Maleficent

In Sleeping Beauty, the witch Maleficent is confined by the film's patriarchal viewpoint into the role of the evil and venomous hag, a vengeful and one-dimensional Luciferian creature. What a joy it is, to come forward 55 years and discover a shift in attitudes and audiences: to see Maleficent freed from that patriarchal context, a force of powerful womanhood, of natural magic in an age of encroaching castles and iron. Maleficent is not the story of an evil witch; in fact, Maleficent is not cast as a witch at all, but as a fairy subsumed by grief and rage. It is a journey from girlhood to motherhood and maturity, and in many respects is exactly the film I would have liked Sleeping Beauty to be. In that film, the great witch was always the most compelling figure. It's that problem inherent to dialectics between an all-controlling God and a rebellious Devil: nobody gives a shit about God.

Maleficent begins as a girl full of power and joy, with metal-as-fuck horns and wings that are so big they drag behind her when she walks. Carried by these wings, she is nearly omnipotent. She can rise above the clouds, she can beat hurricanes into the air. She is friend to all flora, fauna and fungi who walk in her domain, the moors. Her joy and bravura enkindle her world. But when she encounters a human boy and falls in love, her guard slips. She doesn't count on the ambition and the cynicism of his world, its castles and iron thorns. When his masters, who are aptly cast as colonizers, demand her head, he's uniquely positioned to kill her, sleeping beside her until he's ready to strike. Then he finds himself unable to murder her - but still plenty capable of dismembering her wings.

This metaphorical rape is the film's moment of truth. Jolie is never better than when Maleficent realizes her wings are gone. The grief is total, wordless and world-breaking. Someone has used "love" to lower her defenses and violate her body. It is heartbreaking, and it is all too real. She falls into despair, and then rage. Her kingdom sinks into a permanent midnight, wreathed in a wall of thorns.

Despite all its faults, this film left a deep impression on me as it traced a journey from joy to violation to revenge. When Aurora herself appears on the scene, Maleficent begins to love and care for her. She begins to open her heart again, only to find that her rage has not restored her; instead, it has been passed down, a dark birthright, damaging the daughter she has come to love. But the story doesn't stop with revenge. It progresses to redemption, forgiveness, love. It says that healing the wounds of violation is the only way to save our children from our dark inheritances. I find it impossible not to be moved by such themes.

It's true that Maleficent is not a great film. It's too often bogged down in Disney smarm, the intrusion of which always seems like a capitulation the screenwriter had to make. Especially with the appearance of a young Prince Phillip, who looks like the newest member of the Mickey Mouse Club, a fifth-string boy bander who looks deeply out of place in this mythopoetic world. Its three acts can sometimes feel disconnected, and the first is exceedingly stronger than the second or third. There were many weak points and instances where scenes did not land at all, because they were only there to be scenes, rather than tiles in a mosaic of themes, and that's a danger inherent to films that are trying to appeal to a wide age range. I don't care for talking down to the young where filmmaking is concerned, though. I think it's cynical.

My high ranking, then, is about those themes that are there, and how strongly they are presented when they are presented, and how hard Angelina Jolie absolutely slays this role. It's not a great film, and it has patches where it isn't even a good film, but it feels deeply meaningful nonetheless: exactly the Sleeping Beauty I wish I'd had as a kid.

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