Movie review: Maleficent

Dara and I were a bit late to seeing this movie; we know it’s been out for weeks now. But we finally got a chance to see it before it vanished from the theaters, and I’m pleased we did. Overall picoreview: pretty good, though I have a bit of a hard time going above that, mostly because both Dara and I wish there would have been more substance to the script.

(ETA: Dara in particular lays down an excellent argument about symmetry–about failing to show us King Stefan sufficiently justifying his evil actions, and Maleficent justifying her good ones. Go see what she has to say, too!)

Overall, though, holy crap Angelina Jolie rocked the hell out of the role. And the costume and wardrobe and makeup people should get an Oscar alone just for the work they did on her eyes, her facial structure, the horns, and the cheekbones. Also, WINGS. Because I mean DAMN.

I’ve been asked if this film is kid-friendly, and I’ll say here what I said on Facebook: that I do have the caveat of not being a parent, and not regularly interacting with children, so I’m not exactly in a position to be the best judge of that. That said, I’d suspect that there’s some intensity here that might be a bit much for younger children, particularly in the violent climax of the story, as well as overall rather adult plot themes. Older children may fare better, but that could depend on the kid.

Spoilers behind the wall of thorns!

So yeah, if you’ve seen the movie already you know this is essentially a retelling of the original Disney version of Sleeping Beauty–but not quite so simple as a version of the story from Maleficent’s perspective, since this is definitely not the character we see in the animated movie.

Right out of the gate we get Maleficent’s backstory. And while it would be easy to dismiss this reshaping of the character as “she turns evil because of being betrayed by her lover”, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. The film does a good job of setting up the initial conflict of the human kingdom wanting to conquer the Moors, and Maleficent and the other fey creatures reacting to this in self-defense–and how in particular, Stefan’s ambitions lead him down the path of taking her wings in order to win himself a place as King Henry’s successor. I bought that, and I bought Stefan’s actions. It’s because of that that I’m with Dara, in that how this is in some ways way more of a political story than one about something so simple as betrayed love. That IS in there too, don’t get me wrong; the film is quite clear about how young Maleficent and Stefan become something more than friends. But Stefan’s motives in stealing her wings are entirely political. We see him pull back, too, from outright stabbing her, in his last glimmer of sympathetic regret before he goes down the path of becoming King Crazypants.

Meanwhile, even though Maleficent’s hurt and rage are very real once she realizes what’s happened to her, you can make a good argument that her showing up at the christening in her black-leather-clad glory (and OH, Jolie is glorious in that entire scene) is essentially her giving Stefan one last shot at not being an asshole. She sweeps in radiating the snark, oh my yes–but she doesn’t drop the curse on the kid until Stefan lashes out at her, even over the objections of his wife Leah (note: IMDB is confusing about what this character is actually called, Leah or Leila or Violet), who tries her best to soothe this clearly dangerous, clearly powerful fairy.

So yeah, there’s a lot more nuance there than just “you betrayed me in luuuuuuurve so now I WILL BE MISTRESS OF ALL EVIL”. It helps a lot that Jolie sells it.

But. It’s after this that I start wishing that the film had somewhat more substance than it actually presented us. It seemed a bit too easy to me that Maleficent should just be willing to let the kid live–Dara told me on the way home that she wanted to have seen Maleficent specifically decide to make certain Aurora survived to her sixteenth birthday, specifically so she could see Stefan suffer. She also caught that the terms of Maleficent’s curse said that everyone would fall in love with Aurora–and, well, that includes her. I missed that, and it’s a good justification for why, eventually, Maleficent starts watching over the child and making sure the inept fairies who are supposed be raising her don’t botch it from sheer negligence.

But it would have been good to see Maleficent operating, at least at first, from a position of “I’m only keeping this squalling little human brat alive so I can see her asshole father suffer later”.

I wish we could have seen a bit more of the queen. She’s almost an afterthought after the christening–we don’t even get to see her die on camera. But that said, I really rather liked that Stefan was having a conversation with Maleficent’s wings, just to underscore that yep, he’d become King Crazypants.

I quite liked the character of Diaval, meanwhile. Maleficent saves his life because she needs him to be “her wings”, but he functions fairly well as her conscience on several levels, too. His presence in the movie is a nice indicator that even though Maleficent’s gone dark, there’s a glimmer of redeemability in her.

I liked her attempt–and failure!–to revoke her own curse. Once again, foiled by her own magic. She laid down the terms herself: no power on earth but true love’s kiss would break the spell.

Once Aurora finds out who Maleficent is, though, is another bit that I would have liked to have more heft. It seemed just a bit too easy and insubstantial to me, her flipping out that OHNOEZ MY FAIRY GODMOTHER IS EVIL MALEFICENT, so of course she runs off to the castle, so of course her father locks her up. Aurora’s just spent most of her life experiencing Maleficent looking after her. She’s also been cared for by the fairies. I would have liked to see her be more conflicted about that–after all, she was on the verge of telling her “aunties” that she was going to live with Maleficent in the Moors permanently.

Found it a bit too easy, too, that Aurora could just walk right up to the castle and be immediately recognized, given how paranoid her father’s gotten in her absence. I would have liked to see her challenged a bit more about getting there, maybe with some fun side conflict of “I just walked out on both my aunties AND my fairy godmother in favor of a father I’ve never known, GOSH I HOPE THIS WILL BE OKAY!” How must she have felt walking up on a castle bristling with the iron defenses her father’s been making his ironworkers slave over? That had to shake the poor girl up a bit.

NICE creepy handling though of the curse kicking in and her walking in a magical daze down to the dungeons. I liked the reassembling of the spinning wheel out of the burned, discarded bits down there.

Meanwhile, I quite liked young Prince Phillip, for all that he’s almost a nonentity in this version of the plot. But I very, very much liked his interaction with the fairies as they try to get him to kiss Aurora, and especially his lines to the effect of “but but but I barely know her!” NICE handling there, in particular the acknowledgement of how yeah, actually, it’s kinda creepy that he’d just up and kiss a sleeping girl without her consent. (And never even mind the really old versions of the story where Sleeping Beauty doesn’t wake up UNTIL AFTER SHE’S HAD CHILDREN.)

Maleficent’s being the one to actually deliver “True Love’s Kiss” was good, even if telegraphed too heavily too soon. And I was rather wryly amused at her not hesitating an instant to haul Prince Plot Device er, uh, Phillip around until she could deliver him to Aurora.

But then we get into the climax of the movie, and yeah. Turning Diaval into a dragon, awesome. All the iron-clad knights with their massive shields, closing in on Maleficent in a ring–blatant, almost oppressive imagery, but also very effective. Particularly in counterpoint to when Stefan finally shows up in his heavy armor, wielding chains.

And all of THAT in counterpoint to Aurora discovering the wings and breaking the box that holds them–at which point we discover that the wings are in fact still alive and viable. I hadn’t seen that coming, I admit, but it worked well for me. It had mythic resonance, Maleficent’s wings being restored to her. Maleficent roaring back into battle at full strength, with her wings on her back where they belonged, was beautiful.

Her last confrontation with Stefan, though, needed more. Dara described for me how she felt Stefan needed to hurl his bullshit political justifications at her for what he did, and that the audience needed to see Maleficent win that argument. As it was, her snarling “It’s over” at him and then just physically fighting him seemed a bit too thin.

And I have to admit I found the ending a bit too thin, too, with the Moors just up and deciding YAY AURORA WILL BE OUR NEW QUEEN. I suppose you can handwave that as, well, everyone did fall in love with her, and also that it was appropriate for Maleficent to cede power to close her arc, but still. It was good though to see Phillip there in the final scene, and Aurora and Phillip smiling at one another in what might not be true love yet, but certainly had the potential to become so.

All in all… yeah. Pretty good. Certainly worth watching, and I’d probably happily watch it again. The thin bits of the plot certainly didn’t keep me from enjoying the rest!

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