So I thought I’d take a leaf out of Kyle’s book and try my hand at reviewing a story (his blog is chock full of various spoilery things – ranging from Game of Thrones to Spiderman to Doctor Who – but if you like story critiques, you should probably check it out). I saw Maleficent in the theater a bit over a week ago, and I left with quite a few thoughts about it. I’ve been letting them percolate for a bit, and now I’m going to share them. This is very long. There will be spoilers. You have been warned.
So, where do I start with Maleficent? The movie opens with voice-over narration and Maleficent as a young fairy.
Let me tell you, it is weird to see a villain who had such an impact because she reveled in being evil shown as a sweet, playful girl.
I mean, you guys:
Now let’s compare:
The first 15 minutes of the movie is very much a prologue (this is a lot of time in a 90 minute movie, is all I’m saying). The fairy Moors are incredibly beautiful, full of strange creatures and color, and we’re also treated to the voice-over explaining that unlike the humans who bow to a king, the fairies have no need of a ruler. They look after each other, and it’s all very utopian and pleasant-sounding. Later in the film, Maleficent appears to be entrusted with protection of the realm, due to her strength and magic (which, I might add, is never clearly defined in terms of her abilities and seems very plot-convenient). I thought perhaps this contrast of “they have a ruler, but we don’t need one to thrive” and the darkness of the war under Maleficent’s brief rule might play a role later in the film, but it doesn’t. In the end, the purpose of the prologue is to establish the relationship between Stefan and Maleficent (the adorable fairy girl befriends the human boy, they become adolescents in love, they kiss, he doesn’t come back until the war has begun, when they are both adults).
I think one of the things which really bothers me is the way the film is described vs how the story is actually shown. On the film’s imdb page the story is described, by Walt Disney Pictures, as one of a “pure-hearted young woman…[who] suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone.”
Here’s the thing: the story really didn’t have to be about a “pure” heart, and I’m not really sure that it is. Stefan’s betrayal (the act of which several people have described as a rape allegory better than I would), while it is the tipping point for Maleficent, is not someone traipsing in and killing her pure heart. Y’all – she’s already been at war with the humans for what appears to be several years. The previous king has been attacking the fairy Moors (out of greed? hatred of the “other”? fear?), and she’s been their strongest defender. Yes, Stefan’s cutting away her wings is despicable, and frankly, I think it’s warranted that she wants revenge, and that the pain would drive her actions against not just Stefan, but his daughter as well. But it does strike me as disingenuous to present us with a badass warrior fairy who is protecting her land, sometimes by fighting an army, and take away her nuance by telling us that she is pure-hearted and ultimately good until an act of betrayal. It’s like on the one hand, Disney is trying really hard to break out of the very black-vs-white, good-vs-evil mode of showing us the story, but they still aren’t there yet – and they can’t have it both ways.
I think that’s my main critique – they almost hit the mark on something nuanced and beautiful, but they were afraid to go the whole mile and thus, it fell flat.
A handful of other thoughts:
Despite my worries that it would be solely about the romantic angle, or they would make Maleficent broken-hearted over Stefan or some nonsense, I’m glad that that did not seem to be the case. I also think that Angelina Jolie did an excellent job as the character. I was excited when I first heard she was cast, and I was definitely not disappointed. However, she had a lot to work with given how much the filmmakers put into the character of Maleficent…at the expense of almost every single other character.
I mean, Aurora? I’m not sure if this is Elle Fanning’s fault, or the writers, or both, but we were really missing a personality to Aurora. It’s fine to be excited and wondrous about everything. But it’s very one dimensional if you have nothing else besides that vaguely happy wonder at the world, and Aurora was given nothing else. I suspect some of this came from Disney trying to make sure they had a “pure”, ultimately “good” girl whom Maleficent in her “damaged” state could identify with as part of her own healing (to remember who she was or something) – but people are just so much more complicated than that, and that relationship could have been more complicated, and more beautiful and believable because of it.
Diaval, I liked. He wasn’t sniveling, and though he came to serve Maleficent through a life-debt, it becomes clear that he’s paying attention to what goes on with her as a friend and ally. It’s not his fault the filmmakers decided to turn him into a dragon. (I am peeved that Maleficent did not turn herself into a dragon. I really really am. I get that this is a different story, and in several ways it’s a new story that I really like – but dammit, the best part of Sleeping Beauty is when Maleficent turns into a dragon. Rant over.)
I suppose I’ll end with true love’s kiss. This, I think, is where I most appreciated the movie’s deviation from any of the original tales. Prince Philip stands over Aurora’s sleeping form, the girl he met yesterday, and three fairies egg him on, yelling “You must kiss her! She’s under a spell! You have to kiss her!” And he just sounds vaguely confused, going “Wait, what kind of spell? I don’t feel right kissing her, we just met!” Thanks for that, Disney. And then he does anyway (and I don’t think I could blame him, in that situation), and…it doesn’t work. I held my breath in theatres going “please don’t work, please don’t work” and was very excited that the two 16-year-olds who met yesterday did not share true love’s kiss. Because that’s absurd. In a moment that could have been infinitely sweeter (if Aurora had been a more fleshed-out character), Maleficent begs for forgiveness that she knows she does not deserve – and it is her kiss on Aurora’s forehead that breaks the spell.
On the one hand, well, of course it is. On the other hand, if I said I didn’t cry a little, I’d be a liar.