Why 'Maleficent' Failed
Not that it matters.
“Yet I know it’s true that visions are seldom all they seem.”
Nobody, and I mean nobody, was more excited than me when I read Angelina Jolie was cast as the titular character in Maleficent. I know I’m not the first weird gay kid to fall in love with Maleficent, the greatest of all Disney villains. I know I’m not the only one who funneled my insecurities and revenge fantasies into the badassery of her diva fits and the self-indulgent joy she took pride in as The Mistress of All Evil. Hundreds, maybe thousands, claim ownership over her fandom, which is exactly why I'm writing this. I was the weird kid who didn’t play sports because I was studying Sleeping Beauty. I was the chubby gay boy who made my mother buy a Queen-size bed sheet to use as a cape when I pretended to be Maleficent. I was the outcast who ritualistically called out her spells, swinging a plastic “staff” (it was a toy microphone stand) atop the gray ottoman in our living room, making damn sure Prince Phillip would not get to King Stefan’s castle. In many ways, I’m both exactly for whom this film was made and the worst person for whom this film was made. One could say I was merely expecting too much. Sorry, Disney’s not getting off that easily.
Let me tell you what Maleficent means to me, to us. She is the self-possessed, loner goddess with the greatest magical powers in the realm. She is feared by all and loves it, for she is a conduit for evil. And by “evil,” I mean the antagonist forces that oppose the heteronormative bullshit that fairytales laud as the light of god. She is the woman content to live in a crumbling castle, her only companions being the bumbling trolls who don’t know babies age and the crow she’s chosen as her familiar. She’s confident, powerful, and knows how to make an entrance—everything a persecuted gay boy wants. And the real-life embodiment of all that power is undoubtedly Angelina Jolie. So, when this bullied gay kid, who is now a melodramatic adult, first heard rumor of the Jolie casting, I sang its possibilities from the mountain tops and offered thanks and hope to the universe. Okay, I just posted it on Facebook, but isn’t that really the same thing? Beyond Maleficent's inert force and character schema and looking past the perfection of Jolie's casting, the triumph of Maleficent’s presence in the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty can be summed up by Tim Brayton, the genius movie critic who runs his own blog entitled “Antagony and Ecstasy.” He writes:
Maleficent combines the three things that go into making all of the best Disney villains:
-She is a woman
-She uses magic
-She is defined by the color black.
Black as the pitch of night, that's what she is: sleek, flowing black lines, edged with royal purple, against a sickly green background, with cadaver-pale skin and yellow eyes, Maleficent is pretty much the least-subtle evil being possible, but she is also the most commanding visual element in every frame that she occupies because of it.
That’s what she means to the legion of fans who’ve seen Sleeping Beauty hundreds of times. And honestly, for Disney to shit on our good will with the embarrassment of Maleficent is disgraceful, especially after an overwhelming promotional campaign that made me so excited I Instagram'd this on May 19:
Let’s go in, shall we?
First, someone needs to tell writer Linda Woolverton what a moor is. A moor is not a land of hills and forest filled with magical creatures that look like rejects from the world of Harry Potter. This is not a moor:
This is a moor:
A flat, windswept land, most likely in the English countryside, upon which tragic lovers named Heathcliff and Katharine can find love and solitude.
Second, why does child Maleficent live in a tree? I mean, she has wings, but I see no nest. In fact, I don’t see anything else that looks like her in the forest. She is supposed to be a fairy, but all the other fairies are these annoying sprites who are clueless to everything.
Third, are we just supposed to accept the mystery of Maleficent’s parents’ death? She empathizes with the young Stefan, who will later roofie her (we’ll get to that in a second), when he says his parents are dead. I think both sets of parents died of boredom.
Fourth, there’s a war in the first half of this movie that is completely glossed over, which brings me to pacing. This movie is choppier than the vomit-inducing whale watching trip I took in the fourth grade. Maleficent, much like the catastrophes of the 2010 Alice in Wonderland and the 2011 Oz, the Great and Powerful, is the perfect storm of irresponsible storytelling: a mega-star name to sell, the latest CGI technology at the film maker's disposal, and the brand of a beloved classic to fuck over with a series of strung-together scenes that ultimately tell no single story but instead almost taunt the very notion of cohesion. Let me tell you what this movie should have been. It should have been an epic, three-part fantasy extravaganza. It should have been an adult trilogy in which one of the greatest of Disney characters is given the tragic life story she, and we, deserve. Instead, we got a children’s movie filled with haphazard moments. How awesome would the story of Maleficent had been had it been given the Game of Thrones treatment? The first movie could have been about her painful youth, why she’s different, how she deals with it, culminating in the burdensome realization that she’s been chosen as the protector of the moors (which aren’t moors) and must defend her land in an epic war. The second movie could have been about her relationship with Stefan, the kind peasant boy who becomes her only friend only to betray her, convincing her that true love doesn’t exist. I imagine that in the last moment of that second movie a vile minion tells Maleficent, whose heart is finally pure stone, that Stefan, now king, has had a daughter and there’s to be a christening. And then the third movie could be the serious, R-rated retelling of the Sleeping Beauty myth. It’s got all the elements of a fantasy-driven epic : royalty, magic. There’s even a dragon! Except, of course, that dragon is not Maleficent herself (the climax of her story arch in Sleeping Beauty) but instead her crow, which shape shifts in Maleficent at his mistress’ behest. Incidentally, the elocution of this magical command is really a triumph of language artistry on the writer’s part. Maleficent says, “Into a dragon.” So creative, right?
What pains me the most is the missed opportunity. No one in this generation will ever be more suited to this part than Angelina Jolie. With her Born This Way cheek prosthetics, her leather-bound horns, and her disaffected gaze, she perfectly embodies Maleficent. You can’t take your eyes off her. She is perfect for this role and does everything she can to try to save Maleficent from becoming incoherent twaddle. She does not succeed. It’s a jumble of CGI and missed moments that culminate in a “plot” twist that was done better in Frozen. Aurora is not awoken by Prince Phillip. Hell, by the time Aurora’s sleeping in the castle’s topmost tower, Phil’s only been in one other scene. He doesn’t even know her. No, it is Maleficent who kisses her awake. True love’s kiss did not come via the lips of a wandering prince but via the guilt of the curser. How did Maleficent, the most reviled enemy in the land, merely walk into King Stefan’s castle? Your guess is as good as mine.
And now we come to the roofie scene. Among the myriad of arbitrary moments is a scene in which Stefan, seizing his chance at becoming king, drugs Maleficent and cuts off her wings. How in any way is this scene fit for a children’s movie, for any movie? A power-thirsty man literally clips the wings of the most powerful woman in the land after he’s taken advantage of her love and vulnerability by poisoning her. Yes, young humans for whom this film was made, let’s make one thing very clear. While it’s great to be an empowered woman with all the powers of magic literally at your fingertips, do remember that a man with a power complex (or iron) can take all that away in one date. Don’t ever be vulnerable, young people, for that may be the moment you lose your ability to soar, the moment you are violently stripped of your freedom.
The near date rape of Maleficent aside, there was no need to give Maleficent a back-story. Just as Jim Carrey’s The Grinch was ridiculous, just as Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was ridiculous, so was Maleficent. These are characters born of the wind, pure in form and unjustifiably singular. The Grinch hates Christmas not because of something that happened to him in his childhood but because he is the trickster inhabiting the hills around Whoville. Willy Wonka is not a candy-making recluse because his father was an overbearing dentist; he makes candy because he’s the magician spun together of the scent of peanuts and the warmth of hot chocolate. Maleficent is not evil because she was a lonely fairy whose wings were clipped by a boy she thought loved her. Maleficent is evil because the darkness gifted her to us. She is the dark flame of conflict in a world in which nuclear families treat the disassociated like monsters. Before Lady Gaga was Mother Monster, Maleficent was the queen of the monsters. To turn her into an emo vamp who doesn’t turn into a dragon as a last ditch effort to keep the archetypal straight man and woman from copulating is, as Maleficent herself would say, a disgrace to the forces of evil. Shame on you, Disney, for making millions of dollars by reducing one of your greatest characters to the common denominator. Shame on you, Disney, for tempting us with the possibility of a biopic of one of your classic villains only to drug her. And shame on you for disappointing the millions of us who know who Maleficent is and what she truly stands for. Money is not magic, Disney, and maybe you should look at your own shit show of a movie to see what happens when the lust for power and riches consumes the minds of those in charge.