The forthcoming back-end of Once Upon a Time’s season 4 has us trying to bone up on the new villain trio: Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmations, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. We started with the latter, skipping the classic Sleeping Beauty film for the recent re-imagining of the story, Maleficent.
In this retelling, we get a very different view of Maleficent, starting with her joyful youth in the Moors, the fairy-magic world, continuing to her meeting of a young human whom she falls in love with, and then his betrayal of her, turning her bitter and vengeful. When she hears that the human, who betrays her to become king, has recently had a baby, she visits the Christening and curses the child in the familiar way: by the child’s sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a death-like sleep which only true love’s kiss can bring her out of. It’s an ironic out clause–Maleficent no longer believes true love’s kiss even exists.
Then, as the girl ages, Maleficent watches her in vengeful obsessiveness, slowly growing to care about her. She realizes the girl might be the one to heal the rift between the fairy and human lands.
Angelina Jolie stars as the title character with cosmetically emphasized cheekbones and massive horns and wings, and she ends up being kind-of perfect for the role. She plays the traditional villain with aplomb, sporting that bright red lipstick and devilish smile to thrilling effect. Much of her acting happens in close up in her eyes–a wariness toward the “beastie” that is young Aurora, a disdain for the three fairies left in charge of caring for and protecting Aurora, open vulnerability as Aurora gets closer to the curse’s fate and Maleficent cannot call it off.
Opposite her is Sharlto Copley, who also played the infected bureaucrat from District 9, as Stefan, her once love now betrayer and king. Copley’s Stefan is written and acted with less range–after all, he’s the villain here. What he does portray wonderfully is the dangerous madness his betrayal and Maleficent’s curse drive him to.
Elle Fanning does fine in the film, but she lacks the dynamic charisma of Jolie or even Copley in their roles. The world-building is beautiful, though at times a little fake looking, and I can imagine that certain scenes where Maleficent is flying were breath-taking in 3D.
What truly elevates the film is the twists Disney has given to its classic villain’s origins and the concept of true love. The rest of this review will have spoilers in it, so abandon ship now if so desired.
Maleficent is a joyful and protective character until her betrayal. Stefan, a man she had loved and who she thought loved her, drugs her and cuts off her wings. It plays like a date rape, although in suggestion more than explicitness–this is Disney, after all. Her shock and agony upon waking to find her wings gone is truly painful to watch. I had tears well up in my eyes–a testament to Jolie’s acting to portray the anguish. The betrayal makes her into the vindictive villain she becomes, and this makes a statement about the circularity of violence and abuse, especially when her violence turns itself onto the next generation, Aurora, rather than being directed back at Stefan.
But most interesting is a repetition of a twist we see in Frozen as well. Maleficent and Stefan are both sure that true love doesn’t exist. The fairies and Maleficent first try to get Prince Philip to kiss Aurora, but as he points out, they hardly know each other, so how could it be true love? His kiss fails. It turns out to be a kiss of familial love–that from Maleficent for Aurora that stops the violence and lifts the curse. So again, Disney is subverting its own cliches in its modern movies.