In addition to being terribly written at almost every turn, Maleficent is an ill-conceived project. Re-imaginings don't have free reign to violate the ground rules established by the source material; Disney's 1959 film, Sleeping Beauty, establishes that Maleficent is evil. It begs no question as to why she's evil, but if we assume that the leaping-off point for Linda Woolverton's 2014 script is that question, we're still on solid enough footing. The trailers seemed to suggest a story along those lines, i.e. an origin tale. But it seems Angelina Jolie and Linda Woolverton want us to walk out thinking their Maleficent is a big spectacle movie about regaining one's femininity after horrible abuse. It is certainly that (if you accept the film's definition of "feminine"), but that's not the story at the heart of an iconic character like Maleficent. She is, like it or not, folks, a Disney villain, and villains have certain reputations to uphold in Disney properties, namely being villainous. And so Maleficent, not at all that villainous or frightening (whoops), is, first and foremost, a miscalculated re-imagining. Its aims are smaller than tragedy, which might have been the best, grandest, and most sympathetic re-imagining of the character.
The movie's worst offense, by far, is its misguided attempt to make some kind of post-feminist statement about maternity and femininity; unfortunately, it ultimately suggests that the only valid woman is a woman adept at handling babies. In this, it's flat-out anti-feminist and reductive, though it thinks it's something else entirely. The proof of this is in its treatment of the three fairies who take Aurora into the woods to raise her. Their depiction here is deplorable; each is a terrible caricature of the big three sins a woman can commit: being old, being dumb, and being pretty. If the screenwriter actually subverted these stereotypes and made them effective characters, that would be something, but she doesn't. As written, they're stupid and offensive. What purpose their mistreatment by the writer serves I can't fathom. In Sleeping Beauty, these three are, arguably, the heroines of the tale, saving the princess from Maleficent's designs. Here, they're responsible for nothing but cheap laughs (and they're not the least bit funny, as they're not the least bit true to any portrait of real women; if Maleficent deserves our respect as a woman-fairy, why don't they?).
The men in the film are almost all just as offensively monstrous or stupid, even more so when you consider that the king, Stefan, was known as "Good King Stefan" in the source material. In his character, perhaps, the screenwriter's offense is greatest: the "rape" of Maleficent is handled with such fetishistic nastiness (a chain!) that it feels horribly out of place in a Disney film. It's jarring, and while jarring is sometimes a prized effect, it only serves to remind us, here, in the most inelegant fashion, that men are selfish bastards. Only the crow, Diaval, Maleficent's servant, seems to have a conscience, to know the right thing to do, and what is his reward, as a man? He spends the entire movie enslaved by the title character (an act for which she is never called to account). In the end, Maleficent forces him to assume the form of a dragon in order to save herself, using him as a kind of male shield against the soldiers' spears and chains. This is how she treats the one male character who's been more than generous to her throughout the film. Is this suggesting that it's perfectly acceptable to manipulate men, if one's motives are selfish enough? What, also, is the death of King Stefan meant to satisfy? Maleficent, at least, doesn't kill him, but she doesn't save him either. So men deserve what they get? And Aurora's just okay with this?
Do you know the term "misandrist"? I had to look it up. My Google search went something like this: "opposite of chauvinist." Of course, we all know what a chauvinist is: it's when a man hates and mistreats women because he's a stupid male asshole. But what do we call it when women hate men? It's not a term very many of us are familiar with, and for good reason: men have, traditionally, been the ones in power, and it's not a common conversation that starts with, "Boy, men are so oppressed!" Still, this doesn't mean all men are natural impediments to women, but I think, ultimately, this is the narrow-minded point of view of Maleficent.
Bringing it back to the idea of this as a re-imagining of the source material: who is this movie for? If you're a fan of the original animated Sleeping Beauty, it's going to disappoint you profoundly. If you're a young boy, you're going to have a hard time finding any character you can identify with, unless you're a burgeoning psychopath. If you're a young girl, well, you may wonder why this feels nothing like any other Disney movie you've ever seen, and I do hope, sincerely, that someone makes a strong argument on the film's behalf and delineates, very clearly, just what's happening with that chain and potion. Or maybe you get that on every level it's meant to be gotten. But what I'm trying to say here is that Maleficent is far too clunky, as written, too unwieldy, to shoulder such heavy burdens as these. Its ambition exceeds its grasp, and its grasp is painfully weak. It eschews beauty and timelessness for complexity and timeliness, and in doing so collapses under its own dismal weight.
Written by Linda Woolverton
Directed by Robert Stromberg