The central villain in Sleeping Beauty gets a disturbing backstory in Maleficent, a variation on the fairy tale that demonstrates why you should never trust anybody.
Don’t, for example, trust boys, as young Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) does when she first meets young Stefan (Michael Huggins). Happy young Maleficent, budding protector of the magical land known as the Moors, filled with assorted gnome-y, fairy-y, pixie-dusty creatures, becomes friends with Stefan, a human boy with big ambitions. Years later, the grown Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) successfully fights off an attempted human invasion of the Moors, mortally wounding the human king. The king tells his men that whoever kills Maleficent will be his pick to succeed him on the throne. Grown Stefan (Sharlto Copley), now the king’s page, goes back to the Moors, ostensibly to warn Maleficent. They hang out and snuggle and Maleficent drinks something Stefan offers her, something that knocks her out. He at first seems like he plans to kill her but then decides merely to cut off her wings and present those to the king as proof that she’s dead.
Let me say that again: He drugs Maleficent and then cuts off her giant wings which are part of her body. In a PG movie. Maybe you don’t bring the seven-year-old just hoping for some princess-y fun.
The wingless Maleficent is, as one would imagine, deeply angry. Stefan ends up on the throne and even has a child with the old king’s daughter, solidifying his royalty. But the betrayed Maleficent, now living up to her name’s Latin prefix with her bad-fairy wardrobe and her totalitarian rule of the Moors, isn’t a live-and-let-live kind of gal. She shows up at baby Aurora’s christening and curses her with an eternal slumber, scheduled to start on her 16th birthday when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel. (Only means of breaking the curse? That fairy tale all-purpose balm, True Love’s Kiss.) Peace-seeking fairies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) agree to raise Aurora in some hidden place until she reaches 16 to keep her safe from the curse. Meanwhile back in the castle the king burns all the spinning wheels and goes crazy.
Maleficent sends her shape-shifter crow buddy Diaval (Sam Riley) to follow the inept fairies and finds Aurora’s hideaway. Through the years, Maleficent and Diaval hang out watching Aurora, frequently interceding when the incompetent fairies put Aurora in danger by, say, letting her toddle off a cliff. When the nearly 16-year-old Aurora (Elle Fanning) finally meets Maleficent, she’s convinced she’s met her fairy godmother. Maleficent takes Aurora on a field trip to the Moors, which Aurora decides seems like a cooler place to live than the human country. Meanwhile, Maleficent is now desperate to find a way to stop Aurora from falling to the curse. Perhaps Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites), who Aurora meets in the forest, can help with that.
So, to “don’t trust boys” you can add “don’t trust the ‘aunts’ who are bitterly, neglectfully raising you” and “don’t trust the idea of fairy godmothers,” “don’t trust your parents, because your dad might be crazed with fear and your mother might just vanish from a story without more than a line of explanation” and also “don’t trust crows.” In fact, in this feminist (I guess) revision of the Sleeping Beauty tale the only really trustworthy person seems to be the early-era-Jonas-Brothers-coiffed prince who is suspicious of both the idea of a sleeping curse and the OK-ness of kissing a girl when she’s unconscious.
I guess Maleficent could win over fans of old-school fairy tales who wish the modern versions would have more Grimm-ness to them. The cutting of Maleficent’s wings is both disturbing as an actual event and super creepy when viewed as an allegory. But, after getting to this very dark place, the movie switches back to a more Disney-ish tone, with the bemused Maleficent letting the young Aurora, whom she calls “Beasty,” play with her horns or getting her a make-shift flower sippy-cup when the trio of stupid fairies forget to feed her. (One moment of Aurora/Maleficent bonding is particularly cute and affectionate possibly because the little 5-year-old Aurora in that scene is being played by Jolie’s real-life daughter, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt.) At times, it seems like the movie is at a loss for how to make the momentum of the story focused on Aurora when Jolie’s Maleficent is the more central character. The final third or so of the movie feels like a muddle of action, unearned emotion and a very predictable resolution to the whole “sleeping” part of the Sleeping Beauty story.
Throughout, Jolie looks great in her Maleficent get-up, especially during the “mal” section of her story. But the movie doesn’t give her much to do other than look great. A movie like this, particularly one aimed at kids, needs to be funny or charming or a good adventure romp but Maleficent seems to have given all its effort to Jolie’s wardrobe and some moderately fun sets. Most Disney villains can be counted on for at least one good song and a few moments of fun — Jolie’s character gets none of that (though maybe Maleficent traded in her song for the red lipstick and her otherworldly cheekbones).
Maleficent is neither great nor terrible, just another blah reinvention in the half-baked spirit of the James Franco-starring Oz the Great and Powerful or the Tim Burton-helmed Alice in Wonderland. C-
Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images. Directed by Robert Stromberg and written by Linda Woolverton, Maleficent is an hour and 37 minutes long and distributed by Walt Disney Co.
As seen in the June 5, 2014 issue of the Hippo.