Maleficent is a movie of failed potential. Despite its undeniably feminist bent and some interesting ideas, the overall result is decidedly “meh.” Not a terrible movie, and certainly worthy of discussion, but not all that it should have been.
And the problem, in part, is the very source material that inspired it. Because Maleficent is a highly iconic villain, and the movie never seemed to quite know how to interpret her.
Maleficent has a lot of fantastic ideas. It’s about the unlikely mother-daughter (or fairy godmother-daughter) relationship that forms between Maleficent and Aurora, and about how the two women save each other, both literally and emotionally. In obvious and dramatic terms, Maleficent’s motherly kiss is the one that awakens Aurora, and Aurora finds and frees Maleficent’s wings, allowing Maleficent to return to her former self. And in more subtle terms, Maleficent ends up supporting and loving an incredibly lonely, neglected child, and that child brings Maleficent peace and joy for the first time in years.
But despite its good intentions, the movie wasn’t really committed to Maleficent’s story. It seemed to struggle with the idea that Maleficent is one of Disney’s most iconic villains, and miss the fact that she’s iconic precisely because she’s just plain evil. She doesn’t act out of a desire for pretty much anything. She just wants to make people suffer. Her curse is brilliantly cruel, and she obsesses over ensuring that it comes to pass. And then she turns into a dragon. It’s iconic stuff.
But Maleficent takes away that calmly cruel demeanor with its backstory and its desire for Maleficent to appear as a heroine. In this movie, Maleficent is both evil and not evil. She dresses in black and turns the Moors into a place of sorrow, stealing the light and ruling terrified creatures from her own version of the Iron Throne, but she also spends a significant chunk of the movie pestering the three fairies with childish pranks. She claims to be cold-hearted, but she immediately feels affection for Aurora and works to protect her. And although the fact that Maleficent isn’t really evil is the entire point, the movie’s execution just leaves it feeling rather wishy-washy. Maleficent’s pain after her wings were stolen felt incredibly real, but I didn’t entirely follow why that meant she became a seemingly cruel dictator over her one-time friends, or why she went from a joyful and loving fairy who was accepting and protective of all creatures to a woman so dark that she curses an innocent baby to death. She becomes the cold villain of Sleeping Beauty, but only for about ten minutes, and without the change fully making sense. She becomes both too evil for logic, and not evil enough for expectations.
And then there’s the scene where she loses her wings. Writers have already described the moment as a rape scene, and although the Huffington Post responded to this fact positively, saying that the subsequent movie is a tale of Maleficent reclaiming her power and her agency, I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of metaphorical rape as a plot device yet again. Maleficent is iconic because she’s a powerful female villain who doesn’t act out of jealousy or revenge. Her reasons are entirely her own, and she’s terrifying because those reasons appear to be little beyond “because I wanted to.” But her curse is now about King Stefan. It’s about spitting his words back in his face, and punishing him for his treatment of her. It’s a reactive moment, motivated entirely by King Stefan’s own choices and actions. And this reactiveness continues throughout the movie. He’s driven mad by paranoia that she will come for him, but she never does. She tries to break the curse once, but then does little to stop it once one attempts fails. She doesn’t look for loopholes or craft a new, counteracting curse to save Aurora. Her whole plan is to knock out and kidnap a random prince after Aurora has already fallen asleep. She’s presented as the protagonist, but it all comes off as a little passive.
And although the special effects were fantastic, and the last ten to fifteen minutes were gripping (I genuinely worried that Maleficent would die), so much of the movie felt incredibly generic. We had our unnecessary fantasy battle, with a poor imitation of Aragorn’s speech and deadly fights between armored humans and fantastical beasts. We had incompetent comic relief characters who didn’t quite inspire laughs, and sprawling shots to show off the CGI department’s efforts. Even the ending was Disney-generic, with Maleficent deciding to spare Stefan and him attacking her when her back was turned, causing him to fall to his death. And none of that is bad, per say. It’s just a bit “meh.”
But despite this, the movie’s fundamental themes are still solid. It’s a story of unlikely female friendship, a story where the female characters are the heroes and their emotional journeys are the ones that matter. It has the message that love and kindness are far better than fear and cruelty, and even warns us not to judge a person’s worth by their appearances. There’s a lot of good stuff hidden in here. It just didn’t quite come together the way I would have hoped, as hampered as it was helped by the context of the original Disney movie.