Just back from the first movie I’ve seen in months, Maleficent. I wanted to see this before it fell out of theatres, mostly because of the trailers with her wings, because yeah.
Let’s talk about the good parts, first: Angelina Jolie is wonderful. It looks great. The green fire which is signatory to this version of the character was lovingly rendered and just felt right. The christening scene, reinterpreted here? Perfection. The later interactions of Aurora and Maleficent, ages, oh, 13ish to the end of the story resonated well, and just worked.
But… while so many things are right, I can’t get past “pretty good” as a response. Not great. Merely pretty good. That’s because I just can’t get past the fact that in this film, too many things are too easy. I don’t mean physically easy, tho’ there is some of that; those parts are not so important. No, I mean emotionally easy.
And from here on out, we’ll be heading deep into spoiler territory, so you have now been warned.
Let’s start with our antagonist, King Steffan.
Sharlto Copley plays Doctor then King Steffan well, given what he has to work with. But there isn’t enough meat in the part. There should be; all the bones are there. But Steffan’s arc is missing too many important, difficult notes.
His needed to be both a more political story – it’s a very political tale, after all – and a story about ruined love. Okay, sure, there was never “one true love,” as the film fairly points out – but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a kind of love there, and I think there was. And, well, betrayal of such things is a staple of royal histories. It’s entirely in theme.
And so Steffan commits a great treachery, setting events in motion, becoming King Henry’s heir. But that sort of treachery – so personal a treachery – needs confronting. In the film, all we really get is a big fight scene.
That’s letting him and the audience off easy, and it’s a failing. We in the audience need to know his self-justifications – how it was right for him to cut off and steal her wings, how it was right for him to seize the throne from a dying King Henry, how everything since then – the economic hardships, the battles – have proven how he and King Henry both were right to hate and desire the faerie lands.
How it’s all self-defense. How it’s all her fault. Not his. Not King Henry’s. Her fault.
We shouldn’t buy it, of course. We don’t need to believe it. We just need to believe he believes it – even if only by lying to himself so strenuously for so long. We needed Maleficent to confront his justifications, and deny them, laying the lies bare.
We needed to see that, and we didn’t. Steffan’s descent into paranoia – see also, “uneasy rests the head that wears the crown” – played out well, but that’s not enough. We needed to get into his brain, and find him lacking.
It also would’ve been nice to see some of this from Princess and then Queen Leah’s view. It’s clear that King Steffan’s isolation grows throughout the film; it would’ve been nice if we’d known some of that has come from Queen Leah’s knowing that something happened between him and Maleficent. Sure, she knows about the wings; that’s why he’s king. But there was more to it, more that he’s lying about, something both more and rotten. Something that makes her suspicious, then untrusting, then isolating.
In short, his betrayal should ruin two potential loves. Ruined love already underlies the text; it should be a stronger undertheme, since it’s what unlocks his character. Love doesn’t have to be “one true love” to still be love; Steffan ruins it through betrayal for the sake of power, every time he acts.
It would make a nice parallel to the the other easiness problem in the film: the too-easy relationship of Maleficent and Aurora.
Maleficent’s affection for Aurora comes too quickly and too trivially, in film-time. Less so in story-time; it spans many years in character. But that’s not communicated well, and even in story-time, Maleficent’s saving Aurora’s life from the inept fairy trio’s overwhelming incompetence* mere days after cursing her to die.
And it doesn’t resonate; it doesn’t work. Maleficent’s complex and multistage arc should be awesome – from young love, to betrayal and ruined love, to justified hate, to claiming her revenge… and then turning back from that, working through to regret, and to building an adult, parental love, and reclaiming her life for her own, from the wreckage wrought by Steffan.
Most of the pieces are there, but… it’s hollow in the middle. We needed a better arc of her hate. The arc is set up nicely. The betrayal is agonising. And so, she cursed an innocent baby to “sleep like death” tragically on the cusp of adulthood, as per her symbolic death with the rending and theft of her wings, and we’re kind of on board with that. We can see how she gets there.
So she can’t just step in and save Aurora over and over again without a good emotional reason, even if only to tell herself. Yes, it’s the turning point in her arc. Yes, from her own curse (irony!) she’s fated to love Princess Aurora in some form, as everyone who interacts with Aurora will come to love her, though not “true love” her. Maleficent is hoisted by her own petard here, and that’s fine.
But as with Steffan, there are always rationalisations for things done. Steffan needs to rationalise his evil; Maleficent needs to rationalise her goodness, in symmetry.
It could be simple – Aurora has to live to 16 so that Maleficent can see the curse she laid down become true, and watch King Steffan’s agony and failure to stop it. That’s a bit stock – a bit, heh, easy, really – but it’s a starting point.
Saving infant Aurora is a critical change at a critical moment. We needed some emotional support for that, and we didn’t get it. I’m not looking for All! The! Angst! – I’m looking for more emotional struggle to sell me the progression of character. Maleficent initially needs to save Aurora out of hate and revenge, not out of “well, guess so.” “Might as well” is just too damned easy.
Which is a damned shame.
Still, pretty good. Not what it should’ve been, though. That always hurts; good and great are awesome, terrible is terrible, hilariously terrible is even better. They are what they are and could be. But the near-misses like this one… they hurt. Maleficent could’ve been brilliant. Instead, by letting characters and the audience off too easy, it was merely… pretty good.
Not great. Pretty good.
And that’s a damned shame.
*: The three fairies were well too incompetent. It felt as though they were made even more spectacularly incompetent simply to provide more opportunities for Maleficent to step in and save Aurora. And again, that’s another case of letting things be Too Easy.