Welcome to the second installment of “Why do i like this movie?“. Yes it has been more than a year since the first one, but I never said you will get a second one so technically I kept my deadline.
So umh, let’s go back on the subject. Recently Disney has started a series of live action remakes of its classic animation movies. I liked The Jungle Book (if somehow one could even discuss the ‘live’ part of this one, but Neel Sethi did an awesome job in it) but most of time I am left wondering. I don’t really understand what the point of remaking classic movies is if they’re nearly identical. But still Disney has set a course and we are bound to have several of those movies. That’s why I wanted to talk about Maleficent.
Released in 2014, Maleficent was the second live action remake made by Disney. One from a time where they weren’t sure they wanted to retell exactly the same story they had already told decades ago. It is far from being the the most well-received one, as well:
I like Maleficent. It’s not one of my favorite movies of all time but when I watched it in the theater, it was an enjoyable experience, contrary to some more recent ones. (Don’t judge, I grew up in the countryside and we take what we can get in terms of screened movies.)
So what is it? Why do I like Maleficent despite the movie not being perfect? I mean, except for the fact that I am French and that we are greatly deprived of cinematic works of fantasy in baguette land, of course.
Everything Maleficent did poorly
I wanted to call this part ‘Everything wrong with Maleficent,’ but I am not comfortable with the idea of a lawsuit. Anyway, the critiques against Maleficent aren’t undeserved. The movie is far from perfect, so let’s begin with the beginning: the idea behind Maleficent.
It is the only Disney live action remake currently out (or close to being released) that doesn’t share the exact same title with its animated counterpart. On the contrary, although the movie is inspired by the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, its title comes from the the main villain of the movie. Maleficent, the character, is one the of most iconic Disney villain. She’s an evil fairy who has an army of evil creatures at her service. An evil fairy that curses a baby just because she wasn’t invited to her christening. An evil fairy that turns into a dragon and calls on the powers of hell to aid her. In short, Maleficent is a good old-fashion villain who is evil because of two things: ego and power. And she is super charismatic, too.
Even her name literally expresses her evil nature. Maleficent means working or productive of harm or evil. She has no back story. She was always Maleficent. She is plainly a force of evil that humanity has to live with. So of course a movie focusing on her could be really fun. What can I say? I love villains. Except if said movie decided to part from Maleficent’s evil identity and gives her a tragic backstoryTM.
Guess what Disney did? Yep tragic anti-hero Maleficent it is. It was too a point where Angelina Jolie had to insist on having makeup and protheses to make her look unworldly and intimidating because Disney wasn’t really on board with it. Disney took its most iconic villain and turned her into an insipid version of herself. She doesn’t even turn into a dragon! It makes very little sense that they actually kept her name for her pre-villain life. It makes no sense in universe and begs the question “What sort of asshole named that sweet child Maleficent?”.
I mean, if the humans had named her ‘Maleficent’ because she kept them from the Moors and she later embraced the identity, why not? But no, she introduced herself as Maleficent.
I think the movie suffers a great deal from its refusal to be a movie about a villain. Especially after having selected such an iconic one. But it’s not the only problem the movie has.
It is very generic fantasy. Like, really generic fantasy. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the movie had kept the fairytale vibe that the original animated version had. But no, most elements of the Moors looked more like a rip off of Lord of the Rings or even Snow White and the Huntsman. The special effects aren’t bad, far from it. But the change in tone from the first version reminds us that we won’t be content with such a generic Faeriland. One of the poster children of this problem is iron.
Apparently fairies/the fae (England should decide how it wants to call the fair folk once and for all) have an aversion to iron. I say apparently because it wasn’t part of the fairy tales or stories about fairies I heard when I was a kid at all. But it seems pretty common in what I am going to call Anglo-Saxon countries (Great Britain, Ireland, Northern America). It’s in the movie, and yes it leads to a pretty cool visual at the end. But this visual could have been obtained with another plot point, and frankly, this iron thing looks like a box being checked. “Fairies are supposed to be hurt by iron, look at my incredible world building.” This wasn’t in the original story, so why was it necessary in this adaptation?
There is also the problem of archetypes. You see, the original Sleeping Beauty was inspired by a fairy tale and kept the tone of it. Fairy tales are apologues: a brief fable or allegorical story with pointed or exaggerated details, meant to serve as a pleasant vehicle for a moral doctrine or to convey a useful lesson. This means that more often than not characters are archetypes in fairy tale. That is why they often don’t have specific names. They are the prince, the sleeping beauty, Donkeyskin, the witch…
Maleficent, even if it kept some aspect of the fairy tale, including the moral, isn’t a fairy tale at all. Its main character isn’t an archetype nor is the dilemma or the villain she is facing. Therefore the world around her can’t be archetypal. Yet it is for a lot of the secondary characters. I am ready to excuse that for Aurora, because she is proactive at the end of the movie, and I seriously believe that Elle Fanning has been genetically engineered to be a fairy tale princess. But the three fairies… The first king… Come on movie, you are better than that!
An esthetically pleasing movie
Despite everything said above I still like Maleficent. So you are probably left wondering which of the two hypotheses is true:
- I have a serious cognitive dissonance
- Maleficent has hidden qualities that make watching the movie an enjoyable experience
In this article I will develop the second (even if the first one isn’t to be completely excluded). Maleficent isn’t a perfect a movie, but it has qualities that speak to me. And those qualities are, for me, more attractive than the faults are repellent.
First things first, Maleficent is a visually beautiful movie. No really. It’s not just a question of synthesis images or special effects. It is a question of general aesthetic.
Maleficent is a treat visually. It has iconic shots and a vibrant color palette that allow us to see the set and its details. No really, what is supposed to be colorful and lively is. What is supposed to be gloomily and haunting is. More than any Disney live remakes I have seen Maleficent has visual research that takes from the original animated movie but knows when to depart from it when needed for the narrative.
In addition, for the human world, the creative team went full medieval inspiration. Not weird mix of different eras styles like it is in Cinderella 2015. No no, it is as if the creative team actually liked medieval esthetic. Complete with a full set of medieval inspired headpieces! What can I said? I am weak in front of medieval headpieces. If your fantasy/period drama has medieval inspired headpieces I will stan the hell out of it.
In addition, the movie is carried by a more than pleasant soundtrack that follows the idea of the rest of the aesthetic. It takes inspiration from the animated Sleeping Beauty but diverges from it if needed.
And finally, Angelina Jolie. Angelina Jolie as Maleficent is the one thing the critics nearly universally agree on. She is really good. You can see how pleased she is to be Maleficent and how she gives the best of herself. She is having fun, and it’s intoxicating. Just watch the christening scene. She is perfect in it. Angelina Jolie is a delight, one of best live casts of a Disney character up to now, and her part in the movie is one the best things in it.
Good ideas developed
Another good thing about Maleficent is the themes and ideas developed in it, themes that weren’t part of the original Sleeping Beauty. For me, the most important is mistake and redemption. If the movie didn’t have the courage to make Maleficent an unrepentant villain from A to Z, at least for a part of the film Maleficent is a villain and her actions are presented as bad and reprehensible.
Sure, she has been betrayed in an horrid way and we are supposed to feel bad for her. Her anger against king Stephen is entirely justified. However, the way she expressed it isn’t. Rather than targeting the object of her rage, she destroyed innocent lives. She takes the control of the Moors in a mirrored fashion to the humans world, whereas before she was just its guardian. The Moors ‘needed neither king nor queen’ and yet because of a personal betrayal, she starts ruling over it. This is an injustice toward the other inhabitants of the Moors.
Same goes with Aurora. Maleficent curses her in retaliation against Stephen, but Aurora isn’t responsible for anything that happened to Maleficent. And it’s the confrontation between her and Aurora that makes her realize that she is wrong. She has hurt innocents in her quest for vengeance, and she has to undo it personally. He final arc is to put herself in danger to save Aurora. And it’s because, and only because, she has done everything in her power to makes things right that she is eventually forgiven. Repented. King Stephen on the contrary, never did anything to right his wrongs and ends up dead, as a villain.
It is an extremely important moral. A villain, even one with a tragic backstory, can repent but only if they want to and work to gain that redemption. It’s not about your past, it’s about what you decided to become and what you are ready to do to become that person.
Another nice idea present in Maleficent is the relation to nature. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent’s horns were a symbol of evil; in Maleficent they are a symbol of her belonging to the natural world. A world which is unjustly feared by human. Unjustly not because it is not powerful but because it has no intention of hurting the human world. But Maleficent is still viewed as evil/a problem by the humans. Making the human gaze (once can even go as far as to say the male gaze since all the humans fucking up with the Moors are men and the one fixing all that is a woman) the thing that turns nature evil was a nice choice from Disney. (Funny thing, in French ‘nature’ is feminine so for me the impression is even more enhanced).
Finally, the importance put on women’s relationships with each other is one of the greatest themes of the movie. The year before Maleficent was released, it was Frozen‘s time to hit our movie screens. Frozen too dealt with this subject and had the same plot twist in having the cursed heroine saved by the platonic true love of a woman. But I would argue that Maleficent did it better by having the two women unrelated by blood. In addition, what Maleficent learns from Aurora is more visible than what Elsa learns from Anna. Their relationship also has more time to develop making it feel less artificial.
Maleficent is an interesting movie. Not a perfect one, but still an enjoyable watch. It suffers a lot from the comparaison with Sleeping Beauty and the iconicity of Maleficent as a villain. Still, I would advise people to watch it to make up your own mind about it. It does enough things really well to deserve a viewing.