‘Maleficent’ is bewitching despite Disney decrees

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First Posted: 5/26/2014

Angelina Jolie is not the kind of person that anyone would describe as warm. In spite of her many charitable activities, she still comes across as the human equivalent to the bare wire mother that macaque monkeys rejected in favor of the cloth mother. She’s distant, weird, and apparently an Ayn Rand fan. Basically, what I’m trying to say here is, “Why did it take her this long to play the villain from ‘Sleeping Beauty?’”

Why did she waste all of those years playing humans when Maleficent was clearly the part she was born to play? Only Jolie would have the unique insight to understand what’s going through the mind of an otherworldly creature that’s basically a cross between Joan Crawford and a very sexy goat. And it’s Jolie’s understanding of this sinister figure that is just one of the few elements that make “Maleficent” far more interesting than it needs to be.

Much like Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Oz the Great and Powerful,” “Maleficent” takes place in a thoroughly phony and incredibly hideous CGI-rendered universe that either looks like Middle-earth as envisioned by Thomas Kinkade or a faithful adaptation of the kind of artwork you’d see airbrushed on the side of a van in the ‘70s. But lurking beneath the film’s unattractive and nearly psychedelic visual trappings lies an earnest revisionist fairy tale that deserves some kind of participation trophy because everybody is trying so hard here. You just want to hug director Robert Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton tightly and kiss them gently on the forehead because they’re not just trying to pick up a paycheck – they have something important they want to tell you, man!

Like almost every movie made nowadays, “Maleficent” is something of an origin story that explains who its titular anti-heroine is and how she came to be. And who is Maleficent? Well, as it turns out, she was an idealistic young fairy who turned against humanity when her childhood sweetheart (a typically but enjoyably overacting Sharlto Copley) drugged her and cut off her wings (more on that later). As time passes, Copley becomes king, and during an opulent baby shower for his daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning), Maleficent crashes the event and curses the child to fall into an eternal slumber on her 16th birthday.

Ironically, when Aurora is placed in exile with her three severely incompetent fairy godmothers (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville), Maleficent reluctantly becomes Aurora’s silent guardian as she ensures the kid doesn’t starve or fall off a cliff. But is Maleficent protecting Aurora to make certain that her revenge against the king goes through without a hitch? Or is she starting to have quasi-maternal feelings for Aurora? It’s a Disney film. What do you think?

What sets “Maleficent” apart from similarly structured Disney product is the fact that the film carries a decidedly feminist slant with not only its nuanced interpretation of one the studio’s more cartoonishly evil villains, but also in the way it portrays the relationship between Aurora and Maleficent. Additionally, the film isn’t afraid to venture into some pretty dark places. The previously mentioned wings clipping scene functions as an unsubtle but still very jarring metaphor for rape as the moment ends with Maleficent waking up face down in the middle of the forest, sobbing uncontrollably. But this being a Disney film means that there is still merchandise to sell, and as a result, some of the film’s sharper edges have been filed down with the inclusion of a wisecracking raven assistant, a handful of cutesy fairy creatures, and a studio-mandated happy ending that undercuts some of “Maleficent’s” far more complicated themes (like the film’s surprising pro self-governance stance).

As it stands, “Maleficent” is uneven, but it’s also odd and occasionally daring. Besides, it earns bonus points for being better than “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a film that not only failed the Bechdel test but also laughed at its pencil skirt and called it fat. You are nobody’s friend, “Oz the Great and Powerful.”

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