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Review by Joshua Gibbs
The Walt Disney Company, 20th century curator of childhood-born romantic prejudices and sundry other idiocies, has a bone to pick. With itself. In the latest adjustment of the Grimm's work, Disney takes itself to task for all the delicious animated lovey-dovey nonsense they packed into kid’s heads back in the 50s and 60s. That prince’s kiss business is so pre-third wave. Grow up, girlfriend. Kiss yourself.
Maleficent is Sleeping Beauty stripped of the mystique and mythos and thematic subtlety (and visual subtlety and every other kind of subtlety) of either the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, or, to a lesser extent, the old Disney film. Imagine Michael Bay editing the script of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Director Robert Stromberg is an old special effects supervisor with an uneven resume (The Aviator, but also Dragonheart). That same unevenness is imported into Maleficent, which ranges from half-aborted CG rejects from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones, the latter of which accounted for most of my desire to see the picture.
Maleficent adjusts the Grimm’s myth early on, imagining a young romantic intrigue between the kind but goofy Stefan, who becomes king, and Maleficent, a young, but mischievous fairy whom he accidentally charms while in his early teenage years. Mal comes from the Moors, the magic realm, which a narrator also describes as something of a benevolent anarchy; the Moors border the bland land of humanity, a non-magical monarchy (tyranny) where no one is free. Stefan promises himself to Mal and gives her “true love’s kiss,” but disappears from her life shortly thereafter to pursue statecraft. Maleficent is lonely, becomes ill-tempered, and one day the army of the Moors comes to blows with the bordering state. After the engagement, Stefan finds Maleficent and the two briefly rekindle their love, but while she sleeps, a bit of hard-edged political realism possesses Stefan’s nasty monarchical heart and he chops off her majestic wings, which she previously used to blow over a human army. Somehow, Mal sleeps through the operation, waking later to find herself shorn of flight. Humiliated, not only by the loss of her own body, but by the betrayal of a lover, she descends deeply into herself and her loneliness, keeping company with a crow and sewing herself shiny black clothes.
At this point, I found Jolie’s involvement in the film striking. Last year, Jolie made big news when she had her breasts removed in lieu of possibly contracting breast cancer. Maleficent and Jolie seem to see one another across the field of fiction which separates them, then; both lose some true and good part of their bodies. That Jolie volunteered the loss and Mal did not is baffling. Jolie’s struggles with low weight over the years seemed to reach a sad conclusion in her voluntary double mastectomy; I am aware of the so-called medical and health related rational behind Jolie’s decision, though I find it hard to not see it as an act of protest against every director who reduced her to a pair of D cups over the years. Mal eventually gains her wings back in a moment of triumph and liberation; imagining what Jolie thought when reading that page of the script for a first time is dizzying, perhaps even more fascinating than the whole film itself.
Mal curses Princess Aurora, Stefan’s daughter, at her birth; she will prick her finger on a spinning needle before her sixteenth birthday and sleep until woken by “true love’s kiss.” Deaf to the irony in Mal’s curse, as are the divine arbiters of the curse's fulfillment, Stefan’s plan to save his daughter is constituted of A) an order that all spinning needles in the kingdom be destroyed (it would have been amusing to see everyone dressed in rags in the end, accordingly, but alas) and B) an expulsion of Aurora to a safe house in the woods where she is watched over by three very stupid fairies. The daftness of Stefan’s plan to keep his daughter safe seems carefully counterbalanced between the overreachingness of the first part and the blind, indiscriminate recklessness of the second. Stefan’s plan seems one of few places where the movie meets the profound, knowing contradictions of the Grimm’s myth face to face. I have long thought that the best myths dismissed paradox in favor of an unresolvable, aggravating irrationality at the center which funds the lingering sense, once the myth has been finished, that something is both very right and very wrong about the thing. Upon every new completion of Homer’s Odyssey or Hitchock’s Vertigo or Agee’s Night of the Hunter, I think both, “Yes, of course,” and “No, not at all.” The answers grind and gnaw away at one another, and the reader or viewer who was drunk both deeply is left with a puzzle, the pieces of which are made of a mist that ever disappears, reappears. While it is a matter for another time, I suspect the irrationality at the heart of every myth betrays the limits of rationality to satisfy. Nothing which closes off neatly should be trusted.
When Aurora somehow escapes the watchful eye of the three stooges, she wanders into Maleficent in the woods and the two strikes up a friendship which is so sudden and so intense, Mal attempts to reneg on the princess’s birthday curse, which she herself pronounced, but the same invisible powers who guaranteed the potency of the curse earlier cannot be bought off by new love. In her old age, Mal is out of place in the Moorish woods. She’s sexy, dresses in leather and stalks the world, looking for her equal, although Aurora’s innocence is so compelling, and Mal is sufficiently lonely. Whether she intends to fashion Aurora after her likeness is hard to say, though I remain unconvinced Mal ever repents of her wicked ways. That said, she’s more wicked in appearance than in heart.
Most of the big edits to the Grimm Brothers work come in the final act, when Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning, whose underplayed, thoughtful cool is obliterated by Stromberg and replaced with fake serenity and freak out sessions) fails to awaken at the kiss of Prince Phillip, who cannot offer “true love’s kiss,” which alone can revive her. I’ll confess some twinge of delight when the kiss failed. Though Aurora is a flat, drab character, she’s an outlier of her species. Most fairy tales are about girls, not boys; the girls are often perplexing, conflicted characters and the boys who save them tend to arrive late, offer no personality, and take overly straightforward approaches to resolving the central crisis of the plot.
With the prince as a non-starter, the plot briefly opens up the question of who truly loves Aurora, though her father is never really treated as a viable option. Not once has he come to visit her in the safe house, and when she finally appears before him after sixteen years, he quickly dismisses her (without a kiss) in favor of more immediate business. Cat’s in the cradle, as Harry Chapin once sang.
So what of Maleficent?
At the denouement of the story, we find Mal becoming Aurora’s mother and spiritual caretaker. The love of the mother surpasses the attraction of the young buck who comes to court. I suspect some viewers will take umbrage that a ready male-female romance fails to fall into the center of the story. And yet, we have drunk so deeply from the Tristan myth and the courtly love charade that we expect any man’s chief license to marry a woman is his truthful claim to love that woman more than anyone else in the world. Nonsense. When I married my wife, she had been a friend of mine for less than two years, and much of that time we were a thousand miles apart, she in Providence and I in Chicago. I scarcely knew her, and to claim my love for her was greater than the love of her parents (who had known and cared for her twenty-five years) would be naïve and self-congratulatory. If my own daughters decide to marry, I would never require a suitor to love one of them more than myself before marrying, and I would not expect my daughter to respect the man she was marrying more than myself or my wife by the time she went to the altar. Marriage has much to do with exclusivity, but little to do with mosts and leasts. Neither is the power of marriage staked in sexual love constituting the greatest kind of love, for sexual love “fails” in the end according to Koheleth in Ecclesiastes 12. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a masterful investigation of the ephemeral quality of sexual love and sexual desire, even in the healthiest of marriages. In terms of the human telos, sexuality does little if anything to define what we are. In heaven, we shall be like the angels, after all.
It was very fine to see a fairy tale refuse romantic love a place of ultimate importance in the life of a beautiful young woman. It was gratifying to see the love of a mother overreach the love of a suitor, not simply jealously impede the love of a suitor.