Film Review: Maleficent

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The Penis is Evil

Warning: This review discusses aspects of the story you think you know but don’t, apparently.

The trouble with retelling a popular story from a different perspective is that the place a character occupies within a narrative is often determined in relation to other characters; each performs a specific function. One could imagine a Star Wars remake in which Palpatine was a good man consumed by a grievance, who imagined he was giving the galaxy its just desserts, but such a character would be a lesser being somehow. In real life monsters are made not born but in fairy tales, traditional or modern, the villains gain their power from their absolute immoral certainty; it’s what makes the hero’s struggle to topple them that much more satisfying. But Hollywood, inspired by the success of Wicked, the musical that retooled The Wizard of Oz, thinks there’s currency in rethinking well-built stories, and consequently it’s been our privilege to enjoy a Red Riding Hood in which the Big Bad Wolf was the heroine’s lover, an execrable take on Hansel and Gretel that armed the pair and turned them into witch hunting vigilantes, and now Maleficent, with the iconic bad fairy from Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty recast as a feminist antihero with a maternal underbelly.

The contortions required to make Maleficent a sympathetic character while retaining enough of the 1959 movie’s iconography to trade on the brand, are considerable. The effort makes for a highly uneven enterprise, the plot mechanics of which are plain to see. Angelina Jolie looks the part, her angular face the perfect simulacrum of the animated counterpart, but she’s not permitted to be motivated by anything as simple as envy and spite; such a character can’t become a heroine. Consequently Robert Stromberg’s expensive debut changes the story to suit the brief. The result is something like bad fan fiction; the amateur scribbler taking plot points from the original Disney movie and ascribing them to the evil fairy so they no longer make sense. So now, instead of condemning the Princess Aurora to death by needlepoint, with a good fairy commuting the sentence to sleep broken by true love, it’s Maleficent who curses within those very familiar parameters. She’s heartbroken you see, and like most embittered women badly treated by her ex-boyfriend, thinks love is an unworkable fantasy, but she’s confusing it for her movie.

Cursing Beauty so she’ll fall asleep instead of die, then watching over the baby and providing periodic childcare when the good fairies aren’t looking, looks suspiciously like a villain whose heart isn’t in being bad, and so it proves. A modern take on the story, demographically targeted at a female audience, paints a psychological portrait of the title character built to resonate. In this feminist take, Maleficent’s no monster (she doesn’t, despite her dragon horns, turn into a dragon anymore – said ability’s passed to her male minion), rather a girl who gave her heart to a man on her 16th birthday (hence her obsession with them), only to see her boyfriend metamorphose into a duplicitous, back-stabbing shit who rejected her so he could spend time with other men. In the adult form of Sharlto Copley he drugs her, violates her – literally clipping her wings (as men are prone to do, the controlling, aspiration killing bastards), then impregnates another woman. In fact, in this version the only decent thing he does is the one thing the King seemingly did wrong in the 1959 version: not inviting her to the christening, yet mystifying she’s offended. Women, eh? Who understands them?

So Maleficent’s attempt at keeping the target audience on side relies on confirming their imagined innate sexism. Girls, it’s thought, suspect men are dishonest, brutal, or, in the case of Prince Phillip, once the hero of the piece, quite useless, and will consequently have no trouble taking the wronged antagonist to their hearts. The movie suggests there’s no bond greater, indeed no love greater, than that which exists between women: a bond that no man, however motivated, can break. In a movie that takes no risks in its pursuit of making Jolie attractive to bevaginated ticket buyers, the once bad fairy, try as she might, can’t suppress her maternal instinct, and the result is an unlikely love for Aurora, that doesn’t so much rework Sleeping Beauty as ruin it. Imagine that aforementioned Star Wars remake with the Emperor hugging Luke instead of trying to fry him with force lightning and you get the idea.

Maleficent looks wonderful and Jolie fills the screen, magical red lipstick and all, but the character’s new trajectory doesn’t quite convince. We’re left with a quasi-remake of Sleeping Beauty that feels less like a coherent story, more an allegory for writer Linda Woolverton’s unresolved relationship issues. Still, she’s taught little girls everywhere that men are bastards, so can be proud of that.

Directed by: Robert Stromberg

Country: US

Year: 2014

Running Time: 97 mins

Certificate: PG for sexism, unsubtle symbolism and kids wearing lipstick.

2 Responses

  1. Tim Earnshaw says:

    Shrewdly put, Ed. What gives “fairy stories” (horror stories, really) their primal, eye-widening power to enthrall is their depiction of absolute evil, a black force that has to be overcome. We don’t care why the bad guys are bad, that’s not a question the enjoyably terrified child in us should be asking. We don’t want to understand their “unresolved relationship issues” or give them a hug – we want to see their heads cut off, a stake through their heart. And set on fire.

    I’m not caring about this movie already. Color me bad mans.

    • Segev says:

      Honestly, I am willing to take explanation of villainous motive. But it is okay, you know, to have your villain protagonist motivated by base and selfish things.

      I was looking forward to seeing Maleficent’s actual plots and plans, her schemes and dreams. I wanted to see a villain acting the villain. Perhaps an explanation for why she is, but not a freudian excuse in an effort to make her villainy “okay.”

      The writers here were afraid to write a villain protagonist. They CAN write evil motives for evil actions; they did so with Stephan. But it’s weak and ham-fisted. There was potential wasted here, not just in the overall premise of doing a movie about the greatest Disney Villain(ess) ever, but in several ideas they had in the movie itself. They missed so many opportunities.

      It’s saddening.