When I first saw the teaser for Robert Stromberg’s MALEFICENT (2014), I’ll admit I did a bit of an eye-roll. It’s just that I’ve never really jumped on the Angelina Jolie bandwagon. She’s never made the types of films that I’m usually drawn to. SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959) is probably my least favorite Disney animated feature. Before everyone jumps down my throat for saying that, let me explain. I’ve never thought there was much to a story about some blond chick who falls asleep for years until a man she met just once comes along and rescues her. All the things I love about BRAVE (2012) and FROZEN (2013) are what is lacking in SLEEPING BEAUTY. I’ve always been a doer, and if I don’t have something to do, you can be darned sure I’ll at least SAY something!
The best thing about Angelina Jolie‘s Maleficent is that she is a real doer. She reacts to situations around her with intelligence, logic, loyalty, and courage. Even as a child, she flies to the defense of her land when it is threatened by an outsider. She is consistently honest, and even when she is betrayed, she doesn’t take her position of leadership with force – her people willingly acknowledge her as their leader in times of trouble.
The Maleficent of the animated version comes across as incredibly irrational when she places a curse on the Princess Aurora, simply because she wasn’t invited to her party. The back story invented for MALEFICENT (2014) helps legitimize her desire to harm her ex-lover’s family. While Maleficent’s chain of thinking seems very logical, it is difficult to trace the motivation of the king’s deep desire to harm her, since he was the one who thwarted her to begin with. Instead of feeling pangs of remorse for betraying someone he once cared for for the sake of power, he clings all the more forcefully to his obsessive revenge.
The Maleficent of Stromberg’s film is also resourceful. When she loses her wings, she makes a walking stick for herself so that she can carry on doing her thing. When her kingdom is threatened by invading humans, she builds a think forest of thorns around the boarder. She is very good at delegating the work she can’t do to others, mostly her loyal sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) whom she saved from death.
Elle Fanning‘s Aurora is sweet enough, though she smiles too much. Maleficent’s relationship with the child she cursed has a strong line of development to it. While she clearly despises the baby of her former love, her feelings for Aurora shift as she watches her grow up. For no other reason but the humanity in her heart, Maleficent begins to care for the child, protecting her from harm to such an extent that the teenage Aurora recognizes her as “Godmother.” Although they have a falling out over the whole curse thing, they are able to work together to defeat the powers of jealousy and greed, as represented in the king.
Another thing that is truly magnificent about Maleficent is her ability to withstand pain. I remember thinking it was so cool how Agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) got stabbed in the leg in THE HEAT (2013) and muscled through it to get the job done. Male action figures in movies are always such heroes that get to get dirty and fall down and endure pain, but women are so often shunted off to the sidelines, out of harms way. I don’t want to out of harms way – I want to be right in the thick of it! Why is it that male movie makers for the past million years seem to have forgotten that women can endure childbirth, for crying out loud. We are not sissies! I love that Maleficent had her wings cut off, gets burned by iron, gets thrown about and dragged down, yet she stays in the fray and fights back with equal vehemence.
In addition to the ferocity of the dramatic scenes, comic relief is provided by the three good fairies, who really come across as traitors actually. Led by Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), the three fairies devote themselves to raising Aurora – badly. Their incompetence is very amusing. Maleficent is also funny, though I think I was the only one in the theatre who really laughed out loud at her dry humour.
As marvellous as MALEFICENT is, it is not without its flaws. For one, the male actors are not much to write home about. Same Riley is probably least bad. Sharlto Copley (Stefan) and Brenton Thwaites (Prince Phillip) are both really stiff. I think they were cast just for their Scottish accents. Sexy – but that doesn’t make them good performers (except in David Tennant‘s case – in which case, yes it does). I thought with the accents and with naming Maleficent’s land “The Moors” that they would in fact look like the Scottish moors, but no. It was more like a tropical fairy woodland. I don’t know why it was called the moors. Another thing I found confusing was that when she was a child, she was still named Maleficent, which literally means “harmfully malicious” (Dictionary.com). She doesn’t become malicious until much later. As a child she should have been named “Beneficent” or something like that.
One of the few things I like about the animated version of SLEEPING BEAUTY is Maleficent’s costumes. In this new film, her headwear is impressive, as are her wings, but some of her costumes seem rather stiff, especially the black gown she wears to the party where she curses Aurora. It simply doesn’t have the movement achieved in the cartoon. Most of the special effects of MALEFICENT are pretty cool, especially the magic and the fire.
MALEFICENT is a pretty clever twist on the traditional fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty. I like the character development and Angelina Jolie’s performance was worthy of the pro/antagonist. It was also pretty neat that Aurora wasn’t completely useless. I won’t give it away, but the true love’s kiss part was also pretty deep, though predictable. In my previous articles about 5 Disney Villainess Role Models I spoke about how many of our traditional baddies actually had many empowering qualities. It was amazing to see those qualities manifested in the Maleficent character. I look forward to the film version of “Wicked,” because it has become a hallmark production when it comes to the pro-antagonist theme. It is fascinating that when searching for strong female characters, filmmakers are turning to former villains, as if to suggest that qualities women were historically encouraged to abandon, like strength and leadership, are actually qualities we want today’s girls to embrace.