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Maleficent only half commits to subverting Disney fairy-tale convention

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Maleficent, production-designer-turned-director Robert Stromberg’s somewhat feminist and slightly queer take on the Sleeping Beauty story, is more well-intentioned than accomplished. The movie sets out to apply a revisionist twist to classic Disney material and to translate the aesthetics of matte painting to digital 3D environments. It’s better at the latter than the former, chock full of implausible landscapes, which combine the perspective of paintings with the depth and texture of physical sets. As for the revisions…

Maleficent’s script, by Disney veteran Linda Woolverton (Beauty And The Beast, The Lion King), recasts the evil fairy godmother from the studio’s 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty as an anti-heroine who was seduced, drugged, and physically violated (He cuts off her wings!) by Sleeping Beauty’s father, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley, an eccentric casting decision in a movie full of them). The rape imagery is unsubtle, punctuated by a scene where Maleficent (Angelina Jolie, impressively committed to the role) wakes up face down in a forest. Finding cauterized stumps where her wings once were, she breaks out in an intense, chilling sob that briefly punctures the movie’s fairy-tale surface.

Maleficent continually struggles to balance the requirements of cutesy princess fare with critical ideas. After Maleficent curses King Stefan’s daughter, Aurora (played as a teenager by Elle Fanning), to fall into an eternal sleep on her 16th birthday, the child is whisked away by three good fairy godmothers (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville). They prove to be ineffectual guardians, and Aurora spends most of her childhood on the verge of starving to death or accidentally running off a cliff, with only Maleficent—who doesn’t want her revenge against King Stefan interrupted—to save her. This is where Maleficent starts to depart radically from its source material, and where it introduces its best (and most squandered) ideas.

Though it’s completely cancelled out by the movie’s tacked-on epilogue, there are hints of an anarchist slant running through Maleficent—from an opening narration that contrasts the monarchy of the humans with the self-governance of the fairies, to the riot shields carried by King Stefan’s guards in their final showdown with Maleficent. The feminist subtext occasionally bursts into the foreground in the film’s midsection, where Maleficent’s relationship to Aurora begins to drift away from her hatred for the girl’s father.

Though it manages to subvert the story’s climax, Maleficent never feels of-a-piece; it’s a collection of interesting directions, run through a post-Renaissance Disney filter. It sets out to humanize one of the studio’s most iconic villains, and in the process, creates a new one-dimensional villain in the form of King Stefan. (His transformation from Maleficent’s childhood love into her metaphorical rapist might speak to the corrupting influence of power, were it not so abrupt.) It presents the fairy world as a utopia of equals, but then falls back on the faithful servant trope (embodied here by Maleficent’s pet raven, played in human form by Control’s Sam Riley) familiar from countless Disney animated films. And though it’s lavishly designed—a mixture of historical and stylized costumes, unreal perspectives, and Pre-Raphaelite meadows—it’s hardly imaginative, preferring to act as a kind of visual tribute act. Despite the wall-to-wall effects work, the only truly striking images in the film are shadowy close-ups of Maleficent’s face; they owe most of their effectiveness to Jolie’s performance. The result is a movie that doesn’t quite work as a fantasy or as a subversion of the same.