Maleficent is a live-action reworking of the story of the villain of Disney’s 1950s animated classic Sleeping Beauty, starring Angelina Jolie. It’s female-fronted and female-centred, interestingly introspective, and is a really good 97 minutes of fun that all the family can enjoy.
Maleficent also has some serious flaws. I don’t know whether they’re Disney’s fault or Stromberg’s, but they come from a mix of places, some of good intention. I want to talk about what the film could have been, and the Maleficent I would have liked to have seen. This review will contain SPOILERS for the film.
This is a fantastic film in many ways; Angelina Jolie has always had some serious acting chops, though she’s not always used them (Salt, Mr & Mrs Smith…), but as the conflicted, multifaceted, thoughtful Maleficent she’s really showing off her range. Gleeful, powerful, pensive, joyful, confused, frustrated, rageful, depressed and more are all personified on screen with an absolute confidence and power that really holds the viewer; that her character seems on one occasion to jump from one personality to another, almost totally conflicting one without any intermediate development isn’t Jolie’s fault, and that discontinuity is one of my frustrations with the film. The rest of the cast are equally wonderful; Sharlto Copley is an impressively driven, ruthless, maddened King Stefan, while Elle Fanning makes for a brilliantly naive princess Aurora. Sam Riley’s Diaval, both in human and raven form, is a wonderful character who, I think, is in many ways a representative of the audience; there are a couple of moments when Maleficent almost breaks the fourth wall in the way it uses him to acknowledge that something “shocking” was actually very obvious (especially the “true love’s kiss”).
This is also a film unafraid to subvert its source material. Maleficent gives us a Maleficent who isn’t evil, but angry at being betrayed, assaulted, hurt (indeed, essentially raped); who is both a hero and a villain; and who reconciles the two into a real humanity – the moment when she stands over Stefan’s dead body, regretful not at his death but at the whole train of events that led to it, contemplative, is a truly wonderful one. The subversion of the three fairies who act as Aurora’s guardians is fascinating; their comic failures in the original animation are increased to fullblown incompetence, and Aurora only survives because of Maleficent and Diaval interfering. Similarly, Aurora learns of her real identity not because of a boy, but because she wants to leave home to live in fairyland with Maleficent; this isn’t only a female-centred film, it virtually sidelines its men.
This is also a beautiful film. Maleficent, visually, draws on all sorts of places, from Sleeping Beauty to Pan’s Labyrinth; the diversity of what “faery” means is incredible, and the details are stunning, from the scars on the human Diaval to the way the treeguards’ slight motions show depth of emotion. That also extends into the human world; from the three faeries guarding Aurora, colour-matched to the original film, with their wonderful period costumes, to King Stefan and his brooding royal outfit that, like Maleficent’s, grows more magnificent as he grows more obsessed, this film really understands how to use visual details to excellent effect. This is perhaps most obvious in Diaval’s stint as a horse; this is a clearly avian horse, but still very horselike.
The major problem with this film is that it can’t let go of the original. Maleficent is not Sleeping Beauty, it’s another film, but with callouts to the original (the thorns surrounding Aurora become iron defences erected by Stefan to defend against the faery Maleficent, for instance). Some of them really work – Maleficent’s horns are really stunning, and allow for a great moment at the end of the film as she flies up, winged and horned, both angel and devil, above the clouds in a wonderfully symbolic moment. Others are horribly contrived; in order to have Maleficent’s dragon appear, they make the film more like an epic fantasy battle drama than the fascinating character study that most of it is. The final confrontation with Stefan feels like something out of Lord of the Rings, with faceless soldiers banging shields on the floor as the two enemies face off against each other.
Mostly, though, this is the Maleficent I wanted. The quiet introspection as she watches Aurora grow; the failed attempt to remove her curse; the realisation that punishing the daughter for the sins of the father is wrong; the attempt to fix it – all those elements are done beautifully, and from the moment of Aurora’s birth, battle scenes aside, this is essentially the exact film I wanted to see. However, what I wanted to see more of was how Maleficent went from bright-eyed faery child, friend to all the faeries, to their cold queen; there are some fantastic moments as she moves back to what she once was, while retaining her frightfulness, but even five minutes showing how she got from fighting to keep the faeries safe and free to the woman who forces them to bow down to her would have been five minutes well spent.
Maleficent really is an excellent film for the most part, and an interesting one. I just wish Stromberg had invested more energy in showing us characters and a little less in “epic battle scenes” that just felt out of place.