In comparing Maleficent (2014) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) I stand firmly with IndieWire’s Drew Taylor: I don’t see any reason to call Maleficent 2.0 the more “complex” incarnation.
Sure, Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent has more back story, she’s more “modern,” and her character takes more turns (which are also “modern”), but none of that necessarily translates to “complexity.” It’s a cinema of “give-me-more,” not necessarily a cinema of complex narration.
Why? Because the “more” that we’re given is as easy as pie to grasp. It requires no imagination on the viewer’s part. Maleficent, while modern and more developed as a story, spells out the character’s life in painstaking detail. It’s as if the filmmakers were concerned to leave nothing to the viewer’s imagination.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, all of this is true, but Maleficent 1.0 leaves precious little to the imagination as well. The character is so thin that she doesn’t need a back story. She’s pure evil. There’s nothing more to be said. But this isn’t so.
What makes the Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty just as interesting as 2.0, if not more so, is that she’s a monster, which means that she ISN’T pure. She’s an example of monstrous fusion, a concept proposed by the philosopher Noël Carroll. Because we aren’t distracted by a glut of facts about her past “goodness,” what comes to the fore are the irreconcilable contradictions in her visual representation and “performance”: half beast (the horns) and half elegant woman, she carries a flowing angular dress and boasts a pointed chin that she aristocratically lifts in the air, but she’s not all angles and aristocracy: her staff is gracefully rounded and her patrician affectation contrasts starkly with her filthy rugged palace of large rough-hewn stones and her stubby swinish militia. And I’ve said nothing of her voice and language, pearls literally cast before her piglets with their crude snorts, grunts and burps.
And what makes all of this work–emotionally, thematically–is that it is all left unsettled, open. Of course, it won’t surprise you that I find her… complex. For one kind of complexity consists in the art of ambiguity, of resisting the urge to “tell all.” Read this way, Maleficent 1.0 is a Maleficent that defies pat explanation. She’s multifaceted, and so is our experience of her: she’s can surprise and charm and disgust us all at once. But the permanent gaps between these elements of character and emotion, who needs, who WANTS, to have them filled in for us? I’ll do that by my self, thank you. Right up here. No need to put it on the page.