Get out your evil curses and shape-shifting crows, we're reviewing Maleficent!
Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a fairy in charge; she’s the self-proclaimed protector of the Moors, home to all sorts of magical creatures. But when a childhood sweetheart, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) comes back to betray and disfigure her, she becomes bitter and hateful. One day, she hatches a plan to get her revenge by cursing his only daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning). But this is not the story of Sleeping Beauty that you were originally told.
This was not the movie I was expecting at all. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I was expecting something like Snow White and the Huntsman, a modern retelling of Sleeping Beauty with more backstory to what turns Maleficent so evil. Instead, this is a completely new take on the story, making Maleficent a redemptive hero instead of a villain. I really liked classic Maleficent as a character because she's simply evil for evil's sake, and when you try to explain that, you can sometimes lessen the original character. (Like, for example, Baroness just being mind-controlled in the first G.I. Joe movie instead of giving her a good reason to be evil) So I'm glad that they made her a completely different character instead of trying to ham-fist some origins. I would have liked to see Angelina Jolie be straight up evil for an hour and a half (and we do get some of that anyway) but this is cool, too. This is more like a big dumb action fantasy movie with a female lead.
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent is worth the price of admission alone because she KILLS IT. She kills it and then WEARS ITS HEAD AS A DECORATIVE HAT. She looks the part and she acts the hell out of it. The movie is a dumb mess but she is the glue that holds it together. You can't help but love her in every scene, whether she's fighting as an action hero or cackling as a mischievous villain. I would pay good hard American money for an Avengers-esque Disney villain crossover just to see more Angelina Jolie Maleficent. Some of the best parts are when she's trading quips with her crow-made-man-servant Diaval (played wonderfully by Sam Riley) or trying increasingly hard to scare off Elle Fanning's Aurora. "Eww, I hate babies," she says as she looks at literally the cutest baby in the world.
And then there's the rest of the movie. It's a bit messy. It's no dumber than any other male-lead fantasy action movie, but it's certainly not as good as Jolie's Maleficent deserves. For one thing, I never buy Maleficent turning evil. What makes her go bad boils down to a boy breaking her heart and slicing off her wings. And if this were the movie about how she turns really evil, I'd call that problematic that her big inciting event is a bad break-up. She's a powerful warrior that can take a hit, but heaven forbid she get dumped by a dude?
I buy her getting scorned and hurt and getting SUPER angry about it, even to the point that hey, maybe she SHOULD make all those humans pay. But I don't buy how all her subjects treat her as evil when she hasn't really done anything to deserve it. In her big scene, she screams green energy and waltzes to her new throne as dark clouds hang over, and all the little CGI magical folk cower in fear. But why are they? She hasn't done anything evil to them, she's just wearing a lot of black, pulling the shades, and being (rightfully) angry at what's been done to her. They act like she's just executed order 66 when in reality she's just in her goth period. All the creatures should be 100% behind her to hardcore murder some humans but they act like she just burned the forest down.
And it's not even like she has less power. In fact, she seems to have more power? It feels like they're insinuating that she's turned to the dark side, but there's never any explanation about it. Having her wings cut off looks like it's a big deal for her, but all the narrator alludes to is her broken/stolen heart. It would have made more sense if she wasn't able to do "good" magic anymore because her wings were cut off and now she has to resort to using "evil" magic in order to keep protecting the forest and that's why everyone is freaking out, but it's never explained that way. It's just, well, she has a broken heart, now she's a cold bitch and you guys better WATCH OUT even though she's still protecting you from a human world that definitely wants to destroy/exploit you.
And while it doesn't work narratively, I kind of like it? I mean, metaphorically? Because you can read it for how the world treats women harsher than men. Men can make a million mistakes, do terrible things and turn evil, but as long as they feel bad about it or are smarmy and crack wise it's fine, right? We all still love Loki even though he's murdered countless people and tried to rule/destroy multiple worlds, but Cersei will always be an evil bitch. And that double-standard stereotype comes into play here. Maleficent starts wearing black and stops smiling and everyone just assumes she's an evil witch.
Also, it's weird that a good character is named Maleficent in the first place? She's supposed to start off as a good character and she's named something that's awfully close to the word malevolent. I would have thought she'd change it from something else TO Maleficent when she turned evil. It's like a good character named Badguy McEvil whom audiences are NOT supposed to expect to turn evil?
The Fairy Godmothers don't make any sense at all. After Maleficent is mutilated, they just show up at Aurora's christening to give her gifts. It doesn't make sense why the three fairies, who worked for Maleficent in the beginning of the movie and seemingly loved/respected her, would suddenly go over to the human city to help out the king that 1000% wants to destroy the magic forest and loot the Moors for riches. Again, Maleficent is seen doing nothing evil to the magic folk and constantly protects them from the humans that want to murder the crap out of them, and these three little jerks go to the one person who mutilated her? What the ever-loving fuck? And it makes even LESS sense that the king would entrust these three fairies that he just met from THE PLACE HE'S TRYING TO DESTROY with the safety of his only daughter. Like, wouldn't it make more sense to keep her in a tower with an armed garrison instead of sending her off with fairy folk into the woods?? How does any of this make any sense? The movie is trying SUPER HARD to match points with the original and Disney versions while also trying to do its own thing? It’s trying to make cake, eat it, and also give it to a bunch of other people, too. Not gonna work.
In this version of the story, the godmothers are actually terrible at raising children. Actually, scratch that. They’re just plain terrible in general, but especially so at child rearing. Maleficent actually raises and protects Aurora herself, from the shadows. That's interesting and all, but how terrible these Fairies are at literally everything pertaining to human life and child-rearing stretches believability as well as patience. They don't know how to feed her, leave her in dangerous situations, and somehow never notice that she's gone for hours at a time. They're awful and I hate them. Also, I can't see Knotgrass as anyone other than Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. Also also, the Sanderson Sisters from Hocus Pocus called, they said they want their schtick back.
The battles are great and I love all the designs of the CGI creatures. Some of the stuff with humans comes across as a little obviously green screened, but it's a lot of fun, and it's really cool to see Maleficent use her powers in interesting ways – especially when she turns Diaval into all manner of beasts. I didn't see this in 3D but my editor did, and she thought it was tastefully done – just enough to embellish the story and visual experience and help immerse the viewer, without being overwhelming or coming off as compensation. And hey, look! Another female action hero! That's cool. What’s bothersome is the fact that her powers are really ill-defined. They also have a tendency to work – until they don’t. Sure, in the middle of the movie she can raise a whole wall of thorns, put multiple people to sleep, and take out a whole garrison of armored troops with a little windstorm. But in the third act? When she's fighting a big army? Suddenly she has to knock people out physically by hitting them with her staff, and NONE of her powers work! Ok then.
This re-telling isn’t immediately identifiable as different from the classical telling of Sleeping Beauty. But once it’s established, it gets AWESOME. I love how much it subverts the original story (similar to Frozen) and turns Maleficent into a redemptive hero. It doesn’t work as a true backstory to the original Maleficent in Disney’s classic animated feature. But it works as a new story for the character of Maleficent (mostly). And I love how they make Prince Phillip second-guess kissing a sleeping girl without her consent! Y’know, instead of having him head straight to smack-town with an unconscious woman. "Uh, I'm not sure. I don't really feel comfortable about this - " THANK YOU, DISNEY.
Maleficent might not be the movie we were expecting, but it's the kind of movie we need. More female-led action/fantasy movies, please! The story is admittedly messy, but it's a ton of fun and Angelina Jolie STRAIGHT-UP MURDERS IT. So go see it!
THE GOOD: Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, fun action scenes, cool creature designs, subversive take on original, fun, female led action movie, got layers and metaphors, funny, good acting.
THE BAD: messy story, “evilness” doesn’t sell, fairy godmothers are awful, heartbreak-as-reason-for-evilness is problematic, powers are ill-defined, Delores Umbridge, some things don't make sense.
THE VERDICT: $$$$ It's great! It's not perfect, but it's still so worth it to see a female-led fantasy action movie, starring Angelina Jolie killing it as Maleficent, with some fun action battles, hilarious banter, and a great subversion of the original tale.
MOVIES LIKE IT: Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: When Maleficent comes to curse Aurora at her christening, Angelina Jolie is at her Maleficentiest and is doing the exact same speech from the original Disney animated feature. She's perfect. Here, though, the presence of the three good fairies makes ZERO sense and there is no good reason for them to hate Maleficent so much. Also, Maleficent Stefan kinda harbors genocidal tendencies towards magical beings, so why he doesn't murder them instantly is lost on me. His young queen (I thought he was supposed to marry the former king’s widow? Unless former kind had a child bride (wtf) how is Stefan’s queen so young!?) utters something about it being okay “BECAUSE GIFTS!” seemingly overcomes his irrational genocidal tendencies. Weird.