MALEFICENT: Curious Little Beasty

Maleficent Poster

Maleficent (2014) – Directed by Robert Stromberg – Starring Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Ella Purnell, and Brenton Thwaites.

When I reviewed Oz: The Great and Powerful, I expressed that I was having a bit of rehash fatigue, but in hindsight my dislike for that movie was less a case of frustration with all these reimagined stories of yesteryear, but with Oz being a terrible movie full of terrible people.

MALEFICENT is the latest entry into this genre, and while it is far from being a great movie, the journey of Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) from innocent youth to betrayed romantic to evil queen to redeemed witch is a compelling one. The visuals – in both their bright and dark variations – are excellent, the secondary performances are strong, there is the right dash of humor, and the film wisely focuses on the relationship between Maleficent and her cursed victim, Aurora (Elle Fanning).

Mostly, MALEFICENT works for me because it is a fairy tale that seeks to reach children through a story of redemption and inspiration, not fear.

It is not the film I was expecting. Based on the trailers, I thought MALEFICENT was going to concentrate on the evil queen portion of the story, but this is far more a story of redemption than it is wickedness. MALEFICENT is full-on character rehabilitation, and while the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora is what makes the movie, there are moments (King Stefan’s slide into evil; the idiocy of the three pixies charged with raising Aurora) when it feels like repairing Maleficent’s character is more important than telling an effective story.

Angelina Jolie gives a strong performance as Maleficent, but she benefits from three secondary performances that are every bit as good as hers: Ella Purnell as the teenage Maleficent, Sam Riley as Diaval, the raven-turned-human sidekick of adult Maleficent, and Elle Fanning as the teenage Sleeping Beauty (though she’s never called that and is asleep for all of about 10 minutes of screen time). Jolie is the unquestioned star of the movie as Maleficent sits squarely in the film’s center, but all of her haughty stares and icy stares and curious stares work because of the performances of the actors that surround her.

A lot of credit for the success of Jolie’s performance lies with Ella Purnell, because it’s up to the teenage actress to make us believe the elder Maleficent’s turn to the dark side. Purnell succeeds in personifying a young, innocent, hopeful girl that sees humans not as enemies but another (if different) part of a wondrous world. Purnell provides Maleficent with the right amount of youthful exuberance and fair-mindedness. She is a fairy who lives in The Moors, a place of magical creatures that is located beside a human kingdom, and she takes great delight in whizzing around the place with her large wings. One day, a human boy is caught attempting to steal a gem and is cornered by two tree people. Maleficent gets Stefan to trust her, but demands he hands over the gem before she escorts him out of the Moors and back to the human kingdom. They grow fond of one another and on Maleficent’s 16th birthday, he gives her the gift of “true love’s kiss.”

As time goes by and Purnell turns into Angelina Jolie, he visits less and less, and it’s Stefan’s focus elsewhere that is key to understanding the rehabilitation of Maleficent.

While she takes his “true love’s kiss” literally, Stefan is far less interested in her. From his initial interest in the precious rock (he tells her he would have kept it if he knew she was just going to drop it back in the water) and early declaration that someday he would live in the large castle that sits upon a nearby hill, Stefan is defined by acquisition. (He acquires the throne by acquiring Maleficent’s wings.) Since he’s not a real person in this movie, merely the fulcrum to move Maleficent from innocent youth to betrayed romantic to evil queen, we’re given a very surface-focused view of the boy who becomes king.

In this, both Maleficent the character and MALEFICENT the movie act in places (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) like spurned ex-lovers. By taking his declaration of love at face value, both character and film punish Stefan for failing to live up to the fairy tale ideal. In fairy tales, things like true love are supposed to matter, and when one person betrays that idealized view of the world, they upset the entire system. Maleficent does not seek revenge on anyone after King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) leads an all-out assault on the Moors, but after Stefan (now played by Sharlto Copley) comes back to her, drugs her, and cuts off her wings, then Maleficent wants revenge. Humans are not nice people anywhere in MALEFICENT (except for Aurora and the raven-turned-human Diaval), so it matters less what Henry does because he’s just a human, but matters a great deal what Stefan does because he was supposed to be different.

We get nothing of Stefan’s rise to power between “true love’s kiss” and cutting off Maleficent’s wings because none of that matters. What matters is not his motivation or how he orchestrated his place to the King’s side, but his betrayal of the woman who loved him, even though its clear he never loved her back in anywhere near the same intensity. For him, Maleficent was just a curiosity of youth, as Stefan’s true love was always the throne. (There was a large chunk of these early years cut from the movie, including characters played by Miranda Richardson and Peter Capaldi, that perhaps would have added to Sefan’s motivations, but if they’re not only absent from the finished product, but change the nature of that product, they don’t count.)

Diaval Maleficent

Sam Riley as Diaval in Walt Disney’s MALEFICENT.

Sam Riley’s Diaval is next up to help sell Jolie’s performance. Originally a raven that was saved by the grown-up fairy, Diaval brings some much-needed humanity and levity to the middle portion of the movie. His fondness for Aurora (expressed in his raven form, in some of the film’s best scenes) and his needling of Maleficent provides a break from Maleficent’s coldness. Riley (and the animators that created the raven) never descends into being a stereotypical lackey. He owes Maleficent a debt and has pledged himself to her, but when he’s asked to do something he dislikes, his face tells us that he’s doing it under slight protest.

The very act of saving Diaval also lets us see that Maleficent is never truly evil as much as she is hurt and vengeful against Stefan. For all of Jolie’s screen power and Maleficent looking down her nose at the world, the character’s wickedness happens because of her own misplaced faith, lashing out at a man who lost interest in her.

This is not to justify what Stefan does, because he is a wretched character who commits a despicable betrayal, but to explain the nature of Maleficent’s revenge. She seems less hurt by the loss of her wings as she is in what they represent: the betrayal of her own feelings. Given that Stefan has not visited her in years before he cuts off her wings, her revenge is focused on getting back at young Stefan more than contemporary Stefan. If it was adult Maleficent that was mad at Stefan, she could easily lead an army against the castle and level it, getting back at the lover (the throne of the kingdom) that became (or always was) Stefan’s actual one true love. Young Maleficent is the one that has truly been betrayed, however, and so her vengeance focuses on their time as teenagers; since Stefan’s teenage years have left the building, she targets Stefan’s newborn infant, Aurora, cursing her with eternal sleep if every she should prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel before her sixteenth birthday.

The only way to break the spell is for the sleeping child to receive “true love’s kiss” from someone, turning Stefan’s broken declaration into a burden that his daughter must carry.

Maleficent’s curse is the film’s most iconic moment, and for a film looking to rehab her character, it doesn’t flinch from making her curse a very real, very evil act. But it’s what happens after the curse that makes MALEFICENT an enjoyable film, and that’s her relationship with Aurora (once she’s played by Elle Fanning).

Aurora Maleficent

Elle Fanning as Aurora in Walt Disney’s MALEFICENT.

It’s Fanning’s performance that elevates MALEFICENT. Her exuberance and passion for the world mirrors the young Maleficent (symbolized by a nearly identical image of her feeding a deer that we saw Purnell perform early in the film) and she slowly melts the wicked fairy’s heart. Even as a baby, Aurora giggles at Maleficent’s scorn, and in this, the film continues to operate on the level of youthful righteousness as Aurora’s embrace of Maleficent is supposed to symbolize a true insight into the real character beneath all the icy glares.

After Maleficent reveals herself to Aurora, the child asserts that the older woman is her fairy godmother and that she knows Maleficent has always been watching over her because her shadow has been following Aurora around. Maleficent is bemused by this, but she’s been drawn to the child right from the start. Now that Aurora is old enough to leave the cabin where the three pixies are doing a horrible job of active parenting, Maleficent and Aurora begin to spend copious amounts of time together.

More than anything else in MALEFICENT, I think this relationship will determine people’s ultimate reaction to the movie; if you are dying to see Jolie be a bitch for 2 hours, you’re going to be disappointed, but if you’re open to this relationship, Jolie and Fanning make the thawing of Maleficent’s heart a compelling story. I love how the Moors come back to life with Aurora’s presence, and how ultimately it’s Aurora who rises to a position of leadership, as Maleficent abdicates her duties to the younger girl.

Aurora eventually pricks her finger, falls asleep, and is awakened not by the “true love’s kiss” of the romantic kind, but by Maleficent’s true love for her well-being. When Aurora is told who her father really is and returns to the castle, she realizes that her heart lies not with him but with the woman who cursed her.

Looked at in this light, you could make an argument MALEFICENT is a movie about stealing someone’s child, but this happens out of a natural born affection between Maleficent and Aurora and not as part of a vindictive plan, and it’s far less about theft as it is Aurora choosing her own path. King Stefan gives Aurora to the pixies to keep her safe from the curse, but doesn’t check up on her. (There are some rather big plot contrivances here, concerning where the pixies raise her and Stefan’s seeming belief that if he doesn’t know where his daughter is, then Maleficent can’t know where she is, either.) The film allows both Maleficent and Aurora to have their own agency, for both good and bad.

Fairy tales often fall apart when exposed to a contemporary light, and MALEFICENT is aware of this; for the most part, it just hopes you’re willing to overlook things like the pixies deciding to raise Aurora within easy walking distance of the Moors, but it also has Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) express some hesitation over kissing an unconscious girl whom he just met. He kisses her (failing to wake her) only at the badgering insistence of the pixies.

The film also gives itself a narrative out by having our movie’s existence justified as an elder Aurora’s version of the story. All personal histories are colored by our own prejudices, and nuance can give way to broader generalizations. The rehabilitation of Maleficent’s reputation is a stated intent of the elder Aurora (Janet McTeer) because she knows our opinion of her is much likely far less than Aurora’s opinion. Aurora has, to some degree, JFK’d Maleficent. Oliver Stone has stated he was less interested in recreating what actually happened in JFK as he was creating an extreme counter-narrative to the Warren Commission: “In order to fight a myth, maybe you have to create another one, a counter-myth.”

I think the idea of Aurora re-mythologizing Maleficent adds a nice dimension to the film, as it suggests the actual truth isn’t contained her anymore than it is in any other account. Because these revisionist accounts aren’t going away anytime soon (Disney has live action versions of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Cruella de Vil coming), I can imagine that in 20 or 30 years we’ll see them all done again from the point of view of the sidekick, and in that version, I imagine it will be Diaval who gets to deliver “true love’s kiss.”

Right now, though, we’re in the Wicked era of revisionist wickedness. There’s less an all-consuming wickedness in MALEFICENT as there is redemption from one wicked act, but I found Maleficent’s journey back from the dark side to be compelling viewing, and the reclamation of her wings is the physical act that allows her to get past the mental damage inflicted by Stefan.

MALEFICENT is still a fairy tale, but it’s not a fairy tale created to instruct children, but a fairy tale constructed by one of those children; it’s intent is still to help shape the minds of the next generation, but it does so by attempting to inspire kids, not frighten them. It’s not a great movie, but it is a very good revisionist fairy tale.