In 1959, Disney introduced one of the great villains of cinema with the evil queen Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, an animated feature adapted from Charles Perrault’s classic Mother Goose tale, “La Belle au Bois Dormant.” A towering menace, Maleficent was depicted in inky black capes and a snug cowl, with devilish horns and cheekbones sharp enough to skin a rabbit. Vengeful and rage-fueled, she was unambiguously evil, an extreme foil to the heroine, Aurora, whose beauty and purity were as pure as snow. Maleficent became an integral piece of the Disney juggernaut, joining the legion of baddies along with the wicked stepmother from Cinderella and the mirror-obsessed Queen from Snow White. Within that fairy tale formula, there was never a reason to wonder why the good were good and the bad were bad–that was just the way the stories worked. The appeal of the family-friendly films lay in rooting for the protagonist to find a way to exert her superior morals to overcome the depraved schemes of the villains, who screeched and gnashed their teeth as they finally crumbled in defeat.

Maybe it’s a sign of the times that popular culture has lately taken a greater interest in understanding the motives of villains. The Star Wars prequels did a hit-and-miss job of exploring Darth Vader’s origins, and Breaking Bad revolved around Walter White’s long, slow descent into evil, to profound effect. Director Robert Stromberg’s 2014 live-action film Maleficent takes this same trick and pulls it off with flash, economy and an astonishing lead performance by Angelina Jolie, who embodies feminine strength with startling power. The result is an enthralling tale that celebrates the visual panache of familiar Disney storytelling with a fresh angle on how an innocent fairy princess broke so spectacularly bad.

The shifted perspective of the film is telegraphed in the opening minutes when a winged fairy girl in a sun-splashed glade is revealed in voice-over to be none other than the titular bad guy. Healing broken branches, frolicking with forest animals and chattering with pixies, she’s a long way from where we know she’ll end up. The circumstances that take her there are truly dark, as the cowardice and betrayal of her love interest, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), leave her shattered, heartbroken and shorn of her majestic wings. The film’s tone shifts into a gloomy register, culminating in Maleficent placing a full-throated curse on Stefan’s child. While the classic Disney animated films dabbled in some scary moments, there was never anything as sinister as the menace that Jolie wrings from her incantation, identical to that of the original film: “Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, and fall into a sleep like death!” Spite has become her compass, fully earned by her mistreatment.

The great power of centering the evil queen’s point of view is the depth of character that emerges. Aurora, the sleeping beauty (Elle Fanning), doesn’t even appear until halfway through the film’s tight 97-minute run time. Despite her transcendent anger, Maleficent finds herself watching over the doomed child with something like maternal concern. Here is where Jolie finds great resonance in the role, as Maleficent struggles to reconcile her rage with the traces of spurned love that have nowhere else to go. With smoldering eyes, Jolie evokes the brimming emotion of a silent movie actress, practically levitating off the screen. (And those cheek bones!)

It’s a study in feminine power on its own terms. Maleficent’s magic is unmatched and she is seemingly invulnerable to the weapons of men, but her transformative strength comes from her instinct to nurture and teach. She’s the quintessential strong female lead who, unlike the gun-toting Sarah Connor character from the Terminator movies, doesn’t need to adopt traditionally masculine qualities to defeat the men arrayed against her. She taps into her essential self and finds ways to wield her femininity as a tool to achieve her goals, beyond her ability to throw fireballs and summon dragons.

And yet, there be dragons as well. The movie’s bones are still Disney–medieval castles, fawning woodland creatures, a fantasy world of knights and princesses and dramatic landscapes–but the emotional and psychological range is greatly expanded and deepened by Linda Woolverton’s excellent script and by Jolie’s stellar performance. While Maleficent qualified as a commercial success when it released in 2014, and Jolie earned well-deserved critical accolades, some viewers may have shied away from yet another live-action remake of a classic children’s story. The sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, fizzled at the box office in 2019, and some other attempts to remake beloved Disney features have traded charm for computer-assisted wizardry, to underwhelming effect.

Maleficent, with its unblinking exploration of darkness, is different. At a time when malevolent figures abound in our social and political lives, the film is well worth watching, or re-watching, for its fearless and nuanced depiction of the path between good and evil that any one of us could find ourselves traveling. It’s worth remembering that the wrongs that have been visited upon us by others are not nearly as powerful as the choices we make for ourselves.

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