Angelina Jolie shines in this otherwise grim fairy tale.
“I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream. I know you, that look in your eyes is so familiar a gleam.” Perhaps you’ve been humming that old tune from Sleeping Beauty to yourself to get psyched for “Maleficent,” Disney’s new live action update of their classic animated motion picture featuring Angelina Jolie as the titular character. Well, you can stop humming now, because this Maleficent isn’t anyone you’re familiar with at all.
Gone is one of animation’s most memorable villains, the cold and cruel queen of all evil who put a curse on a newborn princess–just because nobody in the castle thought it would be a good idea to extend an invitation to a creature with all the powers of Hell at her command to the child’s christening. No, that wicked person has been replaced by a nice fairy from the forest next door who loses her way for awhile because her man done her wrong. Sigh.
“Maleficent” tells a tale of two kingdoms. One is an enchanted place full of magical creatures who exist in harmony with nature and one another. This world of wonder is watched over by Maleficent, a young fairy so concerned with her homeland that she takes the time to mend each broken twig. The other kingdom is full of men, which automatically makes it an awful place because all men are greedy. How do we know they’re all greedy? Because the narrator tells us they are, so shut up. Due to mankind’s excessive greed, Maleficent doesn’t trust humans and so uses her great powers to prevent them from entering her woods. The human King Henry learns this firsthand after Maleficent and her tree-people soldiers (who aren’t Ents, because those are one of the few things Disney doesn’t own) thrash him and his army severely in a border skirmish.
One fateful day, however, Maleficent runs across Stefan, a poor peasant lad who has snuck into the magic kingdom (wait, I have to say it) in hopes of finding something valuable to steal. The two hit it off and become fast friends, spending their days together frolicking around the forest. And once they reach their teens (apparently fairies age and reach puberty at roughly the same rate as humans), romance naturally develops between the two. On Maleficent’s sixteenth birthday, Stefan embraces the fairy and bestows upon her what he describes as “love’s true kiss." Then he promptly disappears from Maleficent’s life. (I trust I don’t have to explain the subtext of this scene to you young ladies out there.)
Years later, after Maleficent has grown up to be Angelina Jolie, Stefan returns and wishes to renew their relationship. It turns out to be a ruse, though, as Stefan soon slips the too-trusting Maleficent a knock-out potion and proceeds to violate her by cutting off her wings. (If any of you young ladies need the subtext of this scene explained to you, please ask your parents.) Stefan intends to use the wings as proof that he has slain Maleficent, a deed which will earn him the throne once King Henry passes away.
At this point, the movie enters slightly more familiar territory as it re-hashes the opening scenes from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” The now-King Stefan and his human queen have a child they name Aurora, and they throw a lavish ceremony for her christening. Three nice fairies show up to grant the child gifts, but are interrupted by Maleficent, who appears to pronounce the infamous curse that on the child’s sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into eternal sleep. But even though this mirrors the scene in the 1959 original, this new version immediately begins to play with the well-worn narrative. It is Maleficent herself, not one of the other fairies, who makes the pronouncement that Aurora’s curse can be lifted by love’s true kiss. She does this, of course, because she no longer believes such a thing as true love can exist in the hearts of men.