My family has a special relationship with the character of “Maleficent.” My wife has long used the eponymous villain from "Sleeping Beauty" as an avatar for games and web sites alike. This was back when Disney villains received little attention and merchandise featuring their likenesses was rare. As a result, we have virtually everything with Maleficent on it (at least, Maleficent only without Aurora). As Disney has begun to reimagine its vast archive of characters on shows like Once Upon a Time and even the Wicked Witch of the West gets a fair shake in “Wicked,” it was perhaps inevitable that Maleficent would get the same treatment. We approached the film with some trepidation.
It’s helpful to understand that “Maleficent” is about Maleficent first and foremost. That means that if something happens in the plot of “Sleeping Beauty” that doesn’t focus on Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), the scriptwriters simply discarded it. The motivation for Maleficent’s curse was originally about not being invited to the christening of Aurora (played in this film by Elle Fanning), but by the time “Maleficent” gets to the same point as the animated film she has quite a bit of baggage to unload in that single curse.
In short, Maleficent was violated by a man, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley). Other bloggers have pointed out how this reduces Maleficent to a “woman scorned” and that’s definitely a problem for the film. Maleficent’s hatred for Aurora changes over time as she comes to realize she has no beef with the girl; the three fairies charged with protecting her are frighteningly incompetent (at least twice it’s clear Aurora would have died without Maleficent’s intervention). In other words, everyone but Maleficent is a moron.
There’s also an addition of her crow Diaval (Sam Riley), who Maleficent turns into other shapes at a whim: wolf, horse, man, or even a dragon. No special effects budget is spared in this portrayal, which makes all of these forms crow-like. Along with the faerie realm that Maleficent decides to take over in her vengeance, the CGI is breathtaking.
The other problem is that Maleficent never really gets the emotional resolution we hope for. Her conflict with Stefan isn’t really about him at all – it’s about saving Aurora. There’s no dialogue between Maleficent and Stefan that gives us the satisfaction that she's able to moved one. Jolie seems to play Maleficent so aloof as to make her mostly mute, so we have to settle for smiles and glares to fill in the blanks.
In the end, “Maleficent”’s biggest challenge is in being different from other Disney films. The conclusion would be revolutionary if it weren’t for the fact that “Frozen” did it first and better.
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