Tuesday, June 3, 2014


A quick perusal of reviews for Maleficent reveals them to be as inconsistent as the movie itself. The film is light and dark, pessimistic and optimistic, slapstick and dramatic without settling on any one dominant thing. Favorable reviewers tend to praise one or two aspects and forgive the others. Panners don't forgive: some want it grittier, some fluffier, some more cynical, some more upbeat, some bloodier, and some more kid-friendly; a few even object to (*spoiler* though in a Disney film this can’t be a surprise) a happy ending.

Maleficent is all over the place, but there is a reason for this. The various competing tones are a result of keeping Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty as a frame of reference while transmogrifying the myth into one that subverts the original. The resulting mix doesn’t bother me, perhaps because I’m more familiar than most with the original (one of Disney’s lesser seen classics), having first viewed it at the drive-in from the back seat of my parents’ Pontiac. Virtually every element of Sleeping Beauty returns in Maleficent – including the dragon fight I liked so much as a kid – but twisted to a darker form, which arguably turns the tale to the grimmer mood of Grimm.

The movie takes the “villain’s” perspective and is laced with fashionable misandry. That sounds like a complaint, but it isn’t. In this context it works as a method of turning the plot inside-out. The main male characters are either evil or feckless – as when (another *spoiler*) Prince Phillip utterly fails to awaken Aurora from her deep sleep. Maleficent gets a back story to explain her turn to the dark side; it is a story of horrible betrayal at the hands of Stefan who, despite his professions of love, cuts off her wings so he can succeed to the throne. This is the source of her curse on King Stefan’s daughter Aurora: that she can be awakened only by “true love’s kiss.” Maleficent is being sardonic because she doesn’t believe there is such a thing as true love. Neither does Stefan. In tune with modern cynical sensibilities, the movie never tries to dispute this point in the romantic sense of the word love.

Angelina Jolie plainly is having fun in her campy portrayal of the lead character, and I had fun watching her. Elle Fanning is fine as Aurora, but the movie isn’t primarily about her, so there is surprisingly little for her to do. The 3D fx is extraordinary, and the score by James Newton Howard manages to be coherent despite the constant shifts of mood. The final reprise of Once Upon a Dream drips with sarcasm.

All in all, Maleficent is impressive, enjoyable, and subversive (in a good sense). While it apparently doesn’t sit well with a sizable faction of reviewers, my thumbs join the ones pointed up.



  1. I'm really intrigued with this movie. I like the concept behind it. I think Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" is one of the last best visual explosions of Disney animation while Walt was still alive. As such it is one of my favorites. I love the whole feel of that one, and the style is pretty unique in the Disney filmography. Of course Maleficent nearly steals the show, but there's plenty of other great stuff in it too.

    At the same time, I'm a little nervous that my familiarity with the original will hurt my view of this film. I find that if I'm too attached to the original, I don't give something like this a fair shake. Also Jolie can be hit or miss for me. I think she's a good pick in this case, but I've been wrong before. ;)

    Anyway, your review has helped convince me to give it a shot at some point. I've run into a few folks I trust who like it. As you said, the score is really good. One of the best fantasy adventure scores of the last few years. JNH (as us film score nerds refer to him as) has been hit and miss the last few years. But this reminds me strongly of his really great stuff from the late 90s, like "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" or even "Waterworld".

    1. I suspect your familiarity with the original could enhance the fun of Maleficent. Some negative reviewers are clearly a bit baffled precisely because they long since have forgotten Sleeping Beauty – if they ever saw it at all. More than one complained about the three fairies, for example, but they are so central to the plot of the original, they couldn’t possibly have been left out of this one. Another complained about the timeline of the movie (he apparently was thinking of the 100 years sleep in the Grimm tale), but it precisely matches that of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Without having seen the original, one is bound to miss some of the deliberate turnabouts.

      In Sleeping Beauty, the only explanation for Maleficent’s behavior is a fairy’s comment, “I don’t think she’s a very happy person.” Actually, there is some insight in this little remark; lots of toxic people make the lives of others miserable for no better reason: “If I must suffer, you will, too.” However, giving her and Stefan a bitter personal history in the new movie is cleverly wicked – in a good way. If any characters’ motivation is odd, it is that of the three fairies. Let us know how it strikes you.

    2. Good review. I wondered how this compared to Wicked the book or play. I thought perhaps they may have gotten the idea for this film from that. It's one of those movies that I put on my wait and see list as I'm not a huge Jolie fan either. It's a bit odd that Disney would make it, but maybe not, as they also did the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and other films with a dark tone. This might be a film that I might just watch off Netflix. Thanks for the insights.

    3. Hollywood studios routinely copy winning formulas from each other, so you are probably right about the inspiration from "Wicked." Disney lately has been releasing movies under its own name that they once would have released under Touchstone Pictures (the brand Disney puts on its films aimed at mature audiences). They haven't abandoned the distinction between the two brands, but they do seem to have shifted the boundary.