A man wants the respect of the other men around him. Acquiring that respect means he has to display his worth. This display becomes a grotesque act of violence against a woman. This is the broad allegory at work in Maleficent, defined in its first 20 minutes. After the Isla Vista shootings, I don’t know that there’s a more appropriate 20 minutes of film we need to see.
The film is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s perspective. We’re introduced to Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) as a child. A fairy from a fantastical land, she falls in love with a human boy, whose thirst for respect and power causes him to betray her and cut off her wings. The power of allegory is that this can all be accomplished with a PG rating. Children will marvel at the film’s fantasy land and understand the tale of vengeance at the film’s heart. They will comprehend the allegory at face value, but they thankfully won’t have the experience to be able to apply it. Adults will recognize the trademarks of scenes we’re used to seeing in other genres. When Maleficent wakes up after being drugged and finds her wings have been cut from her, it’s not a hard metaphor to grasp. Unfortunately, too many adults in the audience will have had the experience to be able to apply it.
After her betrayer is named king, Maleficent curses his daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning) – she will prick her finger on a spinning needle at the age of 16 and fall into a “sleep like death.” I won’t give anything away beyond these basics, but Maleficent is filled with metaphors of social shaming, divorce, and abuse. Like the best fairy tales, these darker meanings are only hinted at, giving the tale greater relevance and more value in being retold.
As an allegorical reinterpretation of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is powerful and more timely than its filmmakers could ever have imagined. As a film, it suffers from some dodgy craftsmanship. There are very beautiful moments – its creature, costume, and set design are brilliant. Little details, from the filigree on the king’s armor to the embroidery of the pillows on which Aurora rests, fill out the world with the texture of unspoken history. Some very overlooked technical elements take away from this, though – the sound design is thin and the musical score feels recycled. The visual effects can range from breathtaking to amateurish, and they have a markedly different tone from dialogue scenes. The 3-D is strained and muddies a great deal of detail – opt for 2-D showings. Maleficent doesn’t feel like a finished film. It feels like a very promising rough cut.
Only a few actors in the world are dynamic enough to command our attention through such a litany of technical dilemmas. Foremost among them is Angelina Jolie. There is dialogue here no actor can pull off, and yet she grounds it with a regal bearing that is at once overacted and tender. Director Robert Stromberg often focuses exclusively on her eyes, putting the rest of her face in shadow, and she has the ability to convey so many emotions in quick succession it leaves you reeling. Every time a slapstick scene clunks or an action scene only half-works, we return to Jolie’s performance and the film recovers almost entirely.
That scene in which Maleficent wakes up to discover her wings are gone – it’s not filmed well. The set’s beautiful, but the shot choices take away from the moment. None of that matters – Jolie’s performance in that scene is so wrenching and haunting that she could’ve filmed it on a bare stage free from the context of the plot, and we’d still understand its every nuance. Fanning also deserves credit for her bright turn as Aurora, as does Sharlto Copley for his nasty, emotionally lean performance as the betrayer-turned-king, Stefan.
Maleficent is more important for its values and performances than its cinematic accomplishments, but this may make it a better film than something less ambitious and more polished. It joins a growing trend in summer entertainment of discussing issues we as a society are often too slow to address. Add to this the rarity of a performance as outlandish and commanding as Jolie’s, and Maleficent is a very solid recommendation, especially as family entertainment. It hits some heavy issues that – like it or not – children have to be prepared for as they grow up. It’s up to you how much you’d like to discuss afterward. Maleficent leaves the door open to those discussions in a unique and comfortable way.