LOS ANGELES: No one is born the villain. Not Lucifer in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, not Arthur Fleck in Todd Philips’ recent release “Joker,” and certainly not Maleficent, whom Angelina Jolie brought to life in 2014. Unlike “Joker,” however, “Maleficent,” a reimagining of Disney’s classic “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), was an open-hearted film, showing not only how the world can harden the pure of heart, but also how love can soften it once more.
“We think of her as evil and dark, and we asked why, and went deeper,” says Jolie of the character. “Most women — most people — aren’t born with a certain hardness and aggression; something happens in your life where you lose trust, you don’t feel safe, and you start to fight and you protect yourself in a different way.”
In “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” the sequel set six years later, Maleficent hardly lives up to that title, but rumor would have it otherwise. The story of the ‘sleeping beauty’ Aurora (Elle Fanning) has spread across the land, painting Maleficent as the villain, rather than the one whose love saved her. Now, as Aurora plans to marry Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), Maleficent must meet the neighboring Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wishes to destroy Maleficent and her magical world.
“When you see a leader like (Ingrith), who is so angry, so hostile, and who believes that the only way to survive is to destroy the other… we make it very clear in this film that she’s afraid, she’s weak and she’s ignorant. That’s why she’s behaving that way and that’s why she’s wrong,” Jolie says. “It’s not political, it’s not trying to be, but if you’re happy about the way the film ends, and it feels right, I think that heads you in the right direction, and for children it gives a nice guide.”
While the film features a lot of violent spectacle, the inner conflict of the lead characters themselves is whether they are strong enough to resist becoming violent, rather than the inverse.
“That’s something that isn’t portrayed a lot on screen — a lot of princesses grew up and they said, ‘Well, we’re going to make her a strong princess, and we’re going to make her tough, so we’re going to make her fight!’ Is that what being a strong woman means? We’re going to have to have a sword and armor on and fight? Aurora can do that in a different way, in a pink dress. It’s beautiful that she keeps her softness and vulnerabilities as her strengths,” says Fanning.
Redefining the ‘strong woman’ character is not just about redefining strength, for Jolie. It’s about lifting women up without pushing men down.
“We show diverse types of women, but we have extraordinary men in the film,” she says. “I really want to press that point, because I think so often when a story is told of a ‘strong woman’ she has to beat the man, or she has to be like the man, or she has to somehow not need the man. We both very much need and love and learn from the men. I think that’s also an important message for young girls — to find their own power, but to learn from and respect the men around them.”
For Maleficent, those men include Conall and Borra (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein respectively), both of whom are of the same race as her, cast out from the rest of the world. The two play out the conflict at the center of the film — whether the only path to peace is conflict, or whether diplomacy and goodwill can help.
Ejiofor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” says he was captivated by the film’s themes.
“It was an interesting conversation about leadership — what self-sacrifice means in terms of leadership — and has a real engagement with optimism and positivity in terms of leadership and what is beneficial to most people, and what part leadership plays in that. I felt there was something very rich in the script,” he says.
Even Prince Philip was built to break stereotypes and challenge perspectives, according to Dickinson.
“I saw him as this young man trying to figure out how to find his voice and challenge the perspectives of his parents and rule in a more inclusive way,” he says. “(Director Joachim Rønning) and I spoke about him as not just the archetype of a Disney prince who comes along and saves the day.”
While Skrein’s Borra at first seems to be the cliched hawkish brute, he too turns out to be more openminded than he appears.
“The love and understanding of Conall’s message really resonated more, and we do see Borra go on a real arc or journey of his moral stance,” Skrein says. “I think that comes from Conall and that’s why we have to try and preach empathy and peace over violence as much as we can.”