So I have to warn you now that this review will contain spoilers after the jump because there’s pretty much no way I can tell you anything about this movie without spoiling it. Short version: Angelina Jolie is good, the subtext is shocking (for a Disney movie), but the movie isn’t very good. If you want to know why keep reading, if you want to go see it without knowing anything then stop reading now.
Now I haven’t seen Sleeping Beauty in a long time but as I recall Maleficent was the bad guy and really didn’t have much of a motive. She’s just evil and that’s part of what made her endure as a character, right?
In this retelling she is a human sized winged fairy and the protector of a realm of magical fairy creatures which happens to live next door to a kingdom of humans who are, obviously, greedy bastards who want everything (including the riches of the fairy kingdom) for themselves.
When she’s a girl Maleficent meets Stefan, a young human boy, and they become friends and she falls in love with him. Eventually he disappears to the human kingdom entirely and becomes an ambitious social climber and when the king announces that anyone who can vanquish the protector of the fairies (who just humiliated him in battle) will be his successor Stefan heads back to fairy land and reunites with Maleficent. Then he feeds her a drink with a sedative in it and cuts her wings off.
Yeah, you read that right, Stefan roofies Maleficent and violates her. In case you think I am reading too much into this just wait for the following scene where she wakes up, groggy and in pain and realizes what horrible thing has just been done to her. Yes, a Disney movie marketed to children spends most of its first act being a rape revenge metaphor.
Unfortunately where the first act is kind of interesting the rest of the movie is not. Stefan becomes king and has a daughter and Maleficent reappears to curse the child so that on her 16th birthday she will fall into a death like slumber from which she can only be awakened by true loves kiss. This being Maleficent’s ultimate revenge as Stefan had told her before he disappeared that he loved her truly. The baby is then entrusted to three good fairies but they are all bickering idiots –at one point the baby literally walks off a cliff while they fight among themselves– so Maleficent has to watch over the baby for 16 years to make sure she the curse plays out correctly and in the process gets to know the girl and eventually it warms her heart and yes this is going exactly where you think it is.
It’s strange that Disney let this movie happen. It’s advertised as an origin story for Maleficent but rather than saying “here’s why she’s evil” it says “everything you knew about Sleeping Beauty is wrong. All the bad guys are really good guys, all the good guys are really bad guys, and also men are terrible.” And they really are, at least in this movie. Stefan does terrible things to Maleficent with the sole purpose of advancing his social standing and then spends the rest of the movie casting himself as a victim wondering why she’s so angry at him and fortifying his castle in case she comes to get him and his refusal to admit any wrongdoing ultimately leads exactly where you expect it will.
If there’s a bright spot here it’s that Angeline Jolie is kind of great. Her performance seems to indicate she’s the only one who completely understands everything that the film is saying (with the possible exception of Sam Riley as her faithful servant/companion Diaval). Sharlto Copley has the sleaze turned up to 11, Elle Fanning is fine, Sam Riley does pretty well with the material he’s given and the three good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville) are supposed to be comic relief but are distractingly over the top.
The pacing of the film is all over the map and most scenes feel disconnected from the ones around them It feels almost like far more footage was shot than made it to screen and what remains is held together by clunky narration. Someone forgot to tell the filmmakers that the first rule should be “show, don’t tell” when you’re making a film.
So there it is. Maleficent isn’t a good movie but it is one I imagine –since there is a rape metaphor in this kids movie– it’s one that will be talked about for some time to come.