones filling up the box office and the trend toward revisiting nostalgic franchises of previous decades shows no sign of slowing. Thanks to Maleficent‘s success at the box office, I imagine it is a portent of better films to come.