Film Review: Maleficent

The Actual Review

Last night I went to see Angelina Jolie’s new film Maleficent.  A week ago I likely would have added the phrase “against my better judgement” to that first sentence, although the trailer I saw was intriguing (also ambiguous and, as it turns out, somewhat misleading), but Howard Tayler liked it.  While his taste is not identical to mine, he has the great virtue as a reviewer that I can usually tell whether or not I will like a film regardless of his enjoyment.  All of which is to say I went to see the film not out of morbid curiosity – which I have done occasionally (see: Peter Jackson’s Hobbit 1) – but because I thought I would like it: and I did.

The film is presented in a fine combination of the expectations of fairy tales and modern fantasy.  This is evident from the beginning, and the most part the film balances on that knife edge very well, especially with regard to the “set” design and visual effects.  The story is carefully crafted and finely plotted, and for the most part flows naturally.  On its own terms, Maleficent would be, I think, one of the better original movies made recently, and a worthy addition to the fantasy genre – which, despite the box office success of Jackson’s films of Middle Earth, has not quite made its own way yet.

This brings me to the flaw in the film: it consciously does not stand alone.  It is presented as a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty.  The intelligent viewer might come to the theater expecting something like Wicked – where events are presented with hero and villain recast – or Lucas’ Star Wars prequels – a tragic backstory.  And the intelligent viewer would find himself partly correct, had he compared it to either.  Backstory yes, and tragedy.  Good and evil rearranged, and not neatly.  So far, so good – and for most the first two thirds of the film, so good – but there is a limit to how many events a story-teller can rearrange and still tell the same story.

As I mentioned, the last third or so of the film is not as neatly managed as the rest of it.  This leads me to suspect that the original plan was changed at some point.  Two potential scenarios occurred to me.  One possibility is that the script, originally intended as a simple “retelling” of the story, ran too far off the rails and – rather than rewrite it properly (deadline?) – the loose ends were just thrown together with the approximately correct pieces in approximately the right places.  Another is that the script was originally intended as an independent story – but someone with more marketing savvy than artistry decided it would work better as a tie-in to an established franchise.  A third possibility, I suppose, is that the ending of the film was simply mangled by bad editing to fit a time limit; yet another is that the ending really was just that weak and nobody changed it.  Ah, speculation.

Overall I would give the film a B-.  I enjoyed myself and would cheerfully re-watch it, but I suspect some of the problems might bug me more the second time around.

Further Comments on the Story

From here on, I am going to be describing the film in some detail.  If you have not seen it yet and are bothered by spoilers, I suggest you stop reading here, because the first thing I am going to do is describe the entire plot.  I am doing this in order to back up my charge – briefly described above – that this is no longer the same story.  Maleficent uses all the same names (as far as I can recall) as Disney’s original animated film Sleeping Beauty, and the same curse, but strip those out, and what is left?

Once upon a time, there were two kingdoms.  One was a land of Men – some good and some bad, mixed together in the way of the world.  The other was a country of the Fair Folk: good in their way: content and peaceful with their  but mischievous, and distrustful of others.  At this time their distrust was justified, for the king of the human country was an evil man, greedy and covetous, and he desired the riches of the fairy country.  He made war against the Fairies, but the ancient guardians of the forest encircling that land could not be defeated by mere men.

Now it happened that a boy, just beginning to be a man, found his way into this country of the Fair Folk in search of its riches: and he took a precious stone he found, but was caught by the guardians from the forest.  They intended to execute him for his theft; but a princess of the Fairies, hearing of the theft, came rushing, and by persuading the boy to give back the jewel, saved his life.  She led him then back to his country of Men: but he, grateful for his life and struck by her beauty, asked to see her again.  And she agreed; and as they grew older they met often: and she grew to love him, and the boy admired her greatly and perhaps thought he loved as well.

But his soul was impure, as might have been guessed from his theft, and as he came to manhood he went to serve at court, and so learned the evil ways of the king, and no longer came to see the Fairy princess, preferring to slave for Ambition.  As the king felt his death approaching, he led one last campaign against the Fair Folk: and was beaten as before, and this time the princess, grown greater in power than all her people, and grieving lost love, led the guardians and would have killed the king but for the touch of cold iron.

In his rage at his defeat the king promised his throne to whomever could defeat this great power among the Fair Folk.  While the rest of his ministers quailed, the young man, now grown wicked himself, went by night to the edge of the Fairyland, and called for his princess.  With sweet talk he gained her trust again, and gave her a drugged drink; when she was asleep, he raised his knife to strike her dead, but at the last moment, moved by some merciful remnant in his soul, cast away the blade.  But Ambition still ruled: he burned her wings off with an iron chain, and brought them to the king to gain the kingdom.

When the princess woke, she was tormented by pain, and found she could no longer fly.  In her pain and anger, she took to herself the rule of the land of the Fair Folk, becoming a cold queen, driven by distrust and revenge, and raising around her land a hedge of impenetrable thorn.  And since she could no longer fly, she found a spy for herself, saving a crow caught by men for stealing grain, and shifting his shape as needed – crow, man, or beast – he being bound to her by a life-debt.

So she learned when the queen bore a child to this new king; and she came unexpectedly to the christening.  Now others of the Fair Folk had come, wishing by their gifts to put an end to the strife between the kingdoms.  And they had wished for the child, a girl, all that parents could dream of: happiness and beauty and the favor of all she met.  But the self-appointed queen thought to exact a just revenge on the man – now king – who had deserted her: and she cursed the girl, declaring that on her sixteenth birthday she would be cast by an enchantment into a sleep like death.  The king, struck by guilt and fear, begged for mercy – but the Fairy queen, mocking him, only added a condition: that the king’s daughter might be awakened by the kiss of True Love – a thing she no longer believed in, and the king had never understood.

The king, in fear, thought that this Fairy whom he had betrayed would no doubt return to his castle at his daughter’s sixteenth year to bring home the curse: so when the Fairy queen had left, he asked the other Fairies to care for his daughter, far away; and he sent his army against the land of the Fair Folk, as his predecessor had done.  And as before, the human army was beaten back.  So, being more cunning than the old king, he decided instead to make his castle proof against any Fairy: and where that queen had raised a hedge of thorn around her country, he set ironworkers to fixing spikes of iron all around his castle, and making traps and chains of iron throughout its chambers.  And he grew in fear to the point of madness, refusing to leave his chambers even when his wife lay dying.

Meanwhile, the princess grew up, far away from the castle, tended by the Fairies as the king had asked.  As luck would have it, though, these Fair Folk were unaccustomed to human children, not knowing the food or care she needed – and careless, even when doing the right thing.  Bound by her own curse and desiring in any event to see it carried out fully, the queen was forced to provide much care herself: mainly using her servant the Crow to bring food to the girl, and amuse her.

Now the blessings of the other Fairies came to pass as well: all the animals the princess met adored her.  And so, wandering one day, the king’s daughter chanced to meet the Fairy queen, and was not afraid.  The queen hated her for her father; but the girl, knowing someone had cared for her, mistook the queen for a Fairy godmother, as she had heard of in stories from the other Fairies.  Her grace and beauty melted the heart of the queen: and they met and talked often as the princess grew.  The queen even warned the princess that an evil was coming against her – but did not explain why.  At last, she even tried to revoke her curse – but found she could not.  She had set it too firmly, hating the king.

On the eve of the princess’s sixteenth birthday, the princess found a man from a distant country, lost in the wood and seeking the castle of the king: he was a knight and a prince, and for all his fear and evil, the king was known as a great warrior.  She thought him handsome, and he found her lovely – and she sent him on his way, both promising to meet again.  Soon after, the queen met with the girl, offering to bring her to the Fairy country for good – thinking she could thus protect her, but still not telling her the reason.  But when the princess returned home, the other Fairies solemnly revealed to her the curse – and the princess in horror shunned the Fairy queen and made for the castle she now knew to be her home.

She arrived the next day – and the king, far from welcoming her, shut her in a tower room.  But the curse must have its way, and she found her way, seeking escape, to the dungeons: where, drawn by Fate to the cursed thing, she fell into the prophesied sleep.  When the servants found her again, the king had her laid in state in her tower – and in a rage retired to plot for the arrival of the Fairy queen, sure she would come to mock him.

And she did come, and in haste, knowing from her Crow what had happened.  On her way she had met with the prince, and bearing him with her in a trance, thought to use him to break the spell, the Crow also having told her of his meeting with the princess.  So great was her desire she found her way past the king’s traps, risking burns and scratches, and found the tower – but when she woke the prince and told him of the need, he at first resisted, knowing that he did not know his own true heart.  And so it proved when he at last gave in: his kiss accomplished nothing.  Finally defeated, the queen turned to leave the castle – but first kissed the forehead of the sleeping princess – and to her surprise, the girl woke.  The queen had rediscovered love for another person – not the love she lost, but a love all the same.

But by this point the castle was in an uproar: when she sought to leave, she blundered into a great array of warriors, and was caught in a mesh of iron.  Then using all her strength, she changed the shape of her Crow, this time to a dragon, who caught away the net and fought back the warriors: but the king himself came for the Fairy queen, and she was unable to match his strength.  The princess, trying to follow, found herself in the king’s chamber, where he had once hung the wings taken from the queen for a trophy.  With the curse broken and the Fairy queen nearby and in need, these wings had come to life and battered furiously at their own cage: the princess set them free; they flew to the queen and she, whole once again, cast herself from the castle window and threw the wicked king down to ruin.

The princess and the prince met again, and declared their love; they were married and took the rule of the kingdom.  And not just the human kingdom: all the Fair Folk loved the princess whom they had met walking with their queen: she, healed of her anger, set aside the kingdom she had usurped by force and broke down her hedge, and the princess ruled over both Men and Fairies.  As for the Crow – he still owed the life-debt, and flew far and wide with the Fairy princess.

This is a perfectly respectable fairy story, with many classical elements mixed with new ideas uncommon to the age that collected those stories and set them down.  It also has no particular connection to the story of the sleeping beauty in any of its incarnations.  (Some of the probable sources get very odd indeed to modern ears, but none of them resemble this story.)

Much like the film, however, the ending is a touch weak.  One thing particularly bothers me: the change of heart of the Fairy queen is a fascinating plot, but is overplayed by making it satisfy “True Love”.  Why?  Because in the context of the curse, the love specifically in mind is romantic – the love the queen had lost for herself, deceived by the man who would become another wicked king.  The effect is to weasel out of difficulties on a technicality, which while fine for lawyers is not a satisfactory ending for a heroic tale.  On the other hand, for the prince’s kiss to have no effect does seem correct – in this story, there is no prophecy, no hundred years, no grand quest set in motion.

The solution – I am tempted to say the obvious solution – would be for the princess to be woken by the Crow.  It would fit the build-up nicely: he has cared for the girl and amused her under command by the queen.  Throughout the film she describes him as “pretty bird” and has seen him – in human form – with the queen.  A nice nod to convention to have the farmboy declare True Love for the girl he has served so long.  It also does away with any need to have a prince show up out of nowhere, to do nothing except get the girl (for, might I add, no reason).

Leaving out the prince, of course, drags the plot even further from the story we call Sleeping Beauty: but the fact that it seems more obvious to leave him out is the primary reason I suspect this script did not start its life as the “retelling” it became.

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