Maleficent movie review: fatal enchantment… you know, for kids!

Maleficent red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Please leave your desire for a well-rounded story in the lockers provided, and keep your arms and legs inside the ride while it is in motion.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have seen the source material (and I am indifferent about it)

Beware, children, when attempting to rehabilitate a cartoon villain. Or when updating a fairy tale or beloved classic fantasy story. For you tread on treacherous ground, and a successful completion of your quest is far from certain.

As a warning to you all, behold Maleficent, the “true story” behind Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty, and the lesson not learned from Disney’s previous similar outings, Oz the Great and Powerful and Alice in Wonderland. Unless the lesson is: Throw enough theme-park spectacle at audiences and you don’t need to bother with any of that “character” or “story” nonsense, and defo spin it in 3D so you can tack a premium on the ticket price. Though, like Alice and Oz, Maleficent — the first film from *ahem* visual effects artist turned director Robert Stromberg — seems primarily concerned with being its own popup coffeetable book of baroque production design than anything approaching satisfying fantasy drama, it has more in lamented common with the non-Disney Snow White and the Huntsman, in that it feels like the highlight reel from a three-movie epic.

Check out all the “good parts”! Without any of that tedious motivation and character development getting in the way. That epic battle that comes about 15 minutes into the film? I presume that was intended to be the dramatic and exciting climax of the first film in a Maleficent trilogy, once we understood the beef between humans and fairies. Instead, there’s a random human king about whom we know nothing leading his Lord of the Rings–esque army in an attack against the fairy realm, and being repulsed by, I kid you not, Ents. Why? Something about ancient hatreds. Humans are just terrible creatures, greedy and envious, and their king is extra mean. The fairies are kind and gentle and trust one another and don’t even need anyone to rule them, they live in such easy, wondrous harmony.

That lazy simplicity — of which that is only a tiny hint — is supposed to be excusable, I guess, because this is “for kids.” But I suspect even all but the littlest kids will notice such muddled worldbuilding and the confused motives, on both the human and fairy side, that follow. If the fairies don’t need a leader, why don’t they seem to care when Maleficent sets herself up as their queen? (Angelina Jolie [Kung Fu Panda 2, The Tourist] is fab as the vampy witch fairy. It’s a shame the movie lets her down.) Why is human Stefan (Sharlto Copley: Elysium, Europa Report) so horrifically awful to his fairy friend Maleficent after being so nice to her? (Surely there must be more to it than Human = Bad, no?) Why do three “nice” fairies (Lesley Manville [An Adventure in Space and Time, A Christmas Carol], Imelda Staunton [The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, Arthur Christmas], and Juno Temple [The Dark Knight Rises, The Three Musketeers]) turn their backs on their homeland in order to raise little human baby Aurora (later played as a teen by Elle Fanning: We Bought a Zoo, Super 8) apparently as a favor to the cruel Stefan? How come, if Maleficent casts a nasty revenge spell on the baby — the eternal-sleep thing — but later casts another spell to revoke it when she learns the error of her vindictive ways, it doesn’t stay revoked?

None of Maleficent makes any sense, not even on its own small terms. Please leave your desire for a well-rounded story in the lockers provided, and keep your arms and legs inside the ride while it is in motion.

Scratch the rushed, addled surface, though, and it all gets weirder and more disturbing, and reeks of an homage to 1950s attitudes that we should not be nostalgic about. (The script is by Linda Woolverton, who also wrote the hideous Alice in Wonderland.) Stefan becomes the human king when he betrays Maleficent in an act of dreadful disfigurement that this PG film doesn’t seem able to bring itself to cope with on the level it deserves (I figure my imaginary three-movie version gets at how horrific it is, and how it traumatizes Maleficent). The previous king (Kenneth Cranham: The Legend of Hercules, Closed Circuit) has a daughter (Hannah New), but she doesn’t get to be queen in her own right, but only by being married off to Stefan. At least, I think that’s where King Stefan’s wife — and Aurora’s mother — springs from, and I’m not sure which would be worse for the poor girl: to be transferred along with the crown like a piece of property, or (her only other option) to be cut off from her royal heritage. Either way: ugh.

Contrast dutiful daughter and wife, though, with spurned lover… which is what Maleficent was to Stefan, who had claimed to be her true love before he variously abandoned her and tortured her. Instead of boiling a bunny, Maleficent turns her rage on Stefan’s daughter when she should have cursed him, the bastard. Disney’s most popular villain — and I imagine, its new Princess of Darkness — doesn’t warrant much of a feminist sort of vindication, it would seem. (Off the top of my head, I can think of half a dozen more satisfying plots that could explain a sleeping spell that Maleficent unfairly took the blame for without her actually having to turn her anger at a man against another woman, and an innocent baby at that.) And like everything else here that requires genuine emotion for us to accept, Maleficent’s ultimate redemption feels forced and phony even as it upends a traditional Disney trope that desperately needs upending… partly because it demands that Aurora get a bit of rehabilitation, too, away, from the cartoonish beautiful perfection of a 1950s Disney princess and toward authentic humanity. That probably happens in my imaginary nine-hour, three-film Maleficent epic, but it doesn’t happen here.

And don’t get me started on the finale, which is some speciesist anti-fairy bigotry that should make anyone who cares about magical folk really really angry— Oooo! Look! A dragon!

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Maleficent for its representation of girls and women.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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