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'Maleficent's' Tale Is Far More Emotive, Ambitious Than Most

Courtesy of Disney

The title Maleficent may be beyond the vocabulary of the movie’s target audience, but whatever your age, don’t let that bother you. It’s a far better movie than most adaptations of fairy tales, and it makes a good attempt to rescue ancient folk material from the dominance of male characters.

Maleficent grows out of the story of Sleeping Beauty, the young princess put into a hundred-year sleep, along with everyone else in her castle, by a resentful woman, until someone – a prince of course – kisses her. She then wakes up and marries the kisser. Like all folktales, this one comes in many versions. It was written down in France in the 17th century and then by the Brothers Grimm in Germany in the 19th, but until Maleficent, the young woman stays in that coma for a hundred years, until a guy can wake her up.

You might call this new film an overdue feminist version of the story because finally, after hundreds of years, the women characters do not wait passively for the men to do decisive things. The women cause their share of the events in the movie, and the crucial changes take place among the women. The film Maleficent goes well beyond a curse and an awakening, and it’s more complicated than the familiar pattern of a young man, good and true, undoing the malevolent, jealous power of a woman. The character Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is not one-dimensional in her jealous rage; she struggles within herself, and she has real power equal to the males.

Credit Frank Connor / Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, the title character behind Disney's retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale.

Jolie is a commanding presence in Maleficent. The movie makes the unexpected angles in Jolie’s face dramatic, so she looks completely distinctive, and like no other actor, Jolie has the raw nerve to carry off wearing a huge pair of wings, along with an impressive set of horns. There’s nothing tentative about her; her postures and her moves are bold. She flies off into battle, clobbering male warriors left and right. Jolie’s also not a sentimental actor; she stays self-possessed, which deepens the power of the scenes when Maleficent turns vulnerable.

Director Robert Stromberg is in charge of a movie for the first time in his career. Before this, he’s worked in visual effects – his work includes The Life of Pi, The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. Maleficent is a fairy tale, so it’s good material for Stromberg’s skills.

Maleficent’s world looks strange enough that it’s obviously not our world, but Stromberg also doesn’t overload it with hordes of sterile CGI figures. There’s some feel to it; the character’s combats hold enough emotional charge to show that there’s something to be gained or lost.

Maleficent does not start out on a promising note. As the character visits a dose of morning cheer on the mushrooms, you wonder if you’ve blundered into a swampful of Disney saccharine. Three little pixies flit about the screen to add hints of lightness. One of them is played by the English actor Imelda Staunton, who’s always good to watch, but otherwise it’s warmed-over R2-D2 and C-3PO, and Disney formulas, and time for obligatory chuckles before the story resumes.

But Maleficent has real muscle inside it.

The stories reworked by the Grimm Brothers can be stark and blunt, in the way of dreams. The film Maleficent has more nuance than that. The character feels anger and bitterness, but then regret and change.

The film wants more than the marriage that concludes typical fairy tales. Most of them, in one way or another, stand as metaphors for the psychological development of human beings; marriage is the image of maturity and completion, and, of course, continuity of human life. Maleficent drives to a more ambitious finish. It looks to restore a balance of nature, between human beings and the world we inhabit, and between men and women.

Don’t look now, but a lot of recent pop movies have the same things in mind.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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