Jack the Giant Slayer. Oz: the Great and Powerful. The Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland. Now Maleficent. So apparently this is kind of a thing now; take old fairytale movies and retell the story, with a twist. Do we call them, pretentiously, post-modern deconstructions of classic tales? Or are they just more modern examples of what Disney’s always done: shape a classic tale to fit contemporary sensibilities. When, during the closing credits, I heard Lana Del Rey’s cover of Once upon a Dream, it all came clear. The original Once Upon a Dream was all chirpy and soprano-y; a song fitting that late 1950’s sensibility. Lana Del Rey’s version is sultry, ironic, much darker. It fits our time. Maleficent isn’t as daring, as bold, as deconstructive as it seems to think it is. It’s very good, and I enjoyed it immensely, but it could have been, and I think perhaps wanted to be, just a shade darker, just a hint more troubling.
What Maleficent tries to do, though, is remarkable and bold enough. Structurally, it’s a Hollywood narrative melodrama in which the protagonist and the antagonist are the same character. Back when I was teaching dramatic structure 101, I suggested that a story in which protagonist and antagonist are the same person is what we call a tragedy. Oedipus is a great example. Oedipus the King is busy trying to root out the evil that plagues his city. The deeper he digs, though, the more he uncovers–he is that evil. His actions have brought about the sickness killing his people. He is trying to eradicate the consequences of his own choices.
And that’s very much the case with Maleficent. The young fairy Maleficent has wings, and can fly. She lives in an enchanted forest next door to a powerful human kingdom. She’s magnificent, beautiful and powerful and strong. And then she falls in love with a young human male, Stefan. But he’s a poor kid, and ambitious. When the elderly and addled human King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) decides to destroy the fairy world, and is defeated by Maleficent’s army, he offers his crown to anyone who can beat her. Stefan (Sharlto Copley, so great in District Nine), knows Maleficent’s only vulnerability is to iron. He visits her, whispers sweet nothings, and when she’s asleep, uses an iron chain to cut off her wings. And the scene when Angelina Jolie wakes, in terrible pain, without her wings, is heart-breaking.
From that scene on, we’re sympathetic to her, and we’re basically on her side when she shows up at King Stefan’s daughter’s christening and curses this newborn child. We get it. Jolie is superb in that scene, with her sharp cheekbones and bright red lipstick and the black horns protruding from her skull. She’s scary, strong, angry. She’s earned it, her fury and her revenge. And she has a companion, the crow Diaval (Sam Riley), who is her counselor and conscience, and who she can shape shift into anything she needs–a wolf, a horse, a ravaged-looking human).
And so, King Stefan decrees, all spinning wheels are to be destroyed, and Princess Aurora sent off to be raised by three inept fairy guardians, Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistlewit (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, all of them very fun), who give the film some comic relief. And Aurora grows into a delightful, lovely, radiant teenager, played sweetly and beautifully by Elle Fanning. And Maleficent grows to love her.
That relationship, between Maleficent and Aurora, becomes the key to the entire film. And we believe it. Aurora thinks Maleficent is her fairy godmother, and in a way, she is. And Maleficent tries to break her own curse. She no longer wants revenge on King Stefan, certainly not a revenge that will cast an innocent child into a permanent coma. She wants Aurora to be happy. The way any Mom would.
It’s at this point in the story that thoughts about Angelina Jolie, her history and her pop culture persona, do intrude a bit. The key to Maleficent is this simple thought: the love of a mother for her adopted child can be as deep and lasting and permanent and powerful as the love of a mother for her biological child. That idea, of that equivalency, seems pretty well unarguable. Of course it’s true; it’s obviously true. But it’s an idea that, I suspect, has a greater resonance with Jolie than it might for other actresses.
I want to continue this thought, but to do so requires a spoiler; so SPOILER ALERT, and stop reading if you don’t want the movie ruined.
Okay, the curse takes hold, Aurora becomes Sleeping Beauty. Just before that scene, though, Prince Philip, from One Direction, shows up. I’m kidding; he’s Brenton Thwaites, and his last movie credit was the remake of The Blue Lagoon. He’s very good looking, in other words, in a boy band kind of way. And he and Aurora have an awkward teenage conversation, and Elle Fanning plays it perfectly–girl’s first crush. So we know how the story’s going to go, right? Sleeping Beauty is cursed; she can only be woken by a True Love’s Kiss. By the Prince. But Disney already deconstructed True Love’s Kisses, right? In Enchanted? And isn’t that very notion sort of, uh, stupid?
So the good looking boy band member/prince shows up, and, egged on by the three inept fairies, kisses the pretty girl he’s met once before, for ten minutes. And nothing happens. Nothing happens at all, because ‘love-at-first-sight true-love’s-kisses’ are romantic twaddle. The Prince doesn’t love Aurora. He just sort of has a crush on her.
But a mother’s kiss? A kiss by a woman who has sacrificed for her child, and watched over her, and worried over her, and kept her safe? Yes, that’s true love. That kiss might work. And it does. And Sleeping Beauty awakes.
That kiss, a modest kiss on the forehead by a mother, is lovely, a splendid moment in an excellent movie. What comes immediately after, though, is pretty disappointing, and the movie becomes sadly, predictably, safe.
Oedipus is both protagonist and antagonist in Sophocles’ play. In a sense, you could say the same about Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play. A narrative in which a character is both the hero and villain is, generally, a tragedy. And the consequences, for those protagonists, is usually, well, tragic.
But Maleficent isn’t a tragedy. The writers and director and producers cop out. They had the story, and they had the actress with the power to pull it off, but they didn’t have the courage to let the story go where it needed to go. Maleficent pays no price for her curse. She does this dreadful thing, uses her powers to curse a child, and that action gets the narrative spinning, but her actions have no subsequent consequences. Maleficent should have been a tragedy. But the didn’t dare end it tragically.
Having kissed Aurora, and saved her, and ended the curse, Maleficent really should die. Whether by the hand of her lover-turned-madman, Stefan, or by her own hand, or (my choice), torn apart by the power of the curse itself, Maleficent should have to genuinely sacrifice. Hamlet dies; Oedipus is blinded. Maleficent gets her wings back. No.
But no. The ending is just so much typical, generic Hollywood tosh. There’s a big fight scene (of course there is). Stefan and Maleficent fight a final duel (of course they do). She wins, but then forgives him, won’t kill him, however much he deserves it. (As in so many other Hollywood narratives). And she and Aurora live happily ever after, their realms reunited, the fences between them destroyed. And Aurora marries her absurdly good looking dude, and Maleficent gets to be like a fairy grandmother or something.
The ending is so disappointing. But the movie is really excellent up to that point. The script is smart and witty, and Jolie is tremendous as Maleficent, and Fanning is charming, and Sam Riley gives the film some weight and sadness. The film looks terrific, and my wife and I really enjoyed it. I can wish that the filmmakers hadn’t played it quite so safe, and that the fascinating possibilities of their structure had been more completely realized. But it’s a hundred million dollar movie. So they chickened out at the end. That’s just barely forgiveable.