How ‘Maleficent’ Chickened Out

Maleficent is a movie that’s almost good. It could have been a fascinating riff on a fairy tale. Instead, it’s an illustration of what happens when a studio worries that they might be making something good and panics.

Here’s the gist of Maleficent: The evil monster of Sleeping Beauty turns out to be a fairy who was brutally mutilated by the love of her life because of his ambition to be king. So, obviously not happy about that, she curses his daughter to pay him back for the lifetime of misery he inflicted on her largely out of spite. It’s the circle of vengeance that moves us all, if you will.

And it’s a great premise for a movie. The movie touches on themes of feminism, power, and perception that are genuinely interesting and would be pretty gutsy for any movie, let alone a major studio tentpole packed with special effects.

So of course Disney takes one look at the idea of making a fairy tale that might not be entirely sanitized and sprints in the other direction. Truthfully, the source material doesn’t help: 1959’s Sleeping Beauty is easily the hollowest and slightest of Disney movies. And it’s clear the imperative here was to collect more mindshare for Disney intellectual property synergies or whatever buzzwords were written on the memo that gave birth to this movie.

The net result is a movie that struggles constantly with tone. Aurora is, once again, a dope, a character so dumb she thinks the woman with the black leather dress and the giant Legend-esque horns is her fairy godmother. This is mostly because otherwise, Maleficent wouldn’t form a relationship with her and realize it was wrong to, uh, do absolutely everything she does for most of the movie. Similarly, you’ve got the three pixies doing cheap slapstick to try and distract the audience from, uh, the entire rest of the movie.

The movie ends on a classically Disney note, complete with King Stefan accidentally falling to his death and everyone else living happily ever after. The only real departure is Aurora being freed by true love’s kiss from Maleficent, because, hey, de facto motherhood redeems being a violent child-abusing tyrant, right? To be fair, Angelina Jolie almost manages to sell it: She loves every minute of this movie.

It’s a missed opportunity, and one Disney should feel bad about. Then again, this is Disney: We’re sure the plans for Those Hunters That Shot Bambi’s Mom are being written out as we speak.