My initial reaction on hearing that Disney was remaking Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of Maleficent was, “Oh God, not another one.” Batman, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White: Must everything get a gritty reboot? I’m surprised the recent My Little Pony show wasn’t called “My Little Pony: Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death.”
And the villain’s-eye view is also really played out. Grimmed-up, self-pitying tales of misunderstood outcasts are everywhere these days, simmering with Nietzschean ressentiment. It’s like watching two hours of rationalizations: Other people never gave me a chance, you’d be like this too if you’d suffered like I have, I am secretly better than everyone.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Maleficent is almost a gentle film about repentance and what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “seeing your part”—accepting whatever degree of responsibility you bear for your own misery, even when other people bear a much larger share they’ll never admit. The epic final battle doesn’t take place between hero and villain, but between penitent villain and impenitent one. Maleficent is a film about maternal tenderness toward a child: about how responsibility for the next generation can cause us to reassess our own past actions and change our ways.
That doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. Important events take place offscreen (like the breakup of the friendship between Princess Aurora’s father and Maleficent). The music is occasionally subtle and haunting, but more often overbearing. The acting is okay. There’s tormented mirror-staring. “Sleeping Beauty” spends literally less than five minutes asleep, because delayed gratification is so last century.
The dialogue is aggressively bland; it’s the worst part of the movie by far, from an aesthetic standpoint. Every character says exactly what he or she thinks at every moment. “There they are,” Generic Evil King says, “the mysterious moors where no one dares to venture for fear of the magical creatures that lurk within. Well I say, crush them!”
Parts of the movie’s aesthetic do work: The treelike things riding boarlike things, and the many transformations of an enchanted crow, create a magical universe that is tendriled, shapeshifting, alchemical. Maleficent’s character design is brilliant. (And yes, Angelina Jolie and her cartoon cheekbones are sure to Jessica Rabbit a generation of preteens. “I like it when you beg—do it again” isn’t quite as clever as, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” or, “Love me—fear me—do as I say—and I shall be your slave”; but it’s probably equally effective.)
The movie’s plot is straightforward: Humans hate fairies for unreasons so cliched the movie doesn’t even bother to address them. A human named Stefan (Sharlto Copley) befriends young fairy Maleficent (Jolie), and gives her “what he called ‘true love’s kiss,’” but then betrays her and cuts her wings off in order to curry favor with Evil Generic King. After Stefan becomes king, Maleficent curses his baby daughter Aurora with that whole sixteenth-birthday spindle sleep thing—but as the child grows up, Maleficent watches over her and grows to love her. She becomes Aurora’s secret “fairy godmother” (a nice touch) and, as that sixteenth birthday approaches, her regret and despair grow. The only thing which can cure the curse is “true love’s kiss,” but after her own betrayal, Maleficent no longer believes that such a thing exists.
Teen boy human sees Aurora (Elle Fanning) in the woods and is charmed by her, Aurora pricks her finger and falls into “a sleep like death,” Maleficent wonders if maybe the teen boy is The One who can break the curse, she shanghais him and drags him to Stefan’s castle, there’s a climactic battle, the teen (who’s very, “I barely know her!”) kisses the comatose Aurora and nothing happens.
And then Maleficent herself gives the girl a sorrowful kiss on the forehead, a farewell, and Aurora’s eyes slowly open.
The two central scenes here are much better than the rest of the movie. Maleficent waking up after her wings are cut off is agonizing to watch: Jolie’s face and body contort, her hand stretches to a seemingly impossible length as she touches her shoulder, and she gives these scraping, abandoned wails. She creates the twisted staff you remember from the cartoon version, but this time it’s a cane to help her walk without her wings. Her stumbling first steps forward are scored to quiet flute music which rises far above the generic bombast of the rest of the score.
And the kiss scene is a thoughtful, meaningful twist on the original tale. Aurora and Maleficent don’t use one another’s names in this scene: They step out of their fairy-tale roles and call one another by pet names, “Godmother” and “Beastie.”
And then Maleficent straight-up kills Stefan in self-defense, and Aurora, his daughter, doesn’t turn a hair. No reaction whatsoever to a fairly brutal killing. This is why Maleficent is only almost a gentle tale of repentance: Stefan is treated as a total villain for whom there is no hope, no mercy, and no sympathy.
Stefan keeps Maleficent’s hacked-off wings in a glass case so he can have conversations with them, so yes, he’s not a nuanced character. But Maleficent curses a baby with a coma. What bothered me was not only the killing (although Disney is adept at finding nonlethal means of villain disposal when it wants to) but how casually it was treated: Of course she kills him, we need our happy ending. The movie cuts almost immediately from his death to Aurora’s sunny wedding. We’ve switched from a world of complicity and change, in which true love is built on loss and empathy, into a world of superhuman heroes and subhuman villains.
Maleficent gets to be a person, and that turns out to be a surprisingly interesting choice; but Stefan dies a plot device’s death.