My Thoughts on the film “Maleficent”
Maleficent is a 2014, live-action film directed by Robert Stromberg, and starring Angelina Jolie (as the eponymous Disney villainess character). The movie is a spin off of Walt Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty, and portrays the story from the perspective of that film’s antagonist, Maleficent. The cinematic experience is visually powerful (which is hardly surprising for a Disney production) and the Lana Del Rey soundtrack song (“Once Upon a Dream“) is perfectly dark and mysterious. But I was most impressed by the screenplay, because it managed to make a potentially unidimensional fairytale into a more nuanced story about greed, betrayal, and love — thanks to characters who are both good and bad in ways that make them more interesting (and human).
Stefan’s royal ambitions cause him to betray his childhood love, Maleficent, but his conscience prevents him from taking her life, so instead he takes only her wings. And she too is a complex character, something one might expect from her very name, which is a portmanteau of the words “magnificent” and “malevolent” (and the antonym of “beneficent” and “munificent”). She is indeed a complicated and sympathetic villain whose most evil act — cursing an innocent to an almost irrevocable coma — becomes understandable thanks to a skillfully crafted story setup. In a sense, Maleficent is both hero and villain, setting up the very danger that she then tries to undo, thereby reminding us of our own impotence to reverse certain mistakes and the added remorse that haunts poor decisions motivated by a temporary anger or vengefulness.
The film’s screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, deserves praise for a few other things:
1) renewing an outdated notion of “true love’s kiss” (predicated on validation by a male suitor) by supplanting that idea with a “truer” meaning of “true love”: unselfish attachment to another, like the kind found between parent and child. And yet Linda accomplished this without diminishing the possibility of a romantic “true love” emerging later in the life of Aurora.
2) solving a story problem (i.e., how to activate Maleficent’s curse) with a philosophically clever device that makes a profound statement about destiny. After not being invited to a royal christening, Maleficent curses the infant Princess Aurora to “prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die” before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, but it’s not at all clear how such an elaborate and specific curse can be triggered when King Stefan takes every sensible measure to keep his daughter far from any such spindle. Rather than conjure up some contrived or barely plausible scenario in which Aurora happens to encounter the spindle of a spinning wheel, the screenwriter wisely had Aurora search for the very spindle herself, as if she craved the coup de grâce of her fate. In this way, the story makes a much more powerful statement: there is no escaping your destiny because, at some point, you will actively seek it out.
If you haven’t seen Maleficent, I highly recommend it (for both adults and younger audiences).