Mending Maleficent Part 1

Fauna: Well, perhaps if we reasoned with her-
Flora: Reason?
Merryweather: With Maleficent?
Fauna: Well, she can’t be all bad.
Flora: Oh, yes, she can!

I have a love-hate relationship with the 2014 movie, Maleficent. Well, more like a like-dislike relationship, but it’s a pretty strong like/dislike. The central premise makes me want to groan and roll my eyes. While I enjoy seeing a fresh twist put on a familiar story, having the villain be the hero and vice versa is not a fresh twist. That’s not to say it can’t be done well. One of my favorite books is Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis does it with the Cupid and Psyche myth. That’s the thing. It’s been done well, badly and everything in between. We’re past the point where such iconoclastic storytelling is interesting. Even if it weren’t already done, the idea has some innate problems, one of which I hope to write about later, another I’m going to explain now. A big part of the reason Maleficent from the 1959 animated movie, Sleeping Beauty, was a marketable enough character to have her own movie was that she represented pure unadulterated evil. So the thought process behind the 2014 film amounts to “You know that character you love? Well, here’s a movie where she’s totally different! No need to thank us. Just pay us.” And even granting the premise, the execution of it leaves a lot to be desired. There’s an over reliance on voiceover narration, a cast of mixed quality and some big dramatic problems.

That being said…I can see Maleficent (2014)’s appeal. The idea of the fairy who cursed Sleeping Beauty growing to love her and regret what she’s done is dramatically intriguing, though I’d prefer they just based it on the fairy tale and didn’t brighten the bad name of the animated Maleficent. I’ll even say the scene of her trying and failing to revoke her spell is a powerful fantastical image of being unable to undo one’s misdeeds. And there’s a difference between a cast of mixed quality and a terrible cast. Angelina Jolie is pretty great in the title role.[1]I’d have liked to have seen a younger Anjelica Huston in it, but oh well. Too obvious maybe. Whatever problems I have with the story, I always believe, watching her, that she found it compelling. She also has fun getting to be a melodramatic cartoony villain, which makes it more frustrating that script doesn’t let her do that in more scenes, but I digress. Elle Fanning is appealing as the Princess Aurora. The musical score by James Newton Howard is pretty good. The eerie theme for the curse and the gentle, lullaby-esque one for Aurora are downright great. Some of the costumes and sets are beautiful too, even if they don’t stand out much compared to those in recent movies with similar settings. And I appreciate that Maleficent’s skin isn’t lime green as it’s sometimes depicted. (In the animated movie, it’s a pale green.) It really feels like this film could have had something! So in this two part series, I’m going to propose ways the story could have been improved.

1. Make the Whole Thing a Prequel to Sleeping Beauty

I should confess something upfront. Sleeping Beauty (1959) is one of my favorite movies and I’d love to see a good prequel to it. My preference would be a story with a younger King Stefan, his unnamed wife[2]Unnamed in the original movie, I mean. She’d be named in this hypothetical spinoff., King Hubert and his hypothetical wife as the heroes, explaining how they met and became so close, and with Maleficent as the villain. She could still start out as a sympathetic character, though I don’t believe she’d have to do so, but her ultimate actions and fate in Sleeping Beauty would still be canon here. She’d simply be more of a tragic villain. Actually, what I’d really love would be a movie about Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. Maleficent may be the coolest character for many people, but to me, the trio of good fairies is what ultimately makes Sleeping Beauty so great. Not only are they my favorite characters in the movie, I consider them to be some of the funniest, most interesting and most complex female characters in Disney animation[3]Probably because they’re some of the few female sidekicks as opposed to heroines or villainesses and I resent that Maleficent‘s premise required them to be made into villains, and not even cool villains but bumbling, petty, minor ones![4]Maybe the screenwriters actually felt this way too since they named their counterparts to these characters Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlwit. The only other character to be renamed is Prince … Continue reading I’d love to see justice done to the real Flora, Fauna and Merryweather in live action, or at least for the attempt to be made. But if that’s not on the table…

2. Give Maleficent a Different Tragic Motive for Wanting Revenge on Stefan

Let’s look at the story’s first act. “Once upon a time,” intones the narrator (Janet McTeer) in the opening voiceover, “there were two kingdoms that were the worst of neighbors… In one kingdom lived folk like you and me, with a vain and greedy king to rule over them. They were forever discontent, and envious of the wealth and beauty of their neighbors. For in the other kingdom, the Moors, lived every manner of strange and wonderful creature. And they needed neither king nor queen, but trusted in one another.” If you’re rolling your eyes right now, keep in mind that this in movie’s first minutes![5]I’m tempted to go on a rant about how cheesy this film’s narration is. I’m inclined to believe it was written at the last minute by a different writer than the one who wrote the … Continue reading Anyway, despite the tension between their kingdoms, an innocent orphan fairy girl named Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy at this point) and a poor orphan human boy called Stefan (Michael Higgins) become friends and eventually sweethearts. But the ambitious Stefan goes to seek his fortune in the human kingdom, promising to return someday, only to become corrupted by the greed there. Maleficent grows up to become the fairy kingdom’s strongest defender.[6]It’s usually referred to as the Moors, but the landscape doesn’t really look much like a moor. She gives the greedy human king (Kenneth Cranham) his death wound. Before dying, he decrees that the man who kills Maleficent shall marry his daughter and have his throne. Stefan, now a royal servant (and played by Sharlto Copley), overhears this and runs away to the fairy land, ostensibly so he can warn Maleficent, but really so he can seduce and kill her himself. After he’s drugged her however, he can’t bring himself to destroy his former love. Instead he cuts off her big black wings and brings them to the king as “proof” that he’s earned the crown.[7]I’m guessing this betrayal was supposed to be a surprise, but if you remember that the king from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was named Stefan and that Maleficent never had wings in that … Continue reading An embittered Maleficent eventually crashes the christening of Stefan’s firstborn and curses her to die by pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday.[8]Actually, she curses her to sleep forever. More on this later.

Did that last sentence strike you as kind of random? Well, I guess the details of the curse have always been a random part of Sleeping Beauty. But a reimagining like this should make plot points like that less random, not more so. As it is, Maleficent’s choice to take revenge on Stefan by waiting until he has a child and then putting a curse on said child doesn’t make much sense. Why not crash his coronation?[9]By the way, I’m not sure why no one tries to take the throne from Stefan once it becomes clear he didn’t really kill Maleficent. Nobody wanted it apparently? They didn’t want the … Continue reading Or his wedding to the crown princess? Why not raise a magical army to conquer his kingdom? I feel like the most poetically appropriate thing she could do would be to cut off his legs while he was asleep. A better setup would have been for Stefan to be king from the beginning and to have him-and possibly his queen, giving Maleficent a motive to hate both of them-kill Maleficent’s child. Maybe Maleficent is still the defender of the fairy land in this hypothetical version and people are afraid of her breeding. Not only would this make more sense of Maleficent’s method of vengeance, but it would make her begrudgingly developing maternal feelings for Aurora in the second act feel much more natural. Even before she was evil, motherliness was never really part of Maleficent’s characterization. It’s almost like the plot was created by an automatic feminist-themed revisionist fairy tale generator with no regard for making dramatic sense. Having the human king and queen kill Maleficent’s child instead of cutting off her wings would also free the movie from giving Stefan a character arc it doesn’t have time to develop.

Of course, this proposed change would rob the movie of one of its more…memorable aspects: the resonance of Maleficent’s de-winging with date-rape. Honestly, it wouldn’t be much of a loss in my opinion. To the extent that that registers when watching the movie, I find it more tacky than anything else. I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of metaphorical rape in a PG-rated fantasy movie like this per se, as long as it’s presented as bad, of course, and it certainly is here. But the movie doesn’t really have anything to say about the reality of rape, beyond that it’s bad, or the psychology of rapists or rape victims. It just feels like the filmmakers trying to prove that just because they’re making a Disney movie it doesn’t mean they’re not edgy.[10]It is possible this was a thematic nod to the earliest versions of the Sleeping Beauty story, like Talia, Sun and Moon, in which the heroine is actually raped during her enchanted slumber by her … Continue reading What’s the message supposed to be? Don’t commit rape because your victim will become evil but apparently not so evil that constant exposure to a cute little girl won’t cure her? Is that how rape victims want to be portrayed?

I feel like a female villain becoming evil because she was betrayed by her lover is cliché anyway. Not that it can’t be done well. I’ll fight anyone to the death who says the main villain from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations isn’t awesome.[11]I think it helps that the book is aware that her reaction to the betrayal is extreme. Maleficent seems to expect us to say, “of course! What woman wouldn’t become evil after that?” But here it just feels trite. I suppose your child being murdered is also a stereotypically feminine motive for turning evil, but at least it’d be one that fits in with the overarching story. If we have to keep Maleficent and Stefan’s backstory as it is though…

3. Have There Be More of a Reason Why Stefan is so Important to Maleficent

Maleficent and Stefan’s romance is shown in a very brief and not very moving montage early in the movie. We only get to see them together as teenagers for a brief, wordless shot before Stefan heads out for the human kingdom AKA the Kingdom of the Cheesy Scottish Accents. Even the scene where he pretends to still be in love with her before cutting her wings off is pretty quick. This makes it almost impossible to see why Maleficent cares so much about Stefan, let alone why we should. The movie relies almost totally on the voiceover narration and Jolie’s facial expressions to express their love. Jolie is somewhat up to it. The narration isn’t.

I admit that this is a criticism that could be and has been made against the original Sleeping Beauty.[12]By original Sleeping Beauty, I mean the 1959 movie. I’m well aware there were other Sleeping Beauty stories before and after that. It also passed over years and years with voiceover narration at the cost of character development. But Sleeping Beauty was never really about character development. The characters were all either good or evil and that’s how they stayed. There was no question of for whom we should be rooting or why. Maleficent‘s first act is dominated by two initially sympathetic characters who then become evil and the rest of the story is about how one of them becomes good again and the other doesn’t. It pretty much demands some slow paced character development. And even if this movie were just making the same mistakes as the original, “it’s just as bad as the original” isn’t a very good excuse.

It’s instructive to look at the earlier draft of the screenplay which was leaked online. In that version, Maleficent was the child of the fairy queen’s sister and a dark fairy spirit[13]This had the virtue of explaining why she would be named something like Maleficent is she wasn’t born evil while Stefan was the illegitimate son of the fairy king and a human woman. Both were outcasts among the fairies and the only friend either had growing up. I don’t want to put this early draft on a pedestal. For one thing, having Maleficent and Stefan grow up to be villains because they were picked on as children is even more of an eyeroll-inducing cliché than…well, most of the rest of the plot. But Stefan’s betrayal leaving Maleficent so crushed that she would try to kill his child made a lot more sense there. It also made Stefan and Maleficent interesting foils for each other. Both were persecuted by the fairies throughout their youth, but Maleficent still takes the position that it would be wrong the humans to conquer them while Stefan is OK with it.[14]I still maintain having Maleficent be as pro-fairy and anti-human made no sense though.

In the movie as it is, there’s no reason why Maleficent couldn’t have gone on to have a romantic relationship with someone besides Stefan. And all the other fairies seem perfectly friendly to her. I realize we’re not supposed to agree with her conviction that true love doesn’t exist, but we should at least understand it if she’s supposed to sympathetic.[15]Till We Have Faces does a much better job of making it clear why the villainous heroine is so strongly attached to a few specific people, leading her to do cruel behavior. I guess it’s true that she seems to be the only humanoid fairy and humans other than Stefan would be presumably prejudiced against her. Perhaps that’s why she considers him her only chance at romance. But if this idea is in the movie, it’s a subtext at the most. It isn’t developed at all.

4. Give Maleficent and Stefan Slower Descents into Wickedness

When we’re first introduced to Maleficent, she’s a sweet, perky, innocent child. Cut to her as an adult and she’s a bit more aloof but still presented as a noble hero. Then after being de-winged by her old sweetheart, she immediately becomes evil. Well, technically she doesn’t immediately do anything more evil than magically wreck a bridge and make her whole kingdom gloomy looking, but watching it, we’re clearly meant to believe that her evil switch has been turned on. This doesn’t make for a great arc. It might work for a fairy tale, but the narrator aggressively pushes the idea that this is the real story behind the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, leading me, at least, to expect more depth.

Again, the earlier script worked better in this regard.[16]I regret that I’m giving the impression that everything about that draft was superior to the final one. I like that the ultimate version of Aurora would end up learning what Maleficent did to … Continue reading As mentioned above, Maleficent in that version had one evil parent and, as in Sleeping Beauty, other characters described her as inherently wicked and incapable of goodness, though naturally this was presented as something only superstitious, bigoted people believed. Her initial personality, while not evil was harsher and more cynical than the young Maleficent’s in the final film. And before Stefan’s betrayal, she already started to dip her toes in the well of darkness[17]I’m trying to be poetic; there’s no magical well in the story. with disturbing but somewhat justified actions. When none of the other fairies will believe her about the humans having ill intentions toward them, she forcibly takes over the kingdom and prevents anyone from leaving. This makes her even less popular and more vulnerable to Stefan’s protestations of love. And she commits other acts of petty vengeance before cursing Aurora, mainly laying waste to the homes of innocent humans. (I guess her destroying the stone bridge was supposed to be the equivalent of that.)[18]Another good idea the earlier script had was an explanation for Maleficent’s evil looking horns. There they were given to her ostensibly as a punishment, something to make her supposedly wicked … Continue reading

Stefan’s becoming corrupted by the human world takes some years apparently, making it more believable. But it’s irritating that something so dramatic and important to the story takes place entirely offscreen. I suppose the movie couldn’t have shown any steps in his descent into darkness without slowing down the pace and taking attention away from the main character. But the result is that he feels more like a plot device than a person.

5. Make the Third Fairy’s Gift Important

In the movie, three flower pixies, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville) and Thistlewit (Juno Temple) come to Aurora’s christening to “foster peace and goodwill” between fairies and humans. The first two give magical gifts for the baby’s future, but before the last one can do so, Maleficent appears and curses Aurora to sleep forever. After humiliating Stefan by making him get on his knees and beg her for mercy in front of everyone, Maleficent mockingly amends her spell so that Aurora can be awoken by true love’s kiss-something neither she nor Stefan believes exists anymore. Thistlewit never gets around to her gift.

My feelings about this are mixed. On the one hand, I like the idea of Maleficent unknowingly defeating herself with her cynicism. And, for the record, this is a good idea that wasn’t in the leaked script. But the final fairy’s gift changing the curse from death to an enchanted sleep is such an iconic part of Sleeping Beauty, not only in the 1959 movie but in various other literary versions before and after[19]It doesn’t play a part in the aforementioned Talia, Sun and Moon, but who exactly is a fan of that version?! that it seems a shame not to use it at all. Also if you’re really not going to do so, why have Maleficent interrupt Thistlewit at all? In fact, why have the pixies give Aurora gifts in the first place? It’s not like she couldn’t be beautiful, etc. on her own.

A compromise I’d suggest would have been to make the gift some kind of surprise twist. Maybe it’s a superpower Aurora pulls out at the climax to defeat Stefan. Maybe she’s the one who turns into a dragon.[20]Before she’s interrupted, it sounds like Thistlewit’s gift is that Aurora find something. Having that thing be true love would have also been a good compromise. That would have probably come across as really silly. But when the premise of your movie is that Maleficent is a sympathetic character, a certain amount of silliness strikes me as inevitable.

To Be Continued

Bibliography

Maleficent.pdf (thescriptsavant.com)

References

References
1 I’d have liked to have seen a younger Anjelica Huston in it, but oh well. Too obvious maybe.
2 Unnamed in the original movie, I mean. She’d be named in this hypothetical spinoff.
3 Probably because they’re some of the few female sidekicks as opposed to heroines or villainesses
4 Maybe the screenwriters actually felt this way too since they named their counterparts to these characters Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlwit. The only other character to be renamed is Prince Phillip’s father, who becomes King John of Ulstead. I really don’t get it.
5 I’m tempted to go on a rant about how cheesy this film’s narration is. I’m inclined to believe it was written at the last minute by a different writer than the one who wrote the majority of the dialogue, which is usually OK.
6 It’s usually referred to as the Moors, but the landscape doesn’t really look much like a moor.
7 I’m guessing this betrayal was supposed to be a surprise, but if you remember that the king from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was named Stefan and that Maleficent never had wings in that movie, it’s pretty predictable.
8 Actually, she curses her to sleep forever. More on this later.
9 By the way, I’m not sure why no one tries to take the throne from Stefan once it becomes clear he didn’t really kill Maleficent. Nobody wanted it apparently? They didn’t want the bother of another coronation so soon after the last one?
10 It is possible this was a thematic nod to the earliest versions of the Sleeping Beauty story, like Talia, Sun and Moon, in which the heroine is actually raped during her enchanted slumber by her eventual love interest and is awakened when one of her new babies sucks the poisoned piece of fabric out from under her finger. (Seriously.) Maybe Maleficent was supposed to be a critique of the whole Sleeping Beauty idea. But I think that’s crediting the screenwriters with doing way more research than they actually did.
11 I think it helps that the book is aware that her reaction to the betrayal is extreme. Maleficent seems to expect us to say, “of course! What woman wouldn’t become evil after that?”
12 By original Sleeping Beauty, I mean the 1959 movie. I’m well aware there were other Sleeping Beauty stories before and after that.
13 This had the virtue of explaining why she would be named something like Maleficent is she wasn’t born evil
14 I still maintain having Maleficent be as pro-fairy and anti-human made no sense though.
15 Till We Have Faces does a much better job of making it clear why the villainous heroine is so strongly attached to a few specific people, leading her to do cruel behavior.
16 I regret that I’m giving the impression that everything about that draft was superior to the final one. I like that the ultimate version of Aurora would end up learning what Maleficent did to her as an infant, even if that revelation plays out exactly as you’d expect. (Why stop being predictable at that point?) And I appreciate that the Flora, Fauna and Merryweather analogues are a bit more open to sympathetic interpretations in the movie than they were in the leaked script, in which they’re not only callous towards Aurora but partially responsible for Maleficent and Stefan’s evil trajectories. The flipside of that is that they were much more entertainingly written in the older script. Perhaps the writers found themselves liking them in spite of themselves since they gave them an undeservedly happy ending.
17 I’m trying to be poetic; there’s no magical well in the story.
18 Another good idea the earlier script had was an explanation for Maleficent’s evil looking horns. There they were given to her ostensibly as a punishment, something to make her supposedly wicked nature manifest. Later, she defiantly turned them into a symbol of her power.
19 It doesn’t play a part in the aforementioned Talia, Sun and Moon, but who exactly is a fan of that version?!
20 Before she’s interrupted, it sounds like Thistlewit’s gift is that Aurora find something. Having that thing be true love would have also been a good compromise.
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