While I am of a rather mixed to negative opinion of Disney’s rebooting of their classic films, one particular bone I have to pick has to do with last year’s spin on Sleeping Beauty, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent. While the movie came out last year, I was kind of reluctant to see it, and only really managed to watch the whole thing not that long ago. Honestly, looking at it, I felt that it not only failed to capture just why the character is such an icon among Disney villains, but also created a weaker character than the original classic villain despite attempting to strengthen it by adding depth to her.
Maleficent is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Disney villains within the animated canon. Alongside the three good fairies, she manages to almost completely steal the show in the original animated feature. What makes her so delightful to watch, what gave her a rather dark charm, is the fact that she is pure evil, and she loves it. She’s so over-the-top in how malefic she is, so theatrically charismatic, that you can’t take your eyes off her. Whether she’s being just plain malevolent to good people or expressing how infuriated she is with her incompetent subordinates, the character is a ball to watch. The scene where she reveals her great scheme to Prince Philip reveals the depths of her cruelty, as she outlines her intention to create a sick and twisted parody of fairy tales like the one the audience is watching (it’s a surprisingly meta moment from classic Disney) in a manner so mocking that if she went any further with it, she’d literally be chewing the scenery.
The woman is a B-I-T-C-H, and we love her for it.
Heck, even her death scene is preceded by her turning into a fire-breathing dragon, giving Philip the fight of his life, and then going down in a moment that truly feels more climactic than anything in the more recent live-action film. Among the various climaxes throughout the Disney animated canon, this is easily one of my favorites, providing an amazing sense of catharsis once it ends, with the film concluding not long afterward so that it doesn’t wind up going too far past the peak of the viewer’s interest.
Meanwhile, the only moment in Maleficent that really captures the essence of the character is the one where she appears at the royal court and sneers out a “well, well.”
Despite the rest of the film’s shortcomings, Jolie has the physical presence and persona down pat in that scene, and had the rest of the movie given us this Maleficent, I probably wouldn’t have nearly as much to complain about. However, by giving Maleficent the Wicked treatment and attempting to make her sympathetic, the filmmakers wound up completely missing the point of just why the character is so popular within the Disney canon decades after Sleeping Beauty first came out, and in the process also created a Maleficent that is far less memorable in their attempts at fleshing her out.
Part of the problems with Maleficent stem from its hackneyed script, which wants to be a Disney version of Wicked, but just falls flat in terms of writing and overall direction.* In attempting to tell a more “feminist” version of the story, the movie weakens the stronger female characters of the original film, the three good fairies, and reduces Maleficent herself to yet another victim of a terrible man’s betrayal. Such insipid clichés and attempts at “depth” made for a less than interesting character, and it didn’t help that Maleficent’s powers seemed to come and go as the story required them to. I’m pretty sure that the original Disney villain could have singlehandedly taken out at least a good chunk of the kingdom’s defenses herself with or without wings (I’d say that Maleficent didn’t need visible wings save for when she transformed, hence her lack of them in the older film. Plus she clearly didn’t need them to get around quickly). It all comes off as a propaganda film commissioned by the evil fairy herself (I’d consider that my head canon if it wasn’t for the fact that Maleficent loved being evil and openly boasted of just how horrible of a person she was).
Adding insult to injury, Maleficent doesn’t even get to turn into a dragon. No, that honor goes to her sometimes raven sidekick (because the film needed another hot guy to attract female viewers). I mean, what kind of film is supposed to be about Maleficent but doesn’t even let her utilize her hellish powers to deliver fiery beat-downs to anyone foolish enough to cross her?
In the end, what makes Maleficent so memorable in the original Disney movie is that she is a proactive and petty witch who finds oppressing others out of a sick mixture of spite and her own amusement a good thing. She makes no excuses for herself—she’s evil—and she revels in it, with everything from her design to her personality making it so that we do too. By trying to make her sympathetic, the makers of the later film not only missed the point of just why she’s such a great villain, but also create an iteration of the character that failed to connect with audiences to the same extent that the original did and still does despite trying to capitalize off the very appeal of said original. There’s nothing wrong with having a flat or rounded character by him or her or itself. What does matter, however, is what you do with said character. That, dear reader, is why Maleficent the film not only fails to step outside of the shadow of Sleeping Beauty’s iconic villain, but is also a prominent factor in why it falls short of being much more than mediocre in its own right.
* As for some of the other problems with the movie, in contrast to Wicked, which retold the same story from a different point of view, changing up our views of various characters, and also asked questions about the setting of the story, giving it the room needed to take the story in its own direction separate from the work that inspired it. Maleficent changes up too much, and while it has some interesting ideas, it also weakens much of what made the original so great while also turning in a rather flat tale with so many flat characters despite trying to give new dimensions to it. One example of this is King Stefan. In another contrast to Wicked, which took a flawed supporting character in the original story and gave him an unexpected reason to be even more relevant to things (while still making sense to some extent), Maleficent turns a well-meaning and loving, if occasionally bumbling, father and king into a ranting and raving villain with no real redeeming traits just so that they can make Maleficent into the unambiguously positive protagonist once she moves on from the pain he inflicted on her in the past.