Picture the cult revenge fantasy flick I Spit on your Grave with a happy ending and some magic, and your imagination might approximate the experience of watching Disney’s new release Maleficent, starring a fearless, luminescent Angelina Jolie. A film that vacillates between torture and bliss, it attempts to alter the story of the basic subject matter with studied use of A-lister Jolie, who shows herself at her best and most powerful, yet controlled. The film, however, flounders in the confusion created for those who follow their feminist re-imaginings to their logical conclusion.
Joyful individualist Maleficent, with her curly horns and big black wings, grows into a beautiful young fairy buoyed by a mixture of promise and wisdom beyond her years, as she shepherds the quirky mix of creatures in her home in the moors. She encounters the human Stefan, from the kingdom beyond, and what starts as a friendship becomes more. His greed and ambition to become king leads him to betray her by drugging and de-winging her. She wakes up, barely able to walk, weeping at the loss of her flight, her wings, and the betrayal by the man who offered her “love’s true kiss”. She changes and darkens immediately, building a colossal grudge, and whatever else transpires, she spends most of the rest of the movie in a vengeful stew.
One scene is nearly identical to the original cartoon, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent curses Stefan’s new baby girl to an eternal sleep, when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel by her 16th birthday. As she puts it, “no power on Earth can stop the spell”. The royal family, in an attempt to keep their baby safe, send her away with a trio of bumbling diminutive fairies, who amount to little more than criminally negligent babysitters. In the first few minutes sequestered in a cottage with the babe, they allow her to wander off and over a cliff. Fortunately, Maleficent is hovering in the wood to save the day. She continues to watch over her from then on, slowly falling for the girl Aurora (Ella Fanning) and her sweet innocence.
If the filmmakers wanted to subvert the archetypes present in the history of fairy tales, bursting the expected and redefining qualities of the the hero, the virgin, and the crone figures, the new world they create in which to tell their story must have its own logic and consistencies. Maleficent does not. In Jolie’s character being driven to revenge by one man’s betrayal, and the subtext of loss of innocence or virginity present in the experience of losing her wings, we are once again witness to the placement of women in society based on other people’s perceptions, instead of their own. A desire for self actualization, as separate from how men see them, is not made part of the story.
In this film, Stefan has not just taken her innocence but her wings, which were a unique and literal extension of her beauty and individuality that brought her joy. As she says, they were “strong and never failed her”. Disney’s original Maleficent character, as fleshed out by animator Marc Davis, continues to be popular because she is a delicious pastiche of Norma Desmond, goth queen, and drag queen. In this new film, all her villainy is removed and she becomes a victim seeking revenge, much like the characters in the aforementioned revenge fantasy horror films, but without the consequences inherent to the choices vigilantes make in their quest for vengeance.
One of the most unforgivable aspects of the script is its humorlessness. They don’t let Maleficent have any fun, or deliver much in the way of pointed one-liners. Angelina Jolie was more than up to the task, so it over two full hours of missed opportunities. The only thing that makes the character in this movie memorable is Jolie’s tenacious acting prowess and her accentuated cheekbones.
As the ingenue, Fanning’s Aurora does little more than giggle in wide eyed wonder. It is as if she is entirely unfettered by a shred of common sense or self preservation, making viewers wonder about the message the filmmakers are saying about the nature of innocence. If they are attempting to make a consistent statement about women finding or rediscovering their power, it is lost in the juxtapositioning of the traditionally beautiful girl and the older black-clad cynic whose magnetism and beauty is based in something less easily defined. Are they stating that beauty only exists in youthful naiveté, or are they saying a chosen innocence, where someone who has been wronged or experienced hardship chooses to find joy despite knowing of the darkness of life, is also beautiful? If the screenwriter and director are espousing that philosophy, it isn’t made clear.
Even with all these gaffes, the audience still experiences something quite beautiful and tragic in the growing love between Maleficent and the child she has cursed, whom she nicknames Beasty. There is also a stillness in Jolie’s Maleficent, an acceptance of her uniqueness even in the absence of what she saw as her most powerful quality, her wings, that draws the audience to her and makes them her ally.
With willing suspension of disbelief and chosen ignorance of subtext, which is decidedly difficult given it’s intended statement of feminism and girl power, viewers can enjoy the fascinating albeit bizarre environments created by director Robert Stromberg, who is known for his visual effects in Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, but most especially Jolie’s performance. She wrings out every subtle nuance, staying so emotionally committed and intense, she carries even the most dubious viewer through to the film’s conclusion. It is a performance worth seeing, and compensates for an otherwise inconsistent film. A revenge fantasy it may be, but the filmmakers and Disney get marks for trying to superimpose it on top of a story we have all heard not only once upon a time, but a million times. We are due for a change, and at least they are trying to give it to us.
2 1/2 out of 5 stars