Maleficent is yet another revisionist fairy tale, though unlike many of them, it revises to a purpose. “Let us tell an old tale anew,” the opening voiceover narration proposes, “to see how well you know it.” What we come to know through Maleficent is that the Sleeping Beauty legend still functions as a potent moral tale, this time with a particular awareness of patriarchal oppression. Evil here is borne of – then visited upon – rapacious men.
Written by Linda Woolverton (Alice in Wonderland, The Lion King) and directed by first-timer Robert Stromberg, Maleficent is largely Disney’s Sleeping Beauty retold from the villain’s point of view. Years before the princess of this tale, Aurora, is even born, we meet the fairy Maleficent as a teen (Isobelle Molloy). A peaceful if spirited sprite, Maleficent watches over the fantastic creatures of the Moors, a loosely self-governed land of exotic, sentient flowers and rolling waterfalls.
The Moors are coveted by a nearby human king (Kenneth Cranham), who decrees that the man who kills Maleficent – now an adult, and played by Angelina Jolie – will inherit the throne. This ignites a pilot light of evil in the heart of Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a servant who has previously encountered Maleficent at the edge of the Moors. And so he sets out to win her heart. He also takes – spoiler alert – her wings.
This scene, of Maleficent being dismembered in her sleep, is a shocking stand-in for sexual assault, especially considering the film is rated PG. (It’s also a nod to the sexual violence in one of the earliest variations on this tale, told by Giambattista Basile in the 17th century, well before the Brothers Grimm.) And so Maleficent becomes – in our modern terms – a trauma survivor.
Jolie is also able to embrace the theatricality of the part without using camp as a safety net.
Jolie is crucial, able to internalize this psychology and then project it through a deceptively intricate performance. Aside from a moving soliloquy, in which Maleficent describes what her wings once meant to her, most of Jolie’s work is done with her eerie, CGI-enhanced eyes. A narrowing of them is worth a thousand words. Jolie is also able to embrace the theatricality of the part without using camp as a safety net. Even her accent – one part British and two parts Joan Crawford – works for the character. Maleficent is, after all, trying on a role after she transforms into a vengeful sorceress. She’s seeing how villainy fits.
Jolie’s showcase scene is the curse Maleficent puts on Stefan’s baby after he has ascended to the throne. Her anger having heightened her power, she revels in the chance to crash Aurora’s christening and bring Stefan to his knees. It’s a reclaiming of autonomy, a re-establishing of identity and an act of diabolical revenge. Stefan took from her; now, by proclaiming that at the age of 16 Aurora will prick her finger and fall into an eternal sleep, Maleficent takes from him. Even her promise that the curse can be lifted by “true love’s kiss” is less an escape clause than a bitter turning of the knife. After all, it was supposed true love that cursed her.
Still, it would be a mistake to say that the movie depends entirely on Jolie. Stromberg and his visual team devise many ways to envision the insidiousness of the evil at the story’s heart. Hardened by her trauma and bent on vengeance, Maleficent marches into the Moors with a dark cloud behind her, one that comes to cast a shadow over the land. Later, during a climactic confrontation, Stefan and Maleficent find themselves chained to each other – connected by their shared history of hate. My favorite moment in the film doesn’t involve Jolie at all. Rather, it’s a shot of Maleficent’s wings, which have been placed in a trophy case by Stefan, suddenly beating to life. There is hope for her to still be the creature of light she once was.
Overall, the production design is a thrilling ode to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, especially the walls of thorns that are erected, both by Maleficent (of wood) and Stefan (of iron). (I suppose Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke gets a deserved nod here as well.) Thorns are a fitting symbol for the movie, considering they poke both inward and outward, threatening the very ones they’ve been erected to protect. Maleficent depicts how usurping violence works similarly, unleashing a tangled chain of pain and hatred, one that will consume us all if we let it.