There’s a certain cruelty to the kind of woman who, at the drop of a hat, would curse the youngest child in a room; a child who in no way could have affected her life in any real way considering her birth came mere days prior. Her reason? She wasn’t invited to a party, or more specifically, a royal christening. Yes, this is the kind of woman you fear. The one who turns the smallest slight into such a large offense that she is willing to kill for it. In 1959, Maleficent was that woman. In 2014, it’s like that woman no longer exists.
Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, another film in a cycle of Disney’s “reimagining” of classic works, takes the vindictive villain of Sleeping Beauty and turns her into something entirely unfamiliar. To call these “reimaginings” glorified big-budget fan fiction wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, and that’s exactly what this film feels like at times. As her character once stood, Maleficent was the self-proclaimed Mistress of All Evil. Now, Linda Woolverton’s screenplay (coming just after her last disastrous “reimagining,” Alice in Wonderland) provides her a back story, and it’s not a pleasant one. When Maleficent was young, she was a full-fledged fairy; massive wings allowing her to fly over the magical realm known as the Moors. She falls in love with a peasant, they share “true love’s kiss,” grow up, and he betrays her and slices off her wings to become the next king.
What ensues next is essentially a massive rewriting of the events of Sleeping Beauty, to make it seem like Maleficent has been the one protecting and falling in love with her daughter-figure Aurora all along. The problem with this shift in narrative and character is that it takes away everything that makes her such a fascinating villain. Sure, she remains angry that she wasn’t invited to the royal christening, the beautiful bitterness of her character coming through best of all in the scene where she slowly steps around and puts fear into everyone in the kingdom. By limiting that part of her character through the presence of her being an irrationally emotional woman, you lose the real essence of Maleficent. Instead of her being bitter about not being invited to a party, you make her a woman who only exists to be bitter about a man, and that’s so done to death. We don’t need another crazy ex-girlfriend; we need to keep the queen who doesn’t need a man to come to her rescue.
Maybe if I lived in a world where Maleficent hadn’t been such a prevalent villain in my childhood, where Sleeping Beauty didn’t exist, some of Woolverton’s writing might actually be rather appealing. Even though Maleficent’s fury hinges on heartbreak, it’s rather nice to see Disney furthering the meaning of “true love” through a lens other than romantic love. It’s nothing particularly new (as we’ve seen it quite a few times over recent years with Brave and Frozen, but it’s still respectable nonetheless. In Maleficent’s case, the bond of “true love” plays out closer to familial love than anything else, the relationship between her and Aurora changed entirely. Moments of affection from Maleficent to another living being like this are only acceptable because they aren’t based around her fawning over a man and because of the Man Ray photo-sized tears that Angelina Jolie shed at one point. Regardless, scenes like this work against the established characterization, and it’s kind of sad.
Covering a lackluster tale with nice costumes, visual effects that looked like they came from the Avatar cutting room floor, and Angelina Jolie’s flawlessly sculpted cheekbones sadly does not make a good movie. The collection of useless characters surrounding her makes it even more of a struggle to sit through. Perhaps if more of Maleficent’s true nature as the Mistress of Evil had remained in this film — as there were a few glimpses of that scattered through Jolie’s on point, deserving-of-better performance —Maleficent could have been an interesting watch. Sadly, as it stands, you’ll get more out of glancing at the poster of her face every so often while watching Sleeping Beauty. If anything, I dislike Maleficent more simply for the fact that its 1959 counterpart feels more progressive than the nonsense I’ve been handed in 2014.
Maleficent is currently in theaters and available for pre-order on Amazon Instant Video.
Directed by Robert Stromberg; screenplay by Linda Woolverton; based on the film Sleeping Beauty, the story “Little Briar Rose,” and the story “La Belle au bois dormant”; starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Brenton Thwaites; 97 minutes.