I debated for quite some time over whether I wanted to post a review of Maleficent. Having been thoroughly underwhelmed upon first viewing, I wasn’t sure that it would be worth my while. However, after some greater thought, I have decided to corral my scattered thoughts about this very scattered film. Let me state at the outset that I was very excited to see this film as I, like many others, have always thought Maleficent was Disney’s most brilliant and compelling villain.
As other critics have noted, there is a great deal in this film for both feminists and queers to enjoy. From the film’s central message about the primacy of female bonding and the dangers posed by psychotic and unrestrained masculinity to the obvious queer appeal of Maleficent (as channeled through Jolie and her costumes) and the story’s emphasis on alternative families, there is much, thematically, to like about this film. It forthrightly pushes up against all that we have come expect from Disney, and that’s definitely a good thing.
However, there were some quite noticeable shortcomings that undercut my pleasure in the film. If there was one thing that I found signaturely lacking in this film, it was a truly deep awareness of its animated predecessor Sleeping Beauty. Lush in both its visuals and its sounds, this is a film that well-deserves its place as one of the most aesthetically mature and complex Disney animated creations. Unfortunately, much of this beauty is either lost or left under-utilized by Maleficent.
Take, for example, Maleficent’s entry to Stefan’s castle. In Sleeping Beauty, the entrance is as exciting as it is visually well-executed, and Maleficent (voiced by the inimitable Eleanor Audley) manages to alternate between languorous sarcasm and biting venom with aplomb. All of this seems to have been lost on the writers and director of Maleficent who, while keeping some of the lines and the general gist of the events, subdues everything to the point of blandness. All of the sound and fury of the original animated film is here reduced to something bordering on the banal.
There are also some truly cringe-worthy moments in this film, as well as some definite missteps in terms of visual design. Among the latter, perhaps the most egregious is the decision to have Maleficent possess wings. While I can understand the aesthetics that this enables–her joyful flight through the Mores is visually spectacular–to me it felt strange and even somewhat ridiculous (especially the earlier scenes).
Perhaps worst of all were the three fairies whose names, I might add, were needlessly changed from their earlier iteration. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, three of the most dynamic characters in Disney animation history, here become bumbling fools who barely manage to keep Aurora alive. And they’re not even cute bumbling fools but are instead cardboard cutouts that, while intended as comic relief, end up being annoying distractions.
While I remain disappointed in many aspects of Maleficent, I am still glad that it was made. When we take into account the recent phenomenal success of Frozen (which has some of the same themes), it would seem as if we may be witnessing a watershed moment for Disney and perhaps for Hollywood as a whole. However, I have my fingers crossed that the studio’s live-action adaptation of Cinderella, featuring Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine, will do more justice to its villain-turned-hero than this film which, ultimately, does not live up to the reputation of its title character.