With fantasy re-imaginings being so popular at the moment, it was only a matter of time before one of the most iconic Disney villainesses was given a new starring role. A blending of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the Broadway show Wicked, Maleficent achieves little in the way or originality or emotional involvement, but sure is pretty to look at.
Angelina Jolie seems like she was born to play the role, stepping into the malice of Maleficent with flair and confidence, her cheekbones stretched into a wicked grin. She gives off a superstar glow that the rest of the film lacks, all other characters one-dimensional, especially the villain of the film, King Stefan, nothing more than a paranoid irritant. Aurora is the only other character to generate sympathy throughout the story, but does not appear until the midpoint while her relationship with Maleficent is the crux of the narrative.
While it is also gorgeous to look at, you also get the sense that many of these visuals were inserted to make up for a lack of engaging story. The audience becomes wrapped up in the grandeur while not realizing that they have no emotional stake in what is happening to the characters onscreen. When the film is over, it is easily forgotten for a kind of emotive journey and remembered purely as an aesthetic one. This is a true shame because it could have been so much stronger.
How could this story have been stronger? At first thought, I thought the film needed to be less ‘Disney-fied’, with a darker tone and edge that would justify its protagonist’s grimmer journey. Thinking back on it, that was not inherently the issue with the story as much as the interactions between the characters and proper placement of the main relationship between Maleficent and Aurora.
For instance, the film should have started with the major scene of Maleficent placing the curse on baby Aurora. The audience would see Maleficent as they have always interpreted her, as the villain, condemning an innocent child to a terrible fate. Throughout the course of the narrative, we would go deeper and deeper into her backstory through flashbacks and see just how she came to be her evil self and come to understand her.
As it is now, she gives in to evil rather easily without a great justification (think Revenge of the Sith (2005)). A bad romance seems just too easy a motivation for Maleficent. In my opinion, perhaps she is not an orphan, but has at least one parent or guardian who attempts to guide her and raise her according to a set of sacred principles instilled for all fairies. This mentor teaches her about the paths of righteousness and using her magical powers for good and how to look after the woodland creatures. She meets young Stefan just as before and saves him from a magical accident, striking up a friendship beyond her guardian’s knowledge, a sacred love if we were to go so far. The boy’s father however is a greedy king who learns about the boy’s infatuation and has wanted to take over the woodland realm. He convinces the boy to tell him how to get into the realm and they invade, starting a war. Maleficent is horrified with her home under attack and her guardian learns of her foolishness, condemning her before he or she dies. Maleficent then learns that Stefan told the army the realm’s secrets and hates him. With her home in ruins, she is forced to the faraway regions with what remains of her magical friends. She breaks the vows of her ancestors, forsaking her good teachings and learns dark magic, intent on destroying the invaders. After years of building strength and hate and gathering dark magical powers, she returns to the kingdom where Stefan is now king, lord over all the realm and places her curse intended to do the upmost harm to his legacy, believing that true love is a mirage based on her experience with him.
This backstory would be revealed piece by piece as Aurora first meets Maleficent in the woods, believes her to be her fairy godmother and comes to admire her. Currently in the film, there is not much motivation for Maleficent to take Aurora under her wing. Indeed she seems genuinely annoyed by her. Perhaps she would spy on her, but come to recognize certain characteristics of herself in the young girl. Not just a bumbling blonde, Aurora could assist woodland creatures as Maleficent has done and stand up to the authority of her guardian fairies and venture out looking for a better life. There is no need for the three fairies looking after Aurora to be annoying and incompetent. What they can be are voices of reason, urging Aurora not to wander out into the woods whenever she feels like and not displaying the carefree attitude that could get her in trouble, the same attitude Maleficent showed with Stefan when she was in love. These traits could attract Maleficent to Aurora and start to make her regret her decision. When she does save her life after she almost stumbles over the edge of a cliff, Maleficent becomes attached to the girl.
Maleficent then serves as a mentor to Aurora as her mentor served to her. Perhaps Aurora has heard of the evil Maleficent, not realizing that the evil fairy is right in front of her, and tells Maleficent the tales she has learnt of her. Maleficent then realizes how she is perceived, regretful. She teaches Aurora about the creatures of the woods and taking care of them. Throughout all of this interaction in the second act, the crow that helps Maleficent in the film acts as a conscience, urging Maleficent to let go of her hate and revoke her evil magic. Perhaps there is also another creature that encourages her evil in a contradictory manner, each playing ying and yang with Maleficent’s journey. Eventually, the dark magic of Maleficent frightens Aurora and makes her question her bond with the older woman. She discovers that she is indeed Maleficent and runs away.
Aurora then finds Prince Charming and falls for him. Maleficent learns of this attraction and plans to kill the boy, saving Aurora from suffering the same pain she suffered. The crow convinces her otherwise and Maleficent learns that good still indeed lives inside of her. Aurora is raced to the castle for protection as her birthday approaches, but in a trance she wanders towards the spinning wheels. Maleficent races to try and stop the curse from taking place, but has to navigate through Stefan’s guards. Stefan, convinced of Maleficent’s hatred for him, personally tries to engage her when she is caught. Maleficent pleads with him, but to no avail. Aurora pricks her finger and falls to sleep.
Maleficent escapes to wonder what she has done, angry at her acceptance of dark magic. The crow serves as a pep coach to convince her to bring Prince Charming to Aurora in one last desperate attempt to save her. She solicits the help of the three little fairies, convincing them of her change of heart. Just as with the film then, Prince Charming’s kiss fails, sending all the company into despair. Maleficent laments her foolish ways and kisses Aurora in apology which then wakes her up. This is the most interesting aspect of the film and the true masterstroke of the writing. Everything should have built up to this moment.
Aurora forgives Maleficent, but then Stefan’s guards attack. Aurora is injured while they attempt to kill Maleficent to which she transforms into her dragon. Fighting Stefan’s men, she at last is given her opportunity to kill Stefan and does not do it, transforming into her regular self and forgoing her magic before all the realm. She gives all of her magical powers to Aurora, uniting the two kingdoms, men and fairies, who will live as one under Aurora’s reign.
Think it should end different? How should Maleficent’s story be told?