Disney repurposes an old animated classic, recasting that film’s villainess as a shifty antiheroine. The result is a visually busy, sometimes good-looking, very weird, and ultimately damaging experience.
The character of Maleficent, as first seen in Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty, has gained a weird amount of cultural traction in recent years. Disney, always very conscious of their own branding, has – over the course of the last 15 years or so – cleverly begun lumping their animated villain characters together as part of a Disney Villains brand; the company seemed to realize that the evil characters in their animated features are typically way more interesting than their heroes. And sitting atop the central throne of the Disney Villains brand was Maleficent, dressed in flowing bat-like robes, and sporting a big pair of demonic horns. In her original film, Maleficent transformed into a dragon, evoking the powers of Hell. Many fans have latched onto her as a fascinating and scary figure.
In what is part an exploitation of their Villains brand, and part an attempted continuation of the success Disney saw in 2010 with their repurposing of Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent is a CGI-laden “darkening” of their own 1959 film, now with more violence. We now see the story from the point of view of the villainess, and understand her motivations (mostly) for doing what she did in that film. Only the story has also been re-written, so Maleficent can play a more active role in Sleeping Beauty’s life, and perhaps alter her own sword-in-the-belly fate. Explaining the backstories of villains is always a dodgy proposition in my eye – I’ve always felt it’s more dramatically satisfying when monsters remains threateningly mysterious; it never makes them more scary to know where they came from – but I can at least understand Disney’s impulse.
Unfortunately, their impulse tips too far into nonsensical territory. Maleficent is a hodgepodge of swirling fantasy imagery, indulgent tweener projection, and some truly unsavory themes.
Let’s start with the visuals, since they are the most notable thing about the film. Maleficent looks like director Robert Stromburg (the Academy Award-winning special effects chief and production designer behind Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) is directly imitating Tim Burton in many ways, and he often strikes a unique balance between colorful Disney cleanliness and gorgeously dour haunted house creepiness. There are large cavernous castles, idyllic forest glades, and a realm of fairy creatures that looks like a blacklight poster come to life. Although, I recommend you see the film in 2-D. The 3-D glasses will only obscure the darkened visuals to the point of visual incoherence.
The story is a muddled mess. Maleficent (Ella Purnell as a teen, Angelina Jolie as an adult) is a horned fairy living in blissful anarchic joy in the nearby fairy kingdom. The ambitious king’s son Stefan (Jackson Bewes as a teen, Sharlto Copley as an adult) had a teenage affair with Maleficent, eventually leaving her to become a more proper prince. He only returns to the fairy realm to get Maleficent drunk and sever her wings in order to prove that he’s a worthy successor to the throne. This mutilation – a symbol for heartbreak, although some have said it’s a symbol for rape – transforms Maleficent into a bitter evil wizard, and she proceeds to become the queen of fairy land. When Stefan has a child with his new queen, Maleficent appears in court to curse the child. This was the scene that opened Sleeping Beauty. Only now, Aurora will not die. The whole spinning wheel detail was also thought up by Maleficent in the moment.
Just as in the original animated film, the princess Aurora (Elle Fanning when she finally grows up) is spirited away to be raised by three fairies in the woods, but, in this version, Maleficent spies on her from afar for 16 years, calmly raising her while the other fairies prove to be incompetent parents. How sad that such classy actresses like Imelda Stanton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple (who play the three fairies) should be employed only to play creepy CGI avatars of themselves, or just broad slapstick buffoons. Why does Maleficent want to raise this child she has cursed to fall into a slumber? It’s never really explained. When Aurora grows into a teen, she and Maleficent hatch a plan to run away to fairy land together; Maleficent is Aurora’s fairy godmother in this version.
And, eventually, there will be a big battle with a dragon, knights, and a violent tussle between Stefan and Maleficent at the top of a tall tower. Luckily, this film does not overstay its welcome, rounding out at a proper 97 minutes. A single more minute of elaborate fantasy battles would have been exhausting.
Maleficent‘s story is a confusing Wicked-like mess of unclear motivations, bizarre character choices, and rushed references to the 1959 original; it seems like the screenplay could have worked through a few more drafts. But more than that, I am uncomfortable with Maleficent‘s messages. Maleficent – with her embittered cloistering, Gothy fashion sense, and obsession with an ex-boyfriend – is clearly an emotional avatar for any young girls who have experienced the go-to-your-room-and-stay-there tweener angst of Jr. High School. What Maleficent says to young girls is that if your heart is ever broken, or you’re ever upset for any reason, your ability to sulk is what will give you power. This is a figure that doesn’t encourage young girls to rise above, be better, be stronger, but to get petty revenge. To channel your energy into resentment. And that, at the end of the day, is what will make you a hero.
I don’t like this. For all its ambitions and striking visuals, Maleficent is a dreamlike miasma of bad ideas. There is a film about young girls opening the same day as Maleficent called We Are the Best!. That film shows a much more real, honest, and encouraging portrait of young girls growing into adolescence. If you have young girls, I would implore to take them to that film instead. It’s better for them.