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‘Maleficent’ neuters an icon

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Maleficent

Written by Linda Woolverton

Directed by Robert Stromberg

USA, 2014

Michael Myers is terrifying because he’s an absolute. What exists behind the mask is confined to our imagination. As soon as Rob Zombie went behind the mask, and made Myers into a broken child, we lost a bit of the magic. The imagined terror of a crazed killer’s motivations were solidified, and suddenly he was less terrifying. Less interesting.

The same is this true of Maleficent in Robert Stromberg’s directorial debut. One of Disney’s most iconic villainesses, she is adored by women of all ages. In 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, she was a harbinger of chaos with an elegant grace and lethal determination. For many, she was the star of the film, while the waif-like Princess Aurora simply allowed the plot to happen to her. While Angelina Jolie’s embodiment of Maleficent is excellent, Stromberg and writer Linda Woolverton have managed to neuter the icon. Maleficent sees the destruction of a legend, a monstrous force of nature reduced to little more than a jealous woman scorned, and the besmirching of the legacy of Sleeping Beauty.

In spite of evil needing no introduction, Maleficent begins with our title character as a young fairy. Soaring through The Moors, the enchanted forest realm at the edge of the human world, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) watches over a people unified not by a king, but by community. She is their protector. One day, a young man crosses the threshold of their worlds, trespassing against sacred decrees. The child is Stefan (Sharlto Copley), in this story reduced to an orphan who steals his way to the crown. Breaking Maleficent’s innocent heart, Stefan steals her powerful wings as the toll he must pay to acquire the throne. In this moment, Maleficent is transformed, and the evil takes seed.

Some years later, news travels to The Moors of King Stefan’s marriage and impending child. The look on our heroine’s face is unmistakable jealousy, mixed with spiteful vengeance. Upon casting the now-famous curse, taken almost verbatim from Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent and her crow companion, Diaval (Sam Riley) search for the child who has been ineffectively hidden in the woods. She proceeds to watch over the infant Princess Aurora to ensure her survival through to her inevitable spinning wheel incident. In the process, Maleficent grows to love the child, and care for her like a mother.

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It would almost be enough if Woolverton and Stromberg had decided to amplify Maleficent’s malevolence. Instead, she’s reduced to little more than a heartbroken woman who falls victim to the wiles of a man, and the soothing call of her maternal instincts. She may have been a vile witch who cursed a baby, but evil has a way of lacking a moral compass. She needs no defense of her actions. Woolverton’s concept reads more as an apologist approach to an otherwise enchantingly strong female character. They strip Maleficent of her agency, break her heart, and redeem her as a mother figure, as if to imply that women must make amends for their failings through maternity.

While the origin story is far from new, it robs the audience of the primary enjoyment of cinema and the arts: the power of imagination. Darth Vader was emotionally complex in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Thanks to George Lucas, now he’s Hayden Christensen whining for two films. One of the most terrifying moments in horror cinema is Leatherface’s iconic reveal in 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. 2006’s The Beginning attempted to pin an origin on this inexplicable axis of evil, robbing audiences of the true terror of omission. Even Freddy was given a back-story in 2010’s bastardization of the 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s not where these villains come from that makes them work: it’s the not knowing.

Maleficent, though not as horrifying as these counterparts, works in much the same way. She is a villain, not a victim of circumstance. Giving her a back-story implies the character wasn’t good enough to begin with. It’s insulting to the original work, and presumptive to assume you could improve upon a legacy. In the end, this strong female villain is reduced to a 1950’s stereotype of femininity.

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Jolie’s embodiment of Maleficent at her darkest is truly wonderful. In spite of the shortcomings of the film as a whole, she deserves praise for perfectly capturing the lithe, languid allure of the character. Elle Fanning as the painfully naïve Aurora serves her function as decorative, ineffectual centerpiece. Her performance is perfectly fine, and she lives up to the legacy of the character, which is a relatively low bar to hit. Copley is simply too much as Stefan, quite possibly due to the quality of the directing. He wasn’t given much to work with, and it shows.

What seems worst of all is not only the castration of our protagonist, but that this is a slap in the face to the legacy of Sleeping Beauty. One of the most elegant and intricately illustrated animated films of all time, it was a living painting. Lush forests and towering palaces all reflected the height of medieval art. It was the last Disney film to use hand-inked cells, and took nearly a decade to produce. Eyvind Earle’s painstaking attention to detail had him creating backgrounds in nearly ten days, a process that would ordinarily only take one. Even the score, a beautifully rendered version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same name, has continued to captivate audiences to this very day. With Maleficent, we’re given a poorly mimicked version of Pandora with half the imagination, and Lana Del Rey butchering the once-enchanting Once Upon a Dream. In spite of Jolie’s best efforts, and Woolverton’s intentions, Maleficent cannot be saved.

– Ariel Fisher


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