Maleficent Review: I Prestidigitate On Your Grave

Maleficent has always had a special place in the hearts of Disney enthusiasts everywhere. Partially because she dresses like a Hot Topic melted on top of her, partially because she speaks with the deliciously sexy cackle of the stepmom from Cinderella (you know that’s the same actress, right?), and partially because she’s the lord high god of over-reactors. This after all was the woman who didn’t get invited to a party and decided to not only gate crash but then also curse the host and hostess’s child to an untimely, completely unnecessary death. Presumably she also ate all the hors d’oeuvres when no one was looking just to be an extra jerk about it.

So it makes sense that a movie based entirely on the story of Maleficent’s life would come up with a new, somewhat more reasonable justification for her anti-social behavior, and since she’s not only the protagonist but an outright hero this time, they have come up with a motive that is so completely unassailable that nobody in their right mind could deny her the right to fantasize about infanticide (or rather, to “infantafanticize”). It is Maleficent’s saving grace that the filmmakers’ solution to this dramatic dilemma was to transform a big budget summer blockbuster fantasy epic into a tale of PG rape and revenge.

Exclusive Interview: Director Robert Stromberg says the origin of Maleficent is “as traumatic as the worst thing that can happen to a woman.”

The rape-and-revenge genre is a small and highly specific one, in which someone is physically and emotionally violated and spends the rest of the movie seeking vengeance. Since the inciting incident is so shocking and depraved that no one in the audience could possibly sympathize with the attacker, the hero’s revenge can take just about any form without losing us. The irony of course is that the hero in a rape-and-revenge movie typically falls down a moral rabbit hole of their own devising, and emerges at the end personally validated, perhaps, but arguably a villain in their own right. There is a catharsis to be found in I Spit on Your Grave, for example, and yet hope for the human condition is nevertheless conspicuously absent.

Maleficent, played with spry complexity by Angelina Jolie, hasn’t been raped in a literal sense of the word, but after she drinks from her human boyfriend’s flask and wakes up the next morning with no memory of the night before, her fairy wings ripped from her body, barely able to walk away from the scene of her violation and crying in unspeakable confusion, there can be little doubt as to what director Robert Stromberg was going for. The prologue that preceded this betrayal was one of almost absurd whimsy and female empowerment. The story that follows is one of one of a woman scorned who succumbs to hatred and curses her ex-boyfriend’s child, the princess of the realm, to die on her 16th birthday unless she is bestowed with “true love’s kiss,” something that Maleficent knows with all her heart is a fairy tale in its own right.

There’s not much “fun” to be had in Maleficent, at least in the traditional sense of the word. All the scampering playfulness of the prologue is tainted by the horror that comes afterwards, and all that horror prevents even the goofiest of comic relief fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) from feeling like they belong there when they take center stage afterwards. Maleficent has a grudge, it seems, against naïveté. But it does not, thank heavens, have anything to say against true love.

Despite Stromberg’s attempts to puff up his revisionist fairy tale with absurdly overblown action sequences and truly off-putting CGI creatures, Maleficent only satisfies as that rare rape-and-revenge tale with a positive moral agenda. Maleficent curses Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) as an infant, but watching the child grow up from the shadows and eventually bonding with her on a personal level – a relationship that could be described as maternal or outright romantic, depending on how you choose to interpret all of the overt symbolism – gives our hero/villain time to experience regret and eventually become whole. By the time she realizes what a huge mistake she’s made the damage has already been done, and the consequences of her vengeance – however understandably motivated – have to be undone, but only by direct engagement with her rapist, whose actions have left him both hollow and mad.

Men don’t fare terribly well in the world of Maleficent: when they are young they are good-natured buffoons, when they are old they are generally selfish and corrupt. Like practically all rape-and-revenge films, Maleficent is a tale of female empowerment, and yet the PG rating and allegorical treatment – combined with a Disney-prioritized happy ending – combine to make Stromberg’s film feel more positive than most of the other entries in this none too subtle genre. The rape and the revenge lead to a dramatically satisfying redemption that not only allows Maleficent herself to grow into one of Disney’s strongest heroines, but also provides the film a much needed emotional weight that the rest of its shiny, superficial pleasures could not yield on their own.

Under the guise of a cash-in reboot of one of their most popular early creations, Disney has either intentionally or by sheer unbridled accident unleashed one of its most powerful motion pictures, however clumsy the path to quality may have been. It’s a little slow, and it’s rather awkward, but it’s emotionally sincere and dramatically complete in a way that few of the studio’s other live-action efforts have been in a very long time. Maleficent is probably the only rape-and-revenge movie you will ever be able to watch with your kids, and that alone really does make it worth watching. In a good way.

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast and The Blue Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.