Review of Maleficent, Directed by Robert Stromberg
Angelina Jolie makes Maleficent a movie worth watching. And she doesn’t even say very much throughout the film. Her accentuated cheekbones, her cold, creepy stares, the alabaster skin and ruby lips, the careful intonation of each phrase–the whole package keeps you fixated. There is no doubt that without Jolie, Maleficent would not sell, and fortunately both for the studio and for the audiences, the camera stays glued to this complex creature who fulfills in every way the proverb “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
In the vein of Wicked, this revisionist account of the Sleeping Beauty story takes us back to Maleficent’s childhood days. There are two kingdoms, that of the humans ruled by a medieval king and all the vices of mankind and that of the moors where magical beings and fairies live in harmony and rule themselves. An apt way to begin a fairytale. Maleficent is one of the strongest fairies and helps protect the moors. One day a young boy named Stefan steals a magic stone from one of the pools and Maleficent confronts him. Thus begins a friendship that morphs into romance, sealed with “true love’s first kiss.”
As Stefan grows old, he is lured by human greed and grows distant from Maleficent. The king has promised his people that they will take the moors and leads a host into battle only to be rebuffed by Maleficent and ent-like guardians. The king is fatally wounded by Maleficent and promises to give the crown to whomever can avenge him. Ambitious Stefan calls on Maleficent in the moors and they spend a pleasant afternoon together. But this afternoon ends with Stefan tricking Maleficent into drinking a potion that puts her to sleep. Unable to bring himself to kill her, he brutally removes her wings.
In perhaps what is the most gut-wrenching scene in Disney’s history, Maleficent wakes up to find her back shed of its large feathered wings, leaving two bloody stumps. Viewers cannot help but carry this tragedy of love betrayed through the rest of the movie. We see the tectonic shift in Maleficent’s character as she is consumed by her hatred and sorrow as well as the beginning of the Sleeping Beauty tale we know so well. She dons black robes and conjures classic green fire from the original animation picture. Maleficent summons thorny branches from the ground to hedge the moors from human incursion.
The continued parallels and allusions add to the rich fairytale fabric. To deride the false kiss of Stefan, Maleficent conditions Aurora’s curse on “true love’s kiss.” Stefan responds to the massive thorny vines that surround the moors with his own iron thorns around his castle (iron is poisonous to fairies). The eye-for-an-eye mentality is deeply embedded in the story, but so is the shift to forgiveness as the dominant theme. The triumph of love over hate is palpable.
Jolie again carries the movie with her stunning ability to convincingly portray a transformation from heroine to villain to contrition. As in Sleeping Beauty, Aurora is whisked away into the woods under the bumbling care of three fairies who know nothing of child-raising, leaving it to Maleficent to begrudgingly help keep her out of harms way. The foreboding Maleficent of lore turns into a fairy godmother and her stone heart beats again. She seeks to revoke the curse and so she must find true love to give Aurora the kiss required to break the spell.
Film critics have already begun registering their complaints about Maleficent, whether it be a mediocre music score or overcrowded scenes with a hodgepodge of magical creatures, too much CGI, and a poor screenplay. These are all true, especially the fact that without Jolie’s careful treatment of her limited dialogue, the script would fall flat. At the same time, many are praising the film for taking on feminist issues. Most significantly, the devastating scene of Maleficent awaking from her drugged sleep to find herself disfigured in a deep way echoes the tragedy of date rape drugs and sexual assault. The film also redresses relationships between women. A New York Times review of Maleficent concludes that the movie shows “…that budding girls and older women are not natural foes, even if that’s what fairy tales, Hollywood and the world like to tell us.”
It’s hard not to compare Maleficent to Frozen in that the ending is contrary to the typical princess love story. In Frozen, the “act of true love” is one sister sacrificing herself for the life of the other. In Maleficent, “true love’s kiss”–added to the curse because Maleficent doesn’t believe true love exists–turns out to be Maleficent’s parting kiss, not Philip’s. While Frozen’s hero is made out to be a decent, worthy guy who’s actually in love, Maleficent’s Philip is given short shrift. He hardly knows Aurora. And it’s true, in many fairy tales, love is defined as a vague, emotional feeling, that oftentimes seems to lack any knowledge of the other beyond “love at first sight.” Some view this as a rejection of the patriarchal narrative, whereas I would posit that this new definition of love is perhaps closer to its true meaning. Maleficent is a refreshing antidote to the banality shrouding most popular love stories as love without knowledge.