So… Maleficent has been panned by a lot of people. And while it is lacking in certain technical and structural merits, I’m not going to deny it—it’s lovely. Got some flaws, but if you’ve been holding out for a fairy tale retelling that manages to truly empower, this is where it’s at.
You’re just going to have to get over any issues you might have with Angelina Jolie. Yes, you.
Major spoilers for the film below.
The movie does not start out promisingly, which makes the journey even more interesting. We meet young fairy Maleficent in the “Moor” fairy kingdom across the way from the human one. She is probably about thirteen or so and already blessed with permanent lipstick. (It’s just weird.) When a boy wanders into the magic land to steal a crystal, they become fast friends and eventually fall in love. At least, that is how the story might have gone….
The orphan boy (named Stefan) has ambitions to get to the castle one day and leaves his fairy friend behind after offering her True Love’s Kiss—or so he claims. Years later, his buddy is defender of the Moors from the nasty king. When her show of power mortally wounds the royal, he tells the nobles (and Stefan, who is now his trusty man servant) that whoever brings him Maleficent’s head will be the new king and marry his daughter. Stefan goes back to hang out with his former girlfriend, but when he can’t bring himself to behead her, he drugs her and garrotes off her magnificent wings instead.
Wow. Subtle metaphor.
It is legitimately horrifying nonetheless. Stefan is king and Maleficent is vengeful. Since she can no longer fly, she rescues a crow from death and makes him her eyes and ears. (Diaval, played by Sam Riley, is one of the highlights of the film, an excellent friend, confidant and truth-teller to the woman who saves his life. It results in a villain-minion relationship that is never camp or pointlessly abusive for a change.) She finds out that her former flame and maimer now has a child, and the standard “Sleeping Beauty” curse is laid out in its usual fashion.
Except for one tiny change: it is Maleficent who adds in the failsafe about True Love’s Kiss. A parting shot to the man who betrayed her.
At first it’s painfully same-old, same-old: hooray, angry evil woman created by man who refuses her love because that is the only thing that can turn a woman into a villain. Wouldn’t it have been great if she and Stefan had just been best friends? Why wouldn’t that betrayal have been enough given what he does to her?
In addition, the special effects are both overblown (worse than Snow White and the Huntsman, which is saying something) and seem to be ripping off other filmmakers—certain character designs look like we’re pulled from a Guillermo del Toro sketchbook, and the animation for Aurora’s trio of fairy guardians is plain awful. They also manage to make those the winged ladies imbeciles, rather than absent-minded, kindly aunt types. It doesn’t seem necessary at all.
And yet suddenly everything changes. Maleficent keeps an eye on Aurora (ostensibly to be sure that the curse goes off without a hitch) and, because the fairies the are basically incompetent, ends up as the girl’s watchful guardian. When the princess is finally old enough, Maleficent introduces her to the fairy world and finds that the girl knows her—and what’s more, she thinks of the dark specter as her fairy godmother.
And rather than Sleeping Beauty’s guileless nature and good heart snagging her a prince, it melts the cold heart of a woman who would have seen her dead.
Elle Fanning is delightful as Aurora, and for those who have a problem with Angelina Jolie occupying the title role, I will say this—the woman is flawless. At a turning point in the film, she makes the choice to take on the cartoon character’s cadence and accent and it is clear how much love she has for the part. She’s funny, powerful, treacherous, and anything but a cardboard cut-out of cackling evil. Maleficent shines in her hands. The only thing that seems silly is the build-on to her facial features because who in this world looks at Jolie and thinks ‘MOAR CHEEKBONES’?
Maleficent wants to end the girl’s curse and keep the child (Aurora tells her that she’d rather stay with the Moors as she nears her sixteenth birthday), but the curse is too strong and the princess eventually finds out the truth about what her fairy godmother did to her as an infant: enter Prince Phillip.
You know what the best thing about Phillip is here? He is completely useless. In fact, the movie makes a point of highlighting how pointless he is. Sure, he develops a crush and Aurora reciprocates, but when the curse falls, he is the first person to note that offering a kiss to a comatose girl seems super weird no matter how pretty he thought she was when she was conscious. Still, he’s their only hope, so he goes along… only to find his lips have no effect.
As Maleficent told Diaval: the reason why she chose that particular failsafe was because such a thing didn’t exist. So the fae queen is left with her failure to protect the one person who mattered most to her in the world, despite all her power. She tries to apologize to the girl, to tell her that she will never stop regretting her mistake and kisses her goodbye.
YES MOVIE. VERY YES. THANK YOU FOR WINNING, I AM CRYING, LEAVE ME ALONE, THIS IS SO EMBARRASSING.
Any person who has ever cared about another human being knows that True Love comes in countless forms, but popular fairy tales created for mass-consumption (especially Disney ones) have never bothered to offer an alternative to some young prince who finds his maiden fair. And here it is. Maleficent loved that little girl, as a friend, a kindred spirit, a ward, and she revives Aurora through the sheer force of it, breaking the hold of her own formidable magic. I had honestly been hoping for that ending the moment it came clear that she cared about the baby, but I never imagined they would actually do it.
This story was needed. This story has been a long time coming. And going by the sniffles across my theater, this story is more than welcome to stay.
Of course King Stefan has spent sixteen years going crazy about the impending curse, so he’s not about to let Maleficent go without a fight. It’s unfortunate that his arc is so flimsy because the only way to make this film better would be if he had stepped back and learned something from his daughter. As is, he’s a teeth-gnashing villain who has to go. No one is sorry about it, given how many subjects he backhands over the course of the movie.
But not before Aurora returns her fairy godmother’s wings. It’s is the goofiest gaping plothole of the film, knowing that Maleficent had the ability to regain her wings, but can’t before that moment because of… reasons? And still, it doesn’t matter—the entire audience in my theater applauded when they were restored to her. (The leather catsuit she is wearing during the battle is ridiculous no matter how you cut it, but you know, c’est la vie.)
And so Aurora becomes queen of Moors and humans alike, her godmother is healed and happy, and a new era of peace arrives. Because two women loved each other more than anything in this world. And maybe Aurora marries Phillip some day, but it hardly matters—he’s not who this story is about. He is an epilogue, an afterthought. And Maleficent is not a hero or a villain, but a real and complicated person all her own.
For a simple reimagining of a standard-issue Disney fairy tale, I’d call that a bit more than impressive. I hope they feel free to keep going in this direction for years to come.