Monday, July 14, 2014

Maleficent (2014)

As with Wicked, to fully appreciate this retelling, you have to be familiar with the original source material. The real story lies in the contrast. Once again, we deconstruct a notorious "villain" and learn the truth behind their evil reputation.

Maleficent is the witch who sentenced the King's daughter, Aurora, to eternal sleep. We meet her as a lighthearted child, which begs the question: why was she christened Maleficent. As a cross between "malevolent" and "magnificent" the girl certainly grows into the name, but before she became the most feared creature in the forest, that moniker seems misplaced. It would have made more sense, if she started out as Millicent and then rebranded herself as Maleficent, when she set out on the road to revenge.

At any rate, Maleficent is born in a world where two lands exist. One is inhabited by self-aggrandizing, warmongering humans, ruled by an arrogant king who tramples over the rights of others to get what he wants. The other is a land of fairies. They have no ruler, but live together peacefully, in harmony with the beautiful animals, vegetation and nature that surround them. Young Maleficent flies around happily, giggling at the hijinks of her fairy friends, sorting out their trivial disputes and engaging in the occasional mudfight herself. She is graced with sparkling green eyes, sharp cheekbones, a mane of brown hair and large powerful wings that allow her to sweep through her world with unparalleled speed and power. She's not only stronger than everyone else, but wiser. The three other fairies we meet (Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit) are as flighty as they are tiny and spend more time bickering among themselves than getting any work done. It is no wonder that Maleficent emerges as a natural leader in essence, if not in name.

One day they find an intruder in fairyland. It's a boy, Stefan. Maleficent tells him he has to leave and to return the pretty stone she knows he's stolen from them. He grudgingly hands it over and she tosses it into the sea. He says he wouldn't have given it to her, if he'd known she'd just throw it away. She said she didn't throw it away, but returned it to the water where it belonged. The point is, it wasn't his or hers to keep. While this fact may have been lost on Stefan, he manages to impress Maleficent when, he shakes her hand and his ring scorches her skin. She explains to him that iron burns fairies and, without a second thought, he casts the ring aside. He had so little, but was willing to give up what he did have to avoid harming her. I thought it was foreshadowing about a sacrifice Stefan would make later, but sadly, it just served to expose Maleficent's weakness to Stefan.

Although she had initially warned him never to return to Fairyland, she soon recants that rule. When he asks if she will be there when he comes back, she offers a coy "maybe." He visits often. They become fast friends and then a romance blooms as they grow up. But eventually Stefan stops coming. We're told that he's off seeking his fortune. It's not clear if the reason for his absence has been explained to Maleficent.

One day the king from Stefan's world invades Fairyland and, seeing Maleficent as the lone person protecting it, he wages war with her. Suddenly, the trees and animals come to life and with Maleficent, at the head, they form an army that sends the king running back home with his tail between his legs. Humiliated and ailing, he promises his daughter's hand and his kingdom to anyone who slays Maleficent for him.

After being away for years, Stefan returns to Fairyland. Maleficent tries to give him cool greeting, but that soon melts away and as they talk, it's as if the years had never passed and they are as close as ever. He pulls out a flask and offers Maleficent a drink. She slakes her thirst and soon becomes drowsy, resting against Stefan. When she is unconscious he takes out his knife to kill her, but he can't bring himself to do it. Instead, he cuts off her wings, an amputation that seems more cruel and gruesome than a stab to the heart would have been. When Maleficent wakes and finds her wings gone, her despair rings across the land. She still has arms and legs, but nonetheless she's been crippled.

I sit through the rest of the film knowing that however things end, because this is a Disney movie the brutality of Stefan's act can never be avenged to my satisfaction. He takes the trophy wings back to the King and says that he has killed her. It's not a lie. He killed her emotionally.

She hobbles weakly, broken, her shoulders sunk. Her heart broken. When she learns that Stefan has been made king of the humans, she realizes that he mutilated her, so he could gain his fortune. Her anger and pain forge a transformation. She declares herself Queen of Fairyland. Gone is her innocence. She emerges sleek and icy, with a magnificent wardrobe, a head wrap that covers her hair and any girlish vulnerability she once possessed and a command of magic that intimidates all, bending them to her will.

She sees a crow, Diaval, caught in a net and, because she needs his wings, she turns him into a man, her right hand man. Because she has saved his life, he pledges his loyalty to her. He flies to and fro bringing her information from the other land, acting as her eyes and ears, if not her confidante. As with everyone else, she keeps Diaval at arms length.

When Diaval brings news that Stefan and his Queen have had a baby, Aurora, Maleficent plans a visit. Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit have already flown over to give Aurora their blessings of beauty and joy. Stefan hesitantly accepts their bounty. I suppose he's right to be wary. My friend also wondered why the three fairies are so eager to be of service to Stefan, knowing that he cut off another fairy's wings.

Well, maybe they just like innocent babies and they aren't trying to honor Stefan, but the child for her own sake. On the other hand, maybe they don't know what Stefan did. Although animals, trees and plants are all alive in Fairyland, they didn't witness what Stefan did firsthand or otherwise they would have made their presence known when it was happening. So, we have to assume that Maleficent told them. She withdrew into herself into the attack so much, that I just don't see her having that conversation with them.

They know her wings are gone, but they may not know why or at whose hands. They live with the result, not the reason. Maleficent has become cruel and demanding. They cower in her presence. They are not in regular contact with Stefan and if they've heard of his tyranny, they don't live with it. On their nearsighted scale of bad, Maleficent probably ranks higher than the king does. And, of course, it's the plight of any tragic heroine to be misunderstood. Like Elphaba before her, people recognized her as vengeful, while forgetting that that means she must have had something to avenge in the first place. They know her crime, but not their cause.

Why wouldn't she explain herself? Hurt because people automatically assume the worst and she won't stoop to defend herself, won't beg for their understanding. Pride. A sense of shame and blame. She feels she never should have trusted Stefan in the first place. Perhaps, she thinks she "let" it happen. For whatever reason, we don't see Maleficent communicate with the other three fairies directly. So, we don't know why they aid her enemy's child. If they do it feeling that the babe should not suffer for her father's sin, it would be nice if they mentioned that, because I think that would be a good plot point.

Anyway, after the 3 fairies bless Aurora, Maleficent storms in on a cloud of darkness and terrorizes everyone gathered. Stefan has guards, but Maleficent has something stronger: words. She says she wants to bless the baby too. Afraid, Stefan begs her to stop. He falls to his knee. Maleficent gleams and gloats, "I like you begging; do it again." Angelina Jolie delivers the line with delicious menace.

As everyone listens fearfully, Maleficent wishes Aurora all good things. Dare the crowd breathe a sigh of relief? Not yet. As her blessing reaches its breathless end, Maleficent says that on her 16th birthday the child shall prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep from which she will never awake. Stefan pleads, so Maleficent pretends to soften the curse by saying Aurora can awaken, if and only if she is touched by true love's kiss. Both Stefan and Maleficent bitterly know there is no such thing as true love, so at 16, the kid will be just as good as dead!

Stefan immediately has all the spinning wheels in the kingdom removed. One wonders why the original writer of this tale had the witch specify the instrument of Aurora's downfall. Or the exact date on which it will happen. Isn't that a bit convenient. Of course, Maleficent probably thinks this will make their torture worse. They think that knowing will help them protect themselves, but Maleficent has said that her curse is binding and cannot be revoked by anyone. It is inevitable and the hope that it might be avoided, the dread that it won't be, must compound Stefan's suffering. Knowing that he will have Aurora, destined to be the most delightful child on earth through the blessings she will receive, for 16 years, only to have her taken, is worse than if Maleficent had smote the child on the spot.

Stefan sends the baby away with the three fairies, ordering them to hide the infant and not to return her until after her 16th birthday. Again, since he's been given a roadmap, there's really no reason to hide her for 16 years. Let her run free for 15 and then let the fairies abscond with her in the last months leading up the big day. But who expects logic from a fairy tale.

The three fairies take Aurora to a dilapidated cottage and promptly begin to neglect her. They mean well, but are so inept that it's a wonder the child doesn't perish immediately under their care. One wonders why Stefan chose them as guardians. He's not from Fairyland, from whence the threat he is facing comes. From what we can see, he barely knows Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistletwit. Why not have humans protect his child in an undisclosed location? I suppose he figures that since the 3 have magical powers, they can combat Maleficent while mortals cannot.

Although the fairies think no one will ever find their little cottage, Maleficent has been on to them from the start. She watches Aurora grow, marveling at how grotesque the "beastie" is and occasionally popping out to scowl at the little one, when she is unattended. No matter how she glowers, Aurora only responds to Maleficent with cooing and smiles. Maleficent can only maintain her outward contempt for the girl with a struggle. Although, Diaval doesn't realize it, the audience sees her intervening to protect Aurora throughout her childhood, feeding her when the absent-minded fairies don't, keeping her from crawling off of a cliff and generally overseeing her life.

When Aurora nears 16, Maleficent puts her in a trance and floats her away from the 3 fairies who don't even notice the girl is gone. At first, Maleficent plans to observe the girl from afar, but Aurora senses her presence and bids her to show herself. "Don't be afraid," she beckons. Maleficent smirks that if she comes out, it is Aurora who will be afraid, but Aurora disagrees. Maleficent reveals herself and Aurora says that she is not afraid. She has known Maleficent was there her entire life. She has observed Maleficent's shadow with her, at every step she has taken. She has concluded that Maleficent is her fairy godmother.

Maleficent does not know how to respond, but it is not with the scorn she had hoped to muster. She watches Maleficent play in Fairyland and engage in mud fights with the woodland animals and it reminds her of her own childhood there. All the other fairies have wings, why doesn't Maleficent, Aurora wonders. Maleficent says she did and they were grand, but won't tell Aurora what became of them. When Aurora asks if she can come and live there when she turns 16, Maleficent says Aurora doesn't have to wait that long. She can come and live with Maleficent now. Ecstatic, Aurora plans to tell the 3 fairies, her aunties, she will be leaving them.

Maleficent watches the girl sleep, pulling the blankets closer around her and revoking the curse she has placed on the child, but then she hears the echo of her own words from almost 16 years ago, telling her that the curse cannot be undone. No one can change Aurora's dire fate. Maleficent is frantic with despair and regret.

Diaval tells her if only Aurora can find true love, the curse will be undone, so Maleficent shouldn't worry. Maleficent scoffs that there is no such thing as true love. Even when a handy young prince shows up and is instantly attracted to Aurora, Maleficent discounts his presence. He can't save her victim.

Meanwhile, in his kingdom, Stefan is moping over the same realization. Hanging in his chambers we see Maleficent's wings that he has hung like a prize. He may have shown some remorse when he initially maimed her, but in keeping those wings, he is boasting of his act. It's little solace to me that he has gone mad. He talks to the wings as if they are Maleficent themselves. He knows they are plotting against him. He is so delusional that even when his aides tell him his wife is dying and calling him to her bedside, he just keeps muttering to an absent Maleficent. Is it guilt that has maddened him or, if his child had not been cursed, would he be enjoying his position without qualms? It hardly matters, whatever his suffering, it cannot be enough.

In Fairyland, when Aurora tells her auntie's she will be leaving them they are enraged. After all of the sacrifices they have made for her in the last 16 years, they fume. Besides, they let slip that she can't live until the curse has expired. Curse? An angry Aurora confronts Maleficent and wants to know who cursed her. Then, by Maleficent's silence Aurora divines that it was Maleficent, her "godmother" who did this evil thing. Maleficent does not try to explain. Learning that her father is king of the human and seeing a palace, her palace in the distance, Aurora runs away from the fairy who betrayed her and heads "home."

At the palace, Stefan barely takes pleasure in meeting Aurora, just panics that she is not safe until after her 16th birthday and puts her under guard. But tragedy makes its own path and finds a way to occur, no matter what precautions are taken against it. Somehow, Maleficent's spell develops a life of its own and weaves its way through the castle. Her finger pulsing and yearning, all obstacles are swept aside as she's drawn to a forgotten room as if in a trance. The door opens to reveal piles of spinning wheels. Why Stefan didn't have them all burned, I don't know. In the original tale, they were all destroyed, but one, the evil witch's remained. In this movie, there are gazillions of them, just waiting to prick a princess. But most are charred and deteriorating. Only one shines, calls to Aurora like a siren. Her finger touches the spindle, as magnet meeting steel.

She swoons into a deep slumber, the effect of which is felt throughout the kingdom. Miles away, as Maleficent is speeding towards the castle to try to protect Aurora, she knows she is too late. Even from a distance, she feels it when the girl is lost and she is inconsolable. But she and Diaval have brought the prince with them and Maleficent is willing to use him as a last ditch effort to awake Aurora.

When they arrive at the bed where Aurora sleeps, the prince is reluctant. After all, he has only met her once. He feels funny about kissing her. I think this is highly practical, but then he disappoints me by kissing her on the lips after all. As long as they were turning the story on its head and making it contemporary, I'd just as soon they'd have decided against having a sleeping teen kissed by someone she hardly knows altogether.

The kiss doesn't awaken Aurora. In keeping with recent (Frozen) Disney films, the knight in shining armor doesn't rescue the princess, which is great. But in reality, there's no need for a knight in shining armor at all-- at least not in this film where he has nothing to offer the story but his pucker. We don't get to know him.

But I suppose the first step in teaching us that a prince is not obligatory is to show us that he doesn't have to be the one to save the day.

Her worst fears confirmed, Maleficent has now seen it proven that there is no true love and nothing to bring Aurora back to her. Griefstricken, she kisses Aurora on the forehead to say goodbye. As she is turning away, Aurora awakens with a loving, "hello fairy Godmother." Well, even though she was unconscious, does Aurora know that it was Maleficent who awakened her? I guess so, otherwise, she should still be blaming Maleficent for cursing her in the first place.

Frankly, I wanted Aurora to be told why Maleficent acted as she did onscreen. I didn't want to fill in the blanks. I wanted the satisfaction of having Stefan's daughter turn against him. I wanted her to come upon Maleficent's encased wings and understand everything, in a wave of horror. My wish was only half granted.

Once Stefan learns that Maleficent is in the castle, he sets his guards upon her and ensnares her in iron chains, knowing from long ago that iron burns her.

Maleficent turns Diaval into a dragon (all Game of Thrones like) but even flying and breathing fire, he can't free her. Aurora runs into Stefan's chambers and sees the wings. They develop a life of their own and start breaking free of their case (um, why didn't they do that when she first got to the castle? Why wait around), rising with shattering glass and flying to their own. The wings attach themselves to Maleficent and she reigns triumphant again. She soon subdues all of Stefan's men and is preparing to imprison him in the castle tower, but he won't succumb. As if he is the one who has been wronged, he rages at her. Lunges. As he does so, he plunges to his death. I was hoping that Maleficent would just murder him with her bare hands, actually.

Of course, children will see this movie and we can't send a message of vigilante justice. Moreover, Maleficent has learned the folly of letting hate consume your life and causing you to commit acts you cannot take back. Her irrevocable spell almost cost her Aurora and she doesn't want to be controlled by anger again This lesson is fine for young audiences, but sometimes I wish the high road was the one not taken.

Back in Fairyland, Maleficent takes off her crown and bestows it on Aurora. With Stefan dead, Aurora is made Queen of both kingdoms and their lands are united, not through battle but through love.

Diaval stands by Maleficent's side now, in manly form, not as her servant, but as her peer. And as the happy fairies and animals play, the prince joins the merry crowd, earning a warm smile from Aurora. She's only 16 and I don't know that we need to be reminded that love was in her future. If the movie had ended with no reappearance from the prince, I don't think anyone would have gotten the idea that dear Aurora was going to die a lonely and bitter spinster, with no romance on the horizon. But as fractured fairytales go, this one has already been altered enough. We'll have to change princess expectations in baby steps.

I liked this movie so much as an adult that I believe most of its value will be lost on young children. Despite the 3 flighty fairies and occasional with from Diaval, humor was kept at a minimum, as was true action.

Because the movie was quieter, I found its darkness more thoughtful and the lead was Angelina Jolie, not the youthful Fanning. This was the tale of a woman's pain and recovery, not a girl's dreams. As such, I definitely think it should be seen by the young, but I'm not sure it can be fully appreciated by them. Yet.