Maleficent (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Maleficent (2014)

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Disney jumps back to their well of '50s greats to find another angle for the story of Sleeping Beauty.  Maleficent is a remake of the 1959 film told with a few twists about its titular villain as it focuses on how she came to become the dark queen who threatened a happy kingdom.  This is Robert Stromberg's first time directing a feature-film from a screenplay written by Disney veteran Linda Woolverton.

This is my power nowComing from the theater I fought a brief temptation to read Maleficent as subversive.  Really it's one of many Disney films that have come out over the last few years that treat its female protagonists as equals in the story instead of unfortunate victims.  While there are terrible things inflicted on Maleficent, one thing that she never becomes is a victim and in the intriguing and complex Maleficent, we find how she is able to avenge the sins on her in a way that provides safety for those who will come after her.  This Maleficent, far from the specter of evil we last saw in Sleeping Beauty some, has a painful journey ahead because of the man who forced himself on her.

Maleficent is more a fairy tale for adults than it is for children.  Along with the scenes of fantastic flight as Maleficent soars the skies of her kingdom there are moments which deal with rape, psychological neuroses, revisiting the site of trauma, and many more painful issues.  The way that Maleficent loses her ability to fly, through violent castration no less, is representative of  the kinds of sexual assault that occur far too often.  That moment, and Angelina Jolie's chilling scream that follows it, are at first a stab of harsh darkness into the otherwise bright world of Maleficent that eventually shows to be part of a gradual shifting from the 1959 Sleeping Beauty film into something more nuanced.

The creature design, while at the service of yet another scene of army crashing against army, is an intriguing mix of male and female symbols twisted among wood, soil, and vine.

The creature design, while at the service of yet another scene of army crashing against army, is an intriguing mix of male and female symbols twisted among wood, soil, and vine.

This transition is where I struggle with Maleficent a bit.  Scenes of new fantasy at the beginning, punctuated by the removal of Maleficent's wings, transition to a period of light comedy before going back to Maleficent's struggle.  The three fairies who assume guardianship over Princess Aurora, played with plenty of energy by Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, and Imelda Staunton, are relics of the Technicolor time that their characters are based.  A bit goes a long way with these three, who enact scenes of slapstick to little humor each time, and while their symbolic function is clear through their blind embrace of the idea that princes and princesses are meant to be together, the scenes where they do not have someone else to bounce off grow annoying quickly.

The true struggle of Maleficent, and where the film is a huge success, is not the epic brawls or slapstick scenes but the internal struggles of Maleficent and the supposedly good King Stefan.  Most of the film's run-time is in close-ups of one or the others face as we watch them in contemplation of their current situation and what they are going to do next.  Neither Jolie, who has not been this good in over a decade, or Sharlto Copley, who gives the king a terrifying libidinal madness as he ages, stumbles during these moments.  Maleficent is not about the struggle between those two, but the warring identity crisis that they have within themselves.  Since her power was stolen from her she remakes herself as a villain who can't help but feel sorry for the king's daughter, and he thought that his one act of violence would forever prove himself a capable man when he is instead tortured by the idea of a woman who could still possess the power to affect his life.

While Maleficent is not the most stirring film visually, director Robert Stromberg presents this internal struggle quite well in what are easily the two best scenes.  The first is the conflicted face of Maleficent, still clad in the dark of her chosen role as villain, contrasting with the brightness of the fairy kingdom which has returned with the love of Aurora.  The second is with King Stefan, whispering madly to Maleficent's wings which he keeps imprisoned behind a ceremonial cage in the palace with lights forever behind the massive wings always reminding him of his sin and taunting him with the deadly illusion that if he just went a bit further he would have everything he wanted.  Both moments come from deep within the two characters, contrasting the ongoing struggle of Maleficent as she balances her need to revisit the cycle of violence with her new role as guardian, and the other of a man who thought he had everything he needed for success when he realizes that he will never be happy so long as she, who he thinks stole his chance for happiness, still exists.

While Maleficent's journey toward becoming a hero is filled with identity issues, the good king has little trouble accepting what he is.

While Maleficent's journey toward becoming a hero is filled with identity issues, the good king has little trouble accepting what he is.

The sexual politics of Maleficent are eerily well-timed considering the national conversation about what violence is inflicted on women.  It was very difficult for me to see scenes of King Stefan in his deep pool of misogyny, whispering to the wings about how she has stolen everything from him, and not think of the manifesto's of violence against women which have captured the national dialogue.  This translates into Maleficent's world in two scary ways - the implication that this story is a generational one that each king forces on the next, and the group assault on Maleficent at the end with only the eyes of her attackers visible.  It's that second moment, with the clang of iron and the look of pure violent purpose in Copley's face, that scared me the most.

Maleficent's story, without losing almost any of the fantastical elements, could be translated to a hospital or trauma care center without losing any of its power.  It might have been improved in this way as well, leaving less of a reason to include the lengthy scenes of army clashing against army behind to focus more on the conflict at hand.  But keeping it as a fairy tale keeps it as the morality lesson that is behind the best moments of Maleficent.  This story of violence is one that does not have to happen again in the next generation, and Maleficent's struggle tells us how.

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Tail - MaleficentMaleficent (2014)

Directed by Robert Stromberg.
Screenplay written by Linda Woolverton.
Starring Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. hmmm i definitely want to still see this. but your review is interesting.

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