Tales of Yore is a series of articles about fairy tale adaptations. Adaptations can be direct or loose, and these reviews attempt to consider the films in the context of the stories upon which they are based.
Disney’s animated classics (e.g. Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella; see reviews listed above) have a complicated place in the hearts of adults in modern times; several of us grew up watching them and admire the economic storytelling, beautiful animation, and wonderful characters. However, those movies are also intensely problematic in terms of what they teach young children about “right” and “wrong,” especially in regards to gender. Scholars—both correctly and at times too viciously—attack these representations, and you can find bloggers/journalists on the internet sharing similar sentiments.
An attempt to reimagine these movies, then, is really interesting, and Maleficent presents a unique opportunity to remind us of all that we love about classic Disney while reworking all the things with which we may take issue. Maleficent, for all of the problems that I will discuss shortly, actually manages to rework the animated Sleeping Beauty from over half a century ago (and the variants of the story on which it is based) brilliantly, evoking the wonder of the story while also commenting on the problematic aspects with significant nuance.
But first, I really need to talk about what’s wrong with this movie. In summation, pretty much everything about its execution is…well, it’s just terrible. The direction is uninspired at best, with newcomer Robert Stromberg and cinematographer Dean Semler settling for the most neutral shots imaginable; at times, they even opt for decidedly poor decisions such as slow-mo and accidentally hilarious dramatic zooms. I get the sense, though, that this isn’t entirely their fault; I think they simply do not know how to work with CGI, the excessive use of which is by far Maleficent‘s biggest flaw. This movie aged poorly between the time it entered production and the day it was released. Everything looks fake and the entire movie is cheapened because of it; when the scenery is not done with CGI, Semler and Stromberg actually have some decent camerawork, but that’s only about 10% of the movie.
The only successes in the actual production of Maleficent are Angelina Jolie and Anna B. Sheppard‘s costuming. Jolie’s performance is phenomenal, and her makeup/horns/wings/everything look amazing. When she smiles, I feel both warm and chilled. She is as wonderful as everything else is awful. The other performances—perhaps excluding Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora and Sharlto Copley as the antagonistic Stefan—range from acceptable to distractingly average. Somehow, though, despite all these faults, this movie manages to be fantastic and brilliant, the opposite of a Spectacular Failure. It’s a Terrible Success.
The reason that I was not dismayed by the missteps to the point where I felt more negative than positive about the result is because of this movie’s context. It’s a fairy tale adaptation, and fairy tales stay in our minds not necessarily because of the delivery (although that can certainly help), but because of the ideas behind them. We remember the lessons, the magical settings and stories, the fantastical characters. And thanks to screenwriter Linda Woolverton, all of these things are of the highest calibre and somehow shine through despite Semler and Stromberg’s work. While her dialogue is not always perfect, her interpretation of the “evil” fairy constantly surprised and impressed me with its attention to not only the original story, but also the social context of the time in which it has been released.
Now, I am going to talk about things that are not literal in the story, but highly interpretative (although I think the movie purposefully lends itself to these readings). Before anyone thinks, “Can’t this just be a story?” or “Stop reading too much into it!” though, I need to say a quick word about fairy tales. These stories have always, always, always been about something other than their plots; if you dismiss scholarly sources out of hand (for some reason), then you only need to look at one of the oldest collectors of fairy tales, Charles Perrault (the 17th century!)—from whom we get several of the tales that we know, and whose version of “Sleeping Beauty” is the direct source for the original animated film; Perrault added verses that explicitly state the morals to the end of the stories. Sometimes, he misunderstood the morals entirely, but he knew that the people telling these tales were using them to talk about other things. “Little Red Riding Hood” warns girls not to talk to every dude they meet in the woods, even if the dude seems sweet (there are problems in that alone, of course, but that meaning is far from unintended). Thus, even if you deny the idea of multiple interpretations of a text, you cannot ignore that fairy tales have always been used to get at deeper, more complex meanings and issues. Considering Maleficent at a deeper level is practically demanded by its context.
That commentary is what makes Maleficent a brilliantly conceived story. The most obvious example of the explicit allegory, perhaps, is the scene in which Maleficent‘s previous crush (love?), Stefan, tricks her in order to become King, something he has dreamed of since his childhood. He feigns friendliness, gives her a drink that turns out to be drugged—knocking her out—and cuts off her wings, leaving her weak, betrayed, and hurt. This meeting only happens because Stefan pretends to be a helping hand in contrast to the present King’s threats to kill Maleficent.
Although this clearly reflects betrayal at a literal level, it also reminds us of sexual assault and rape directly. After all, 73% of rape is not committed by a stranger—a fact confronted by Stefan’s fake kindness that is meant to seem genuine because the threat should be the more obvious, and anonymous, King. 34% of the time, the victim is under the influence of something, which is clearly reflected in Stefan giving her the drugged beverage. In light of the amount of care Woolverton has built into her reinterpretation of the story, I think it would be absurd to think this is a coincidence.
Even if we disregard that, though, and read the scene simply as a betrayal, the handling of trauma makes Maleficent a complex, fully-realized character and not simply evil. Her first action after this scene is to save a bird in order to make him her permanent servant. She saves him only because she expects a reward in the form of eternal indebtedness. Further, she takes her decentralized community and becomes the Queen, falling in line with the follies of the human kingdom in her anger. She curses a child—an act we are meant to condemn, but also understand, as her love and trust was broken by Stefan, the father of the baby. This alone is incredibly nuanced because it asks us to understand her actions even if we don’t agree with them.
But Woolverton takes it a step further. Maleficent is pushed into darkness by her trauma, but she is not resigned to live forever in its shadow. While three “good” fairies attempt to raise Aurora to spectacular failure, Maleficent watches from the shadows, begrudgingly keeping the child alive to make up for the other fairies’ incompetence. She learns once again to care and love in the face of unabashed human kindness and caring, attempting to revoke her curse but learning that an evil deed is not so easily nullified. She must instead actively work to be kind and work through her hate. Her arc recognizes her hurt and empathizes with it, but also allows her to heal herself (and the “herself” part is important, as it allows her to remain the subject of her own story) with all the difficulty that comes with righting past wrongs. BEGIN SPOILER She also attempts to forgive and save her attacker after she has come to terms with her trauma, but—upon realizing that he cannot be saved and is so consumed with his own problems, hatred, and grief—realizes she cannot, and does not let him continue to hurt her. END SPOILER
Beyond Maleficent, Woolverton also grants some interesting reworking of the original tale’s issues on other levels. Be forewarned that this paragraph is SPOILER TERRITORY. One example is that, instead of “True Love’s Kiss” coming from a prince met only a day prior—a kiss that proves to have no effect on the sleeping beauty—it comes from Maleficent, who has grown to truly love Aurora through their interactions. Love is not rooted in aesthetics, but emotion and feeling. The fact that Phillip does not swoop in and save the day, but instead remains ineffective relative to Aurora and Maleficent, is also a pleasant change-up of the typical gender roles in fairy tale adaptations.
There are other examples of this script’s cleverness and subtlety, but I think that it mostly deserves to be considered by actually seeing the movie. Maleficent, for all of its problems—and despite being, quite plainly, a bad movie—is a brilliant character study and fully-realized reinterpretation of stories that were made to be reinterpreted. Ultimately, it understands what makes those tales of yore work and, in that sense, is one of the best fairy tale stories I have seen on film; if the director, cinematographer, and producer (Joe Roth) had put in as much work as the screenwriter, then we might have had a movie worthy of Woolverton and Jolie’s efforts, but for now I will settle for living mildly ever after.