MALEFICIENT IS MAGNIFICENT.
It’s a clever pre-quel that gives us the ‘true’ story of the wicked witch and the curse she placed upon the princess. It was, you may recall, a curse that doomed the princess Aurora to unending sleep, pricked as she was fated to on her sixteenth birthday, from the needle of a spinning-wheel, and only to be awoken by the kiss of a handsome prince.
That’s the story we got back in 1959 when Disney spun its Grimm fairy tale of an evil witch bent on revenge, and foiled by true love.
Back then, all it took was one kiss from a handsome (and rich) man to awaken a dormant beauty. And that wicked witch was all bad all the time.
But Disney 2014 begs to differ that we (and they) got it all wrong. Actually, Maleficent was a wonderful, kind, winged faery, loved by all in her magical kingdom… until she fell in love with a stranger – a human – who had wondered, innocent and unprotected, into her realm. He, it would turn out was just another grasping, overly ambitious lout (Sharlto Copely of “District 9” and “Elysium”), who, to please a dying king and win his crown, was prepared to feign love and lull a naive Maleficent into a defenceless and drugged sleep. He had his way with this other sleeping beauty by lopping off her wings, thereby ridding her of her freedom… and her trusting, loving heart.
But Maleficent, clipped but unbowed and aided by the wings of a shape-shifting raven, learns that the lout has become king and a father. And it is on his sweet innocent child that, braving the bristling defences of the castle, all aglow and festive with the celebration of the birth, she brings down the curse of everlasting sleep.
This is Angelina Jolie’s movie. She plays the part without any hint of campness or self-irony; and offers us a woman made bitter by deception. She dominates the story and the screen as a towering figure of cold imperious hauteur. With eyes like icy lasers and with prosthetically enhanced cheekbones, Angelina’s face offers us a “don’t fuck with me” look that can (and does) wither plants and make grown soldiers pause before summoning up the temerity to attack. (Apparently, she looked so fearsome in her make-up that none of the children chosen for the part of the baby princess could bear to be near to her without crying. The only one who could still snuggle up to witch Angelina was her own daughter, upon whom was thrust a starring role) But she also offers us the other side of Maleficent: the one who cries in despair and agony when she awakens to find herself shorn of her wings; and the one whose heart softens as she warms to the sweet innocence of the hiding princess Aurora (a wimpy Elle Fanning of “Super 8” and “We Bought a Zoo”).
Ms. Jolie is absolutely one of two very good reasons why this is a movie worth seeing. The other is the stunning production design. Director Robert Stromberg is an old hand at creating fabulous fantasy worlds – as he did with his production designs of “Avatar” (and there are certainly strong echoes of that design here) and “Alice in Wonderland”. He hews close to the original Disney movie designs, and there are moments when we see the towering horned Maleficent in her flowing black robes with curling tongues of green fire licking the air around her, that seem to slip effortlessly from the original animation. But whereas the Disney movie had the usual Disney froth of singing animals, this one has a wonderful variety of strange creatures that ooze both charm and menace.
To all the hordes of children who will see this movie, it’s a simple story of a woman who lost her heart and, in the end regained it, so that all could end happily after. Love will out.
But there’s another narrative at work:
Maleficent, is quite clearly, the ‘woman wronged’. She is all women who have ever been deceived by men and by a male power structure. When her wings are ripped off her (an act of symbolic rape), she is forced to be earth bound; and can no longer soar above the realm of men. Her kingdom is, by its very nature (a peaceful diverse place of evergreen abundance run by a woman) a threat to the warlike feudal society of the rapacious humans (who we know tend to destroy worlds). But after this initial lapse of trust, men can no longer penetrate her strong defenses, though she remains unafraid to penetrate theirs. As we saw in Frozen, the kiss of revitalizing love cannot be trivialized to the kiss of some pimply prince upon a (defenceless) sleeping beauty, but demands real, earned love and honest emotions. When Maleficent regains her full powers toward the end, she literally breaks thru a glass ceiling, to champion the unification of the two, once warring kingdoms into one diverse and harmonious place under the tender reign of a woman (Princess Aurora).
Maybe the meta-narrative is a prescient red-carpet roll out for the ascent of Hillary to the American throne