Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Of Mighty Hearts and Leaden Wings: A Review of "Maleficent"


There's a moment three quarters into A Mighty Heart in which Angelina Jolie's character receives confirmation of the death of her husband. It is, in a performance that overall dazzles in its realism, a stand-out moment. It is literally breath-taking. We feel the air sucked from our lungs as we watch Jolie struggle for air and fight against the truth she cannot come to grips with. Both  Jolie and Michael Winterbottom, who directed the film, deserve our gratitude for this exquisite and exquisitely horrible moment.

Much has been made of the "rape" allegory of Maleficent.  Critics have argued over whether the scream the fairy utters when she discovers her wings have been cut off is out of place in the film. Angelina Jolie herself, an actress whose work I often admire greatly, discussed the scream in the issue of Elle whose cover she graced. She spoke of how hard it was to find that place in her gut where inhibition gave way to primal holler. I was stunned. Has she forgotten A Mighty Heart? That scream still echoes in my ears. Has she forgotten the primal scream of loneliness she conjured from the depths of her soul at the end of Girl, Interrupted? The stunning realism of that wail made me forgive her character all her cruelty, such was the pain that drove it.

There has been much fine calibration combined with moments of release in Jolie's previous work. I had not yet seen Maleficent, so I wondered what this other scream might be like. I relished the prospect of seeing a fine actress exploring a new place in cinema: fantasy combined with realism. A fine actress can offer realism in a world of fantasy. Such was my hope, at any rate.

So. I wasn't sure "the scream" was "the scream" when it happened. It was only at the end of the film that I concluded it must be "the scream," as there were no other screams after that. The scream is a whimper, of sorts, a cursory nod to her physical pain and terror when the sleeping Maleficent awakens to discover her body dismembered by her lover. I don't object to a whimper. People are entitled to react to trauma in any number of ways. I don't object to any portrayal of humanity as long as it is...human.

When I was a child, my mother called Disney "fake childhood." Having seen Maleficent, I submit that Disney has branched out and now offers "fake adulthood" as well. I don't think I have ever been less persuaded by a "world" than that which the fairies occupy in the film, except perhaps by the dime-store human kingdom across the way. The man who steals Maleficent's wings becomes king of this creaky cliche-ridden kingdom as a reward for his savagery. Despite this, there is no dramatic force to propel this character to do it. A crown seems a rather dull reward by dramatic standards. It also seems a dramatic problem easily solved.

Couldn't the film have granted his character some back story, say a moment of bullying he has suffered that makes him turn to savagery and a lust for dominating a kingdom?  We are asked to believe that this villain is complex, or at least in possession of a brain. You'd never know it to watch the actor's work on screen. I don't disdain the work of other actors lightly. Too often we are the victims of dreadful, expository dialogue and cheap direction. It is not the actor I am disdaining at all, but his misfortune at having crossed paths with that rapist of actors' souls and dignity, The Disney Corporation.

I think of another director, Peter Jackson, so good at fantasy world-building and character development both, and so caring of actors. Their performances, in his hands, contain as much integrity as his visual conception of Middle Earth. There is CGI, to be sure, but those actors also trudged through a lot of very real snow in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They also rehearsed.  If Jackson's effort was majestic, noble and utterly human, Robert Stromberg's Maleficent's is pedestrian, uninspired, lacking in regard for human dignity (by never showing one moment of truthful behavior on screen) and, (perhaps its greatest sin) cutesy. I confess that when we are first introduced to the young Maleficent, I  wanted to blow a strong wind to remove the cutesy dust from those magnificent wings. There are two young kids at the start of the film, and both are directed to be unbearably coy. Stromberg is desperate to show us how gentle Maleficent was before her trauma. Oh my goodness, we get it. Children are innocent. Why is "innocent" so frequently mistaken for "cute?" Fake childhood, indeed.

Peter Jackson was accused of "going soft" after he had a child, and turning the violence of The Lovely Bones into a fairy dust mess because he couldn't face the horror of the story. I wonder, perhaps unfairly, if Jolie, who apparently had a lot of creative say in Maleficent, has similarly "gone soft," and was not able to conjure the sufficient dryness of delivery to make you believe that she truly hates children. (She utters this very line, and to her own adorably impish child, who plays Aurora as a tot.) I admit that as a mother I found this moment charming regardless of the flubbed delivery, because the little one was so clearly enamored of her mother and unconcerned with her altered appearance as a wicked fairy. But this was a moment I enjoyed for the surrounding context, not a moment conjured by the film itself.

Dialogue. What is it good for? A lot. In cinema,  it is often at its best when it is unspoken. The best moment of the film is when it turns out that it is not a prince's but Maleficent's kiss that is the one of true love and thus frees Aurora from her coma. You see the moment coming a mile away, and all the better for it. I relished watching the young prince fail to stir the sleeping beauty and waited eagerly for a hopeless Maleficent to do the honors, unaware of the power of her own kiss. And it's lovely. And then Stromberg trashes the moment by having Maleficent's trusty sidekick whisper, "True love's kiss,"  in wonderment. In case, Disney felt, we weren't in awe of the moment, we had damned better be schooled in its magic.

 I had no quarrel with the theoretical "humanizing" of Maleficent. I know many critics found it distasteful and wanted her to remain evil in the tradition of Iago: evil for its own sake. I myself don't find that interesting. The desire, particularly of female film-goers, to keep her as evil as she was in Disney's original Sleeping Beauty may be a well-earned revenge fantasy for women. (I loved the movie Teeth.) But I think the story they chose to tell was a worthy one. It's the story's execution-- achieved with the bluntest of hammering instead of with the delicacy of a fine sculptor--that I take issue with.

I didn't need to see Maleficent turn into a dragon, although I respect that many people feel robbed of this potentially glorious moment and were infuriated that it was turned over to a proxy, and a male one at that. Perhaps that the C.G.I. was painfully clunky might lessen their despair ? It wasn't much of a dragon.

As a dancer who has suffered much soft tissue damage and had it laboriously repaired, who has felt the aching pain of the road back to using that ruptured tissue, I felt cheated when Maleficent regains her wings, courtesy of Aurora, and immediately fuses with her torn-off body parts. I felt robbed of that beat of reconnecting to your wings. When my labrum finally healed, I could soar again. But there is a horrible pain and ache in the repair process and I would have liked a moment in which Maleficent feels the pain of reuniting with that old damaged tissue and further, is called upon to use it immediately. I'll never forget being asked to walk (with crutches) less than 12 hours after a surgeon trimmed and removed  hundreds of tiny tendon fibers from my angry, red-as-raw-steak inflamed tendons. But Maleficent rejoins with her wings and poof! She's flying as if she'd never suffered an ounce of pain --which betrays the one bit of dramatic tension on which the film is so flimsily based.

 Poor Elle Fanning. She is confined to laughing "merrily" as she falls in piles of autumn leaves more artificial-looking than those that adorn  Back-to-School displays in store windows come September. She smiles emptily and throws mud in order to achieve a badge of honor as a  creature of the Earth, so winning in her "tomboyishness" that even cranky old Maleficent can't help but fall hard for her. Watching this display reminded me of the word "feisty" and how often it is attributed to young girls, denigrating them rather than recognizing their strength. I didn't care for the gender politics in the piece. I was fine with Maleficent's journey, but not Aurora's barely sketched character.

Lastly, don't replace Tchaikovsky unless you have something more daring, dramatic and spellbinding to replace his music with. I promise, you don't. The original score of Sleeping Beauty , which I believe used  several melodies from Tchaikovsy's score for the ballet version of Cinderella, is gorgeous and haunting, bestowing both gravitas and terror.

I could go on, but I will try not to follow Disney's lesson. I'll let some things go unsaid so that implications may hover, like wings, in the air.


  1. Thank you for this. I took my daughter to see the movie over the weekend and was disturbed by it. Not because of the "rape" idea (which, like any good metaphor, is there if you look for it), but by the way the men in the movie use and abuse their women, and vice versa. Every character is a pawn in each other's sadistic head games, and it's hard to fathom just what the filmmakers mean by that message. Also, am I reading it wrong, or does Aurora take an active part in helping murder her father at the end?

  2. I saw the movie several months ago, when it first came out, and I am a bit of a sleep deprived mother of a toddler, but my memory is that Aurora does indeed help Maleficent any way that she can in the end. However, I do think that they pulled a punch at the end and NO ONE kills him, Maleficent actually does the 'decent" thing and tries to pull him back from the tower and because he reaches out to try to kill her he plunges to his death. That's my recollection, and it's an old movie trope, and easy way to murder the villain without the "good guys" having to do it. The "good guys" must always act on their noblest impulses in finales, at least in big budget Hollywood films. I think they attempted to soften the brutality of the men (which was mindless and poorly drawn) by giving Maleficent a soft-hearted male sidekick who serves as her conscience and reminds her of her humanity. I don't think it is worked all that well, as his character was little more than a prop at best. One of my biggest complaints with the film is how phony it all rings. If you are going to depict a horrific mutilation of a woman than it is simply not a children's film, but they tried to be both appropriate for children (10? 12? I am not sure what the target audience was) and also have this grotesque violence. If you are going to depict a woman's journey after such an assault, you may not sprinkle Disney corn syrup on it and belittle such a real and important topic. My second major complaint was that Aurora was a cardboard fairy princess blonde -- don't we have enough of those? She had not one spec of originality. The screenwriting, the direction and the plot all failed the actors in this debacle of a film. And I am generally an enormous fan of Angelina Jolie's serious work as an actor. I am surprised that she had so much creative input and the film was a train wreck. But Hollywood is known for wrecking great ideas, and alas, in my opinion, this was one of those times! I hope I answered your question! Thanks for reading my review!


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