In terms of review, Maleficent is a good—not great — movie. Jolie’s performance in particular is worth noting and I thought the special effects were actually utilized with some measure of restraint—a welcome respite these days. Although the story at times is disjointed, the overall impact is still somewhat powerful. Performances outside of Jolie are unable to match her intensity but I think the biggest downside to Maleficent is how it departs from the original 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty. The differences were noticeable and even jarring at times, but surprisingly I didn’t have a hard time getting past it.
I’ve been in several exchanges in which the general impression of Maleficent was underwhelming. I get that. It’s by no means a kid’s movie and it departs rather radically from what most consider “Disney.” But that’s actually what makes this movie work for me. For one thing, fairy tales are usually dark and it doesn’t require much to realize that many of Disney’s films include a villain that represents the worst kind of evil in the world. Scar is a murderer. Cruella De Ville is a puppy killer. (What can be worse than that?). Jafar is willing to leave Aladdin in an underground cavern to die a slow death. So Maleficent, in that respect, is true to the genre.
As the movie unfolds, however, a couple of surprising narrative threads come to light. First is the unexpected healing, redemptive journey that Maleficent is on. Her story begins in the Eden-like land of the Moors before heartbreak and betrayal of the highest order put her on a path toward the Maleficent we know from the original Disney feature. The revisionist twist here is that the title character is a victim. Moreover, she is a victim betrayed by love —specifically “true love’s kiss”— in an intense scene charged with sexual violation. Instead of giving in to the resulting pain that could easily usher in the well-worn path of destruction, this story offers an alternative redemption that progresses at a very believable pace. This a matter of identity. Trauma—particularly the trauma experienced by Maleficent— has the potential to send us spiraling into a false identity. We see Maleficent, however, recover her identity throughout the movie’s narrative. In short, it’s a story of healing and recovering something of what’s truer of about herself than what she has become. Maleficent’s path to healing and redemption became the primary story driver for me. That is, when I wasn’t wondering internally, “How are they going to pull this off?”
Second, and perhaps even more interesting, is Maleficent as a corrective heroine relative to the traditional Disney princess. Disney heroines have traditionally been portrayed a certain way. That is, she is beautiful but deprived; she possesses inner strength and resolve but needs help; her dreams require a rescuer; yes her dreams are realized but it requires a little ingenuity and a lot of patience. Beginning with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog this prototype began to change. Tiana has her own dreams and ambition. She doesn’t really need a prince. And she’s not only willing to do the work to create a desired outcome for herself but has already started the process when we are introduced to her.
Maleficent —while not a princess, still close as the apparent sovereign of the Moors — continues this course correction and probably turns it up a notch. Not only is romantic love not at the heart of her transformation, but the prince, now king, is actually the antagonist. In the signature scene of the movie it is Stefan, the king, that is on his knees in complete deference to the female lead. But this Maleficent is is acting out of the trauma of betrayal, not the character she will become through her relationship with Aurora. The victim through the first third of the movie, Maleficent finds her heart and identity through relationship apart from romance —in defiance of romance in fact. This film, as others like it, show us that romantic love may not be the ultimate human experience—or at least not the most redemptive one. Suffice it to say, very different from my expectations going into this movie, Maleficent is very human.
I like the traditional Disney princess and all the happy endings. But I’m also not opposed to a bit of revision like what we’ve seen in the last 5-6 years. Cinderella and Belle are great but Maleficent and Tiana are even more complete characters and they also require a little more of us.