If I were a Disney animator I would quit. Pack up the office. Consider new careers. Perhaps take up sheep herding. Really, anything else. Because it is impossible to imagine a Disney villain more perfect than Angelina Jolie. Everyone else can just go home. As Maleficent, Jolie brings the full weight of her other-worldly features–and some very high-profile enhancements–to bear on audiences. And it is glorious, she is glorious, even if Maleficent the movie isn’t quite as glorious as the movie star who embodies her.
The live-action retelling of the classic Sleeping Beauty story benefits both from the world’s greatest casting and some welcome feminist underpinnings. Its opening refrain sets the stage for our experience, “Let us tell an old story anew and see how well you know it.”
Turns out, we didn’t know it that well at all.
In Maleficent we learn the unexpected backstory behind one of the most iconic Disney villains of all time. Real-life revisionist history tends to get a bad name, and rightfully so. But when it comes to Hollywood, revision is long over due for some of our most cherished tales. The House the Mouse built has given us princess after princess waiting patiently to be rescued by handsome princes.
So let’s hear it for the bad girl who bucks that trend. Stories like Maleficent and Wicked have brought us beyond the black-and-white, good-and-evil of some of our most famous fairy tales to reveal their true motivation. Which is a hell of a lot more interesting than just being drawn that way.
This is crucial because, let’s face it, Sleeping Beauty has always been a bit of a snore. Disney’s most passive princess literally sleeps through almost the whole damn movie in the classic cartoon. Forget the Bechdel Test, this is the denial of a heroine’s most basic agency–consciousness.
This Aurora (played with angelic, big-eyed glow by Elle Fanning) at least gets to stay awake for most of the movie. Though, as with the original film, Sleeping Beauty herself was never why we were there.
We’re there for Maleficent. And in that respect, the new movie delivers the goods.
Maleficent started out life as a wee sprite of a winged fairy living in a peaceful kingdom of magical creatures. A powerful and revered fairy, she falls in love with a mortal man from the bordering human kingdom. But as they grow older, their relationship wanes and ultimately ends in the most cutting of break ups. So it was only through man’s ambition and cruelty that she became the magnificently malevolent mistress of evil we all know and love/fear.
If it was possible to hashtag an entire movie with #YesAllWomen, Maleficent would be the one.
That righteous rage twists its way into something wicked and wondrous. From her smoldering anguish arises the Maleficent from our childhood nightmares. She is all horns twisting endlessly into the night sky and cheekbones sharp enough to slice deli meats. With green smoke streaming off her black cloaks and a devilish smile on her blood-red lips, Jolie’s Maleficent is worth the price of admission alone.
She is a delight when at her most devious. With her trusty crow/manservant Diaval (Sam Riley) on her shoulder, she is a presence that cannot be ignored. And you can tell the woman is enjoying herself. Never have I seen the line, “I hate you,” directed at an infant with such glee.
Then the road toward happily ever after takes another turn. Indeed, she curses Aurora, the only child of the king (her former flame), to the needle prick and death-like sleep of lore on her 16th birthday. Then our fallen fairy sits back to watch the princess grow (under the inept guardianship of three woodland fairies there to provide juvenile comic relief) with the detached fascination of a cat toying with a mouse. But along the way scorn turns to something else entirely.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton (writer of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast) teams with first-time director Robert Stromberg (production designer of Avatar) to bring a visual smorgasbord to the table. But with a set piece as epic as Jolie is already, less is more. You can’t help but feel bloated by the overstuffed array of unexplained and unending fantastical floating, crawling, stomping creatures squeezed into the story.
Because this is Disney they couldn’t help themselves and had to create a cardboard villain to root against. In this instance it’s Maleficent’s former flame, King Stefan. Though, I won’t lie, it’s nice to complain about a one-dimensional male Disney character for a change.
The story can meander at times when it should soar. And it doesn’t give Jolie enough time to revel in her wickedness. She is written just shy of truly complex. But as anti-heroes go, she’s about as good as Disney can do.
Which brings us to the little issue of true love. [Warning: Spoilers, yo.] Like in the classic tale, the only way to wake Aurora from her slumber is true love’s kiss. But, thankfully, we don’t have to rely on a dopey prince to pucker up this time. While there have been whispers of possible lesbian subtext, it’s clear the true love expressed here isn’t the romantic kind promised in all those storybooks. And while some may indulge in the beyond May-December possibilities of Maleficent and Aurora, I prefer to bask in the warm maternal glow of a redeemed fairy godmother.
This is a fairy tale, after all.