When it comes to bad movies, I tend to have a rather high threshold for pain. Its rare for me to even be tempted to walk out of a movie, and I’ve never actually done so. The last film I was tempted to walk out of was Movie 43 – a hate crime against the art form and current record holder for worst movie I’ve ever seen – and though I’ve seen some other really terrible movies in the past year and a half, none have disgusted me the the point of wanting to get out of my seat and leave the theater. None, that is, until now.
Maleficent is an absolute disaster of a movie, so much so that I’m not even sure how to tackle it. The film plays on the iconography of Walt Disney Productions’ Sleeping Beauty but purports to tell the “untold” story of Maleficent’s role in it. Apparently “untold” here has the meaning “completely contradictory to the original film.” The movie opens with an extended prologue sequence in which we get to see Maleficent as a young fairy living happily with the other fairies away from the humans. This part of the movie, while not great, is serviceable fantasy fare, however its relationship to the Sleeping Beauty story is tenuous at best. For all intents and purposes, this opening sequence is a new fairy tale story that just happens to feature some familiar names, and since this is the only part of the movie that is even remotely watchable you have to wonder if they would have just been better off writing a new story from scratch. But they didn’t, so we have our young, bright-eyed, and naïve fairy named Maleficent who soon falls in love with a young human boy named Stefan.
And then Stefan rapes her.
Okay, he doesn’t literally rape her – this is, after all, pretending to be a family movie – but the metaphor of this scene could not be more clear. Stefan, who was promised the throne in exchange for killing Maleficent, drugs her drink, and when he can’t go through with killing her, cuts off her wings and dumps her on a hill side (so there’s maybe some genital mutilation to go along with your rape metaphor, just in case this wasn’t uncomfortable enough). Now we could debate whether or not this issue is appropriate for a family movie at all, but since they did go there, I’m more interested in analyzing how the issue was handled. I believe that rape, like any other topic, is one that can be explored on film, but because it’s such a sensitive issue, it needs to be handled in a mature, thoughtful way. Maleficent’s use of a rape metaphor is anything but. This scene provides little more than a shock to the audience, and serves primarily as a shortcut that allows Maleficent to go from bright-eyed, trusting young fairy to vengeful, cruel sorceress without any real character development inbetween. I have seen some who have praised this scene as a triumph of feminism in film, and this completely baffles me. “Woman turns evil because rape” is a reductive, regressive narrative shortcut that doesn’t empower women, but rather portrays them as volatile creatures of raw emotion that will go completely unhinged following trauma. Obviously something like this would be a horrific experience for anyone to go through, and it would almost definitely leave them changed, but to replace a character’s developmental arc with an exploitative rape scene is actually quite the opposite of feminism.
Aside from this lazy, offensive rape short cut, Maleficent doesn’t have much of an arc as a character anyway. She shows up at different points throughout the movie as completely different characters with no reasonable explanation given for this sudden change in disposition. Over the course of ten minutes she goes from naïve optimism to pure evil to tragically misunderstood guardian with no real rhyme or reason to any of these changes. Shortly after the rape scene, the film shifts from being a Maleficent origin story to being a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story, and right away we get the curse scene in an almost shot-for-shot remake of the 1959 film. Here, as in the classic portrayal, Maleficent is pure evil and revels in being such, and she curses the young Aurora without even a hint of remorse. Yet, in the very next sequence, Maleficent watches the young Aurora being raised by the three bumbling “good” fairies, and saves her when the child is about to fall off a nearby cliff. I realize that several years have passed in movie time, but in real time it’s only been a few minutes since Maleficent condemned this girl to death with a curse, and is now saving her from dying, and the film doesn’t seem to realize that this is staggeringly inconsistent. The film can never figure out who it wants Maleficent to be, and at the same time it misunderstands why she has remained such a popular character in the first place.
Sympathetic, tragic villains can be interesting and can resonate with audiences, but that was never the appeal of Maleficent. Maleficent, as seen in the 1959 film, was pure evil personified. She describes herself as the mistress of all evil and calls upon the forces of Hell to defeat Prince Phillip. She cackles with delight at the results of her villainy, and tops the whole thing off by turning into a fire breathing dragon. There’s a charisma and even a charm to her villainy despite her being completely evil, and that’s what people are drawn to. This Maleficent, though, is just sort of mopey and ineffective. She spends most of the movie watching things happen without taking real action, and she never has that spark or charisma that came through in the work of Marc Davis and Eleanor Audley. For that matter, it’s not even her that becomes a dragon at the end of the film. Angelina Jolie – who I’ve admittedly never really been a huge fan of – does her best given the material, and in the one chance she’s given to channel Audley, she does so magnificently, but the character is written so ineffectively that even a solid performance can’t overcome these problems.
On top of all the character issues the movie has, the story is remarkably stupid. This goes back to some of the same complaints I had with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in that the movie doesn’t understand who its characters are so it can’t build a proper story around them. Instead we get a collection of individual scenes with no real dramatic or thematic through line. The three good fairies are completely ineffective characters who seem to be present only because versions of them were present in the 1959 film (though their names and appearances have been changed dramatically). The whole middle of the movie is basically just Maleficent watching Aurora grow up and occasionally interacting with her, but nothing of real significance happens. It’s clear that they’re trying to establish a reason for Maleficent to regret the curse she placed on Aurora, but as we’ve already discussed the film botches that characterization, and it makes no sense at all for Maleficent to curse this child and then spend the next sixteen years acting as her guardian angel. Prince Phillip shows up near the end for about two scenes as a plot device before the movie completely forgets he’s there. It’s all so poorly constructed that I’m actually getting mad again while writing this.
The Prince Phillip thing is interesting because the end of the movie plays out in a way that feels like it was completely rewritten at the last minute. Without getting into explicit spoilers, the last act of this film feels like a reaction to the runaway success of Frozen, but the themes it tries to echo are ineptly executed and aren’t tied into the larger themes of the rest of the story as they were in Frozen. The timeline doesn’t match up*, so this idea doesn’t check out, but the ending feels so strange and divorced from the rest of the film that it seems like it must have been some sort of eleventh hour alteration. That itself is almost impressive because the rest of the movie is already such a mess that it takes something truly spectacularly bad to feel even more thematically broken.
This movie is an abject failure. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the first movie in 18 months that I’ve wanted to walk out of, and though I endured, I was physically angry for most of the running time. The movie is broken in almost every way, from characterization to plot to thematics to visuals (this movie is remarkably ugly, and whatever it cost to make was simultaneously too much and not enough). I need more time to contextualize it, but at this point I’m really tempted to rank this among the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
*The film did have some reshoots take place around the same time Frozen was released, but those were purportedly all involving scenes early in the film. It’s possible that they could be lying, but taking their word for it, the timeline doesn’t work.