Review: Walt Disney’s ‘Maleficent’ asks tough questions but fails to answer them

All I could picture as the closing credits began for “Maleficent,” the big-budget fantasy picture that Walt Disney Studios is releasing on Friday, was a whole generation of women explaining how deeply and permanently broken their view of men was by Angelina Jolie when they were just princess-crazy little girls.

It is safe to say I will not be taking my kids to see “Maleficent,” a film that is so swollen with psycho-sexual subtext that I felt like I was watching a true hijacking of the mainstream. But… by who? Robert Stromberg, who directed the film, is a production designer who has been involved in creating some of the richest, most detailed fantasy worlds on film over the last decade, and who worked in visual effects for 20 years before that, and he certainly brings that skill set to bear on how he establishes a sense of time and place in “Maleficent.” This is a world divided into the half that is run by men and the half that is protected by a much older magic, filled with powerful creatures, and it is lush, almost every frame packed with something new to see.

Linda Woolverton's script is fascinating. I can't say that I liked it, but I can say that she is obviously trying to say something that is much more of-the-moment and incisive than just retelling the sanitized version of the old Grimm Brothers story. Woolverton is one of Disney's go-to writers ever since “Beauty and the Beast,” and the way she sets the story in motion is fine. There are some interesting dynamics set up in the first act of the film. Maleficent is introduced as a young fairy, played by Isobelle Molloy. Her greatest power comes from her wings, big beautiful strong wings, and she soars over her lands, a protector and a friend to all the ancient powers in her world. Men frequently encroach on their territory, and one day, Maleficent stops several of the border guards (played by giant walking trees) from harming a boy who was stealing stones from the Pool of Jewels. This boy, Stefan (played initially by Michael Higgins), is fascinated by Maleficent, and it's obvious that she is equally curious about him. The two of them become friends, and over time, their feelings deepen. As teens (Ella Purnell and Jackson Bews take over as the teenage versions), they share what Stefan calls “true love's kiss.”

And then Stefan is gone. He vanishes back into the world of men, his own ambition leading him to work his way closer and closer to King Henry (Kenneth Cranham), whose appetite for wealth drives him to lead his armies to the edge of the land that Maleficent protects. When she bests him in battle and sends his armies running, the King is not just humiliated, but also physically broken, and he finds himself having to declare a successor to the throne as he counts down his final days. He declares that anyone who kills Maleficent will become the new King and Stefan, who wants power more than anything, realizes that he is in a unique position to help himself to the throne.

In order to really discuss the ways this film fails, some spoilers are required. Everything you read above is just set-up. The film moves at a fairly brisk clip, so by the time Stefan does the unthinkable, cutting the wings off of the sleeping Maleficent, we're still only about twenty minutes into the film. Her reaction when she awakes is played as real and as raw as Angelina Jolie is capable of, and she makes it very clear, without ever having to say the actual words, that this is an invasion, an intimate betrayal… a rape.

Yes, welcome to Walt Disney's “I Spit On Your Grave.” While I can see how there is a version of this film that might be able to successfully grapple with its central metaphor, I'm not sure Stromberg is the guy to make that movie. As much as he packs his frame with imagery and motion, I never get the sense that he has any idea why one shot goes in front of another or how to stage a scene. It feels like the actors are essentially directing themselves. Sharlto Copley is an odd choice to play the grown-up Stefan, but I'm guessing that most of the men who read the script got nervous about the idea of playing a character who is, without any room for interpretation, the villain of the film. He is every man who has ever feared a woman's strength who uses force to break her will. He is like a walking, talking case of sexual trauma, and as the film progresses, the filmmakers seem determined to make him so over the top cruel and horrible that the deck feels completely stacked.

That's true in the other direction as well. This isn't about offering up a Maleficent whose actions can be read as ambiguous. She is the hero of the film. She is never truly evil. She is wronged, and she has every right to show up to the christening of Stefan's child furious and filled with a desire for revenge. By the time she walks into that room to curse the baby, we are already rooting for her to just kill Stefan and be done with it. And while she curses the little girl, she also is constantly watching over her, helping her in ways that she hopes no one will notice, her obvious affection for the girl growing each day. Maleficent's shape-shifting assistant Diaval (Sam Riley) is also constantly watching over the child, and soon she grows into a lovely young woman. Elle Fanning plays Aurora, and Stromberg seems to be fully aware of just what a remarkable and transformative thing Fanning's smile is. She is a pretty young woman, but when she smiles, she is incandescent, and so Stromberg makes sure he busts out that smile at full wattage as often as possible. There's not much else to her character, though, and part of the way the movie muddles its message is through the constant sense that, because of Maleficent's curse and her father's actions, Aurora has no agency at all as a person, much less as a woman. She is a thing, a ticking clock for the story, a chess piece in the game between these two people who are still dealing with the scars they left on one another when they were younger.

Like “Frozen,” this film subverts some of the fairy tale tropes that you expect, and while I like the impulse, and I even think the execution of some of it is interesting, I still feel like Stromberg's direction is so inept that he can't give the film the emotional charge that Woolverton's script tries so hard to earn. Technically, the film looks as good as money can manage, with photography by Dean Semler and a very busy score by James Newton Howard, but the entire thing feels like we never quite manage to push past the surface of it. There are so many confounding choices, so many things that don't connect, that it makes me wonder where it fell apart. On set? In the editing room?

I know Disney is pushing this film for children, but when you can make an argument that this is a fairy tale about murdering the men responsible for the ritual genital mutilation of little girls, it feels like perhaps Disney missed the mark with this one. I wish Stromberg had not been the director of the film, but that they had found someone who was more adept at navigating thematically tricky material like this. Can you imagine what Jane Campion might have done with a film like this? All the pretty landscapes in the world and all the CG creatures money can be does not turn this into something that lives and breathes, something that works as more than a blunt force tool. This film needed a filmmaker who was willing to ask hard questions and find the right way to answer them, not a guy whose greatest strength seems to be filling the frame with little CG beasties. If this is the story the studio wanted to tell, and if these themes of power and powerlessness and the betrayal of love and the horrible oppression of a patriarchal world are all things that they wanted to explore in a way that was genuine and emotional, then “Maleficent” has to be counted as a failure. It's a shame, too. Now seems like the exact right moment to have this kind of conversation, and if all of this came together in a satisfying whole, then I would say it is urgent for people to see this with their daughters to launch a conversation about all the ways the world can destroy a woman. But in this form, I feel like the film unloads way too many heavy ideas with no sense of how to really explore them, and it feels frustrating as a result.

“Maleficent” opens in theaters on Friday.