RECAP: Maleficent

Maleficent (2014): Robert Stromberg

Angelina Jolie fell in love with Sleeping Beauty from a young age, especially Maleficent. How convenient, then, that a movie about the evil queen was in development starting in 2010. And how even more convenient that Jolie was one of the world’s biggest movie stars. A match made in (Disney) heaven.

Despite middling expectations, Maleficent cruised to nearly a quarter billion dollars at the US box office, beating an X-Men and Spider-Man sequel. Jolie’s cheekbones must have accounted for 40 or 50 million of that.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A powerful fairy falls in love with a man, is betrayed, takes revenge, and falls for his child. 

Hero (7/10)

Though the narrator of Maleficent calls her both hero and villain, I’m sticking Maleficent firmly in the Hero camp. It’s her movie, after all.

Angelina Jolie shines with malice as the titular fairy, unofficial queen of the weird creatures of the Moor lands. Like any good fairy tale, we first meet the hero as a child. Young Maleficent is an orphan fairy girl who enjoys a good flight through the skies. Already Maleficent has the curling horns and wide wings she’ll carry into adulthood, though her cheekbones have yet to puff out.

Young Maleficent cares so much for her world that she heals a broken twig on her favorite sleeping tree. She flies through the land of Moor greeting all the creatures each morning, a sequence that reminded me of Truman walking through his neighborhood in The Truman Show.

The Moors is a land without royalty, where creatures live in harmony because they “trusted in one another.” No official queen, but when a human stumbles into the pool of gems and steals one of those gems, the tree guards call on Maleficent to investigate.

Young Maleficent meets young Stefan (Sharlto Copley) at the pool. They play together for some time and fall in love, until Stefan’s ambitions carry him high in the human world and he betrays Maleficent.

Skip ahead a few years to Maleficent’s adulthood. She’s still in charge of the Moors. Lounging in her land one day, she sights a phalanx of humans marching on the Moors. They are jealous/frightened of the weird creatures. We see Maleficent’s brutal capabilities in leading the attack.

The human king, mortally wounded in the attack, offers his throne to anyone who kills Maleficent. Stefan is the man to do so. He sneaks in to visit Maleficent, to warn her that men are coming to kill her. She believes him and lets years of frustration between them melt away.

One night, Stefan drugs her and cuts off her wings. Fooling the king, the act merits Stefan the crown and a lifelong enemy.

Jolie sizzles as Maleficent. Her character, whose name literally means “capable of causing harm or destruction,” must walk a fine line between villainous and heroic. She is a wronged party. Jolie keens when Maleficent awakens the morning after her date-de-winging as if she had lost a child. That’s a key scene that sticks in the memory later in the film.

A few scenes later, Maleficent shows up at the christening of King Stefan’s new daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning). She curses the child. On her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spindle needle and fall into a coma that can only be unlocked by “true love’s kiss.” Joke’s on them, thinks Maleficent, who doesn’t believe in true love.

Given what I said earlier about the de-winging keening, Jolie’s best moment is the cursing. Consumed by magical green flame, Maleficent barks out her curse with great malice, shouting, “SHE WILL PRICK HER FINGER ON THE SPINDLE OF A SPINNING WHEEL AND FALL INTO A SLEEP-LIKE DEATH.” Try shouting that sentence without making everyone around you laugh. You can’t do it, but Jolie can.

Maleficent “reveled in the sorrow that her curse had brought.” She takes an interest in young Aurora, whom the king has sent to live with fairies in the woods until the day after her 16th, cursed, birthday. The fairy queen softens a bit. “The little beast is about to fall off a cliff,” Maleficent says to herself one afternoon as she watches Aurora toddle toward a cliff, until she saves Aurora.

Maleficent is reduced to watching during the film’s middle third. Again Jolie delivers. Often lurking amongst branches and behind thorns, several shots of Maleficent show only her eyes. And they menace and glare, yet with curiosity.

One scene has Aurora toddle to Maleficent. “Go away,” she says, as one might to one’s dog when it’s dirty–only half meant. “I hate you,” she says in the same tone. “Up,” commands Aurora. Maleficent obliges. “I don’t like children,” she says, as Aurora grabs her horns and face. Ain’t that cute.

Maleficent is a tale of revenge and love. Jolie must balance between the two, ensuring the movie does not fall too far into either camp. At that she succeeds. Turns out the movie depended on Jolie, and she delivers.

Villain (4/10)

Copley has spent his career seesawing between heroic and villainous roles. In Maleficent it’s the latter as Stefan.

Stefan’s first appearance is as a thief pilfering a gem from the Moorish pool of gems. He, like Maleficent, is an orphan, who lives in a barn but one day wants to live in the human castle. Maleficent falls in love with Stefan because he’s the only creature in either domain that resembles her at all.

Perhaps Maleficent should have realized that Stefan was up to no good from the moment he left the cradle. When children steal in movies, hunger and need often drive their behavior. Stefan offers no such excuse, no excuse at all, for taking the gem. He doesn’t even thank Maleficent for saving his life from the menacing but “classically handsome” tree guard named Balthazar. He does cast away his only possession, an iron ring, after it burns Maleficent.

Ambition takes Stefan away from Maleficent as an adult. He wants power, and he earns ultimate human power after he drugs Maleficent and cuts off her wings.

As king, after his daughter is cursed, Stefan is consumed by paranoia. He has all the spinning wheels in the kingdom burned and locked away in a dungeon in his castle. Textile unions protest outside the castle, but they have no power over the king.

The king, bearded now, sends an army to burn down the wall of giant thorns Maleficent has built around the Moors. As the thorns catch fire, Maleficent brings them to life to attack the soldiers, stomping and burning them.

Stefan spends about 16 years fretting about the curse upon his daughter. Somehow the kingdom does not unravel, and though we never get a hint of Stefan’s day-to-day governing of his kingdom, he (or an underling) must have been OK at it.

Still, it’s more than a decade before he remembers that iron burns fairies. He has the kingdom’s iron workers labor nearly around the clock to prepare for the day of Maleficent’s return to the castle.

That day comes on Aurora’s 16th birthday, of course, and Stefan, despite the years of near-madness, is ready and eager for a fight.

Copley is just fine as King Stefan. His South African accent is thick in this magical world. He’s given few scenes, but he must act enraged, defiant, and subservient in them, a tall order, but one Copley pulls off.

Action/Effects (5/10)

Maleficent offers few action scenes–this is a fairy tale, after all–but action we get. The first scene comes when the aging human king, a graybeard named Henry, marches an army on the Moors. This is an unprovoked attack, a preemptive strike, against an unknown, to the humans, power.

Maleficent is the first to oppose the human army. She commands them to go back. The king says, “I say, crush them.” You read that right, the king says what he says.

Well Maleficent has some crushing ideas of her own. An army of tree warriors riding huge boars rides out from the forest. A snake made of roots explodes from the earth. Maleficent speeds through the ranks of men.

The camera uses an interesting quick zoom technique endemic to the TV reboot of Battlestar Galactica. A shaky camera focuses on a tree warrior crushing soldiers and quickly zooms onto a narrow portion of that shot, giving the impression that the camera is on the battlefield. This technique adds to the scene’s realism.

These magical creatures fight with zeal, as if created for one purpose, to destroy the world of men. They nearly succeed. Maleficent nearly kills the king, but she doesn’t know his armor is made of iron, which burns her, giving the soldiers the chance to retreat with their wounded king.

The other action scene caps the film, detailed below.

Any fantasy movie requires a quality effects team. Those behind Maleficent had a tall order crafting the trolls and tree warriors living in the Moors, but they did a fine job.

Sidekicks (4/8)

Not long after losing her wings, Maleficent finds a creature of her own creation. Walking in the land of the humans, Maleficent spots a hunter in a road. He’s trapped a crow under a net. A dog barks at it. Maleficent waves her hand to cast a spell that transforms the crow into a human.

The hunter cries, “A demon!” and runs away. For saving his life, the crow offers Maleficent his service. Diaval (not Luke Evans but his ringer Sam Riley) becomes Maleficent’s wings, in her parlance. He flies around the two domains spying for the fairy queen and providing a conscionable voice to counter Maleficent’s malice.

Diaval is a terrific servant, and he’s got a mind of his own. One night, early in Aurora’s tenure amongst the fairy trio, her aunties have forgotten to feed her. Diaval flies in with a flower oozing milk-like substance, on which the baby suckles. The crow rocks her cradle. Where did a male crow learn child rearing?

Diaval visits the growing girl often, becoming her best friend. That’s sad for Aurora, but she never seems to mind being the only human she knows.

Maleficent can transform Diaval into any creature. Once she made him a wolf to frighten Stefan’s soldiers. He didn’t like that, remembering the dog that nearly killed him under the hunter’s net. Toward the end, Maleficent makes him a horse.

But crow is the default animal. His spying enables Maleficent to see what she could not have seen wingless.

Henchmen (3/8)

King Stefan commands huge numbers of soldiers, unknown numbers, but he has no direct helpers of any consequence. The only people who help him are a trio of fairies tinged red, green, and blue.

These fairies are the lone Moorish invites to baby Aurora’s christening. They fly in and offer her beauty and eternal happiness before Maleficent ruins the third’s wish granting.

After the curse is lain, Stefan charges the fairies with Aurora’s care. They travel to a beautiful cottage out in the country and transform to human size.

Aurora’s aunties, as she calls them, are kind but forgetful. They can’t remember the one thing Stefan told them about her care, which is to bring Aurora back to the castle the day after her 16th birthday. There’s a fight about it, but it doesn’t matter because Aurora runs away anyway.

The fairies also don’t watch their charge as she falls off a cliff. Luckily Maleficent was watching. While technically helping Stefan, these ladies provide the comic relief.

Stunts (1/6)

The credits for stunt work are long, but it’s hard to tell what stunts were pulled off on set.

Jolie really did fly around on her rigging. Actors, I believe, hear far too much praise for doing their own stunts. Who wouldn’t want to fly around on rigging? Sounds like a free day at an amusement park without waiting in lines.

Turns out a lot of work went into that battle. I had it pegged as a CGI spectacular, but large numbers of extras donned orange uniforms for their best chance at a Braveheart cosplay event. You can see men flying back and high into the air.

Maleficent doesn’t have much action to go around; it’s supposed to be a fairy tale, after all. The stunt team handled its brief stunt opportunities well.

Climax (4/6)

On Aurora’s 16th birthday the girl storms out of the house of her aunties and runs to her confidant, Maleficent, to tell her the terrible information she’s learned about herself. The girl believed she was an orphan, but on her 16th birthday she learns that her father is alive and had her dispatched to the woods because someone cursed her.

Maleficent stares at Aurora as the girl explains this. Aurora works out quickly who cursed her. “You’re the evil that’s in the world,” she shouts at her favorite chewy fairy. Aurora, with no friends left in the world, steals a horse and rides to her father’s castle.

The king’s guards bring Aurora to Stefan, who recognizes her for her resemblance to her mother, the late queen. He hasn’t seen her since the day Maleficent cursed her. They embrace, but not for long. The fairies have sent her back a day early, Stefan thinks, and has his daughter locked away until the day ends.

But the fairies didn’t send her back to the castle. They also left out the part, apparently, about the curse being active only on her 16th birthday. To me, that’s the most important part of the curse.

So, on her birthday, Aurora has learned that her father is alive but cast her aside for 16 years, her fairy godmother cursed her, her aunties aren’t even human, and her father’s locked her in a cell. And she didn’t even get a bite of the cake the fairies made for her.

That evening, the magic calls. Recall that earlier Maleficent tried undoing her curse, but whatever physics governing magic did not allow it. That same magic starts unlocking doors and whispering to Aurora. She finds a secret door in her room that leads into the castle. She wanders down stairs toward the enormous dungeon where the charred remains of the kingdom’s spindles have rested for a decade-plus.

Maleficent, meanwhile, rides toward the castle on Diaval the horse and dragging a sleeping Prince Phillip behind. Who is Prince Phillip? He’s the well coifed boy whose kiss will break the spell. So Maleficent thinks. He and Aurora met once, so they are in love. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense, but this is a fairy tale.

Back in the dungeon, a broken spindle magical remakes itself. That magical green fire again at work. We thought Maleficent used it to do magic, now it seems the green fire used Maleficent. Aurora acts outside her control. Her finger slowly moves toward the needle. She touches it and, like a true needle-phobe, instantly passes out.

Maleficent enters the castle, strangely quiet. She tells Diaval not to come along. It’s not his fight, she says. Diaval, longtime servant, still goes, if only to prove to his master that she needs him.

They wander through the castle. Stefan has crafted a thorn wall of his own, a tangle of iron barbs blocking passage through the main entranceway.

Maleficent and Diaval and the floating, unconscious Prince Phillip ease through the iron snares and through the castle to Aurora’s room, where the comatose girl awaits true love’s kiss. Luckily, the fairy queen has brought a healthy human of breeding age, which, in fairy tale parlance, suffices as true love.

After much prodding from the happy-to-be-small-again fairy trio, Phillip kisses the unconscious Aurora. To his credit, he didn’t want to. He had only met her once, and rightly felt woozy about kissing her in that state. The girl wakes, clapping ensues, cut to wedding.

Oops. Not quite. Aurora remains out cold. Maleficent, watching, behind a screen this time, turns to Diaval and says, “I told you,” meaning I told you true love didn’t exist. Try some imagination, fairy queen!

Maleficent approaches Aurora. She will not ask for forgiveness. “What I have done is unforgivable,” she says. She was “lost in hatred and revenge.” Aurora came along and “stole what was left of my heart.”

Aurora wakens. “Hello Beasty,” Maleficent says. True love exists! And it can be between anyone! Huzzah!

On her way out of the castle, Maleficent enters another empty room. An iron net falls on her. Stefan’s men enter and beat her. With a last bit of strength, Maleficent transforms Diaval into a dragon. The dragon lets loose wave after wave of fire. Aurora runs away as statues crumble in the great hall.

Maleficent is freed from her net as the soldiers concentrate on chaining Diaval the dragon. They do a good job clamping his mouth shut. The fairy queen is free, but Stefan’s soldiers have surrounded her. They hold huge, rectangular riot shields of iron, which must have weighed much.

Enter Stefan. He wastes no time using his iron chain whip to strike Maleficent, releasing two decades of pent up rage against her. The troops drum their shields on the marble floor. Maleficent doesn’t sweat but glows.

Aurora is working on her own schemes elsewhere. She finds the room where Stefan has encased Maleficent’s wings. The wings, near their owner, have come to life, flapping like mad to be released. Aurora releases them.

Back in the battle room, Stefan throws Maleficent about with glee. He charges at her with a sword just as the wings reattach. Maleficent rises up and is ready to finish this. She knocks an enflamed candelabra near some soldiers, who let go their chains and free Diaval. She smashes Stefan’s throne.

Stefan wraps his whip around her leg and Maleficent drags his across the ground exactly as she did when they were youths and she flew him through water. This time, it ain’t for fun. Maleficent explodes through a window and flies the king to a small rooftop enclosure.

With pure malevolence in her eyes, Maleficent punches and chokes her lifelong antagonist. Together they fall from the tower. She releases Stefan and he drops to the stone courtyard below, ending his reign.

A less malevolent Maleficent returns to the Moors. Aurora comes too, because her fairy godmother is her guardian now. Maleficent tears down her thorn wall, allowing light and beauty to return to the Moors.

Maleficent also removes her crown and gives it to Aurora, the girl who united the two kingdoms.

Jokes (2/4)

Watching Angelina Jolie, mother of six children, say “I hate children,” was a moment of high mockery. She has too much malice and vengeance in her heart to open it to innocent children.

That doesn’t stop Maleficent from trying. She appears to spend most of Aurora’s childhood outside her country cottage. Tormenting the fairies is a fun activity for the fairy queen. She starts thunderstorms inside the cottage, for example.

The fairy trio provides the comic relief. They love Aurora, but have no idea how to raise her. They seem more concerned with pranking each other and watching the butterflies flit about their faces.

No surprises here, the magical creatures of the Moors are a playful bunch. Remember, according to the narrator, these creatures don’t need a queen because they trust each other. Playfulness is a part of trustworthiness.

Setting (4/4)

Maleficent opens with an overview of two kingdoms, side by side, one with “normal folk, like you and me,” and the other full of CGI characters and Angelina Jolie.

The human kingdom actually has a king, while the Moors have not, despite being described as a kingdom. (Later, Maleficent will anoint herself queen of the realm.)

The Moors look much like Pandora, Avatar‘s gorgeous invented world. The rock outcrops don’t float in the sky, though, they soar above water. Neon flora and fauna populate the world, and trees can be friendly while menacing and classically handsome. In short, it’s paradise.

The human lands beckon as much. Grassy plains and shadowy forests evoke medieval, idyllic Europe. These are worlds we want to inhabit.

Stefan’s castle is enormous. During Aurora’s christening day the kingdom’s subjects assemble in the church. The camera encircles the facility, built on a hill above a plain (possibly inspired by Mont St. Michel), and the structure itself soars 10 stories or more. I can’t recall a larger castle complex in cinema.

Fairy tales are not meant to resemble reality in many ways, and setting is one of them. In these domains nothing harms you, no work needs be done, and the sun shines each day.

Commentary (1/2)

Fairy tales are simple stories pushing one moral. Maleficent is more complicated than that. The title character lives adulthood believing, and trying to convince others, that “true love” does not exist.

Then the climax rolls around and Maleficent goes and proves herself wrong. Whodathunk? I, for one, thought Maleficent would die as she kissed Aurora, getting shot with an arrow and kissing her with her dying breath, something like that, until I remembered a sequel’s coming in 2019.

That Prince Phillip would not awaken the girl was obvious to, I hope, all adult viewers. Even Prince Phillip recognized this, stalling for time as the fairy aunties beg him to kiss her. “Kiss her? I hardly know her,” he more or less says.

Maleficent’s most important statement is about, not love, but parenthood, specifically motherhood. Two of the three main human-like characters are orphans from a young age, the third believes she is an orphan (and since her father banished her practically from birth, she’s a functioning orphan).

Aurora grows into a caring, wonderful young woman, raised by her aunties. She believes Maleficent is her fairy godmother watching out for her, a half-truth.

Maleficent tells us that you don’t have to be a mom to be a mother. Children can and will find parents in all sorts of places, and sometimes the best parent might not be your own.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

As an action movie watcher/fan/reviewer, I’ve seen plenty a male-centric films. Maleficent is a welcome reprieve. Variety is the spice of life, ain’t it?

In the unusual occaisons in which women dominate the casting of an action movie, everything is fine. Then a bunch of (adult) men show up, in this case as a crusading army intent on destroying Maleficent’s world about 15 minutes into the movie, and I see them and think, “Oh yeah, there’re men.” I mean that I forget that men exist in the world until a bunch of them show up on screen.

Others

  • Young Maleficent wears lipstick for some reason.
  • Maleficent might be one of the few movies in history to feature a game of Nine Men’s Morris.

Summary (35/68): 51%

Maleficent surprised me with its action scenes. They would scare a young child, which probably didn’t stop million of families from showing them the movie. The two main action scenes are well conceived and shot.

But Jolie is the star of this picture and deservedly so. Her menacing eyes must be what haunts her children at night. Lurking not far beneath a hateful stare is reluctant compassion. I can’t explain how Jolie does it, only that she does.