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Toil and Trouble

Angelina Jolie redeems ‘Maleficent’ and Charlize Theron almost saves ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West.’

The ads for Maleficent promise quality time with one of Disney’s most evil animated queens. Who knows why we need the reintroduction? Who knows why we’d want to see Angelina Jolie interpret the role? In Sleeping Beauty Maleficent is a party pooper, a fairy with horns and a scepter who barges into a newborn princess’s christening, so annoyed that no one invited her that she curses the baby to live 16 years, then prick her finger and die. She’s a bitch.    

That movie was released in 1959, about a decade or so after the popularity of the great dames of classical Hollywood — the Bette Davises, Joan Crawfords, and Rosalind Russells — had peaked. Maleficent was a perversion of their steeliness and hauteur and lighting. All of that legendary indomitability was given the cartoon treatment. But the Disney animator Marc Davis and the actress Eleanor Audley made Maleficent iconic. They gave her the domineering carriage and self-possession of a great movie persona while telling the story of stardom’s nightmare — of Davis’s Margo Channing and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond.1 Davis drew a lot of the enduring Disney characters, including Cruella de Vil, which pretty much makes him the John Singer Sargent of batshit-crazy shrews.


1. The wicked queen in Disney’s first full-length animated movie, 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was loosely inspired by Crawford.

By 1959, popular movies belonged, in part, to princesses, virgins, and dolls — your Grace Kellys, Doris Days, Sandra Dees, and Marilyn Monroes. Increasingly, it was also the province of color, specifically blonde. The black-and-white hustlers and hussies of the classical era had become harpies and harridans. Elizabeth Taylor stood virtually alone as a big star with some of the movies’ fading authority. A dozen years after All About Eve, Davis and Crawford were fire-breathing gorgons together in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The evil-queen type was a cartoon consecration of what an audience feared lurked in strong women’s souls: a black hole.

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In the last three years, there seems to be some kind of reconsideration of these fairy tales, an attempt to extract a contemporary allegory from what’s basically princess fable. Julia Roberts (Mirror Mirror) and Charlize Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) both played the evil queen as jokes on Hollywood myths of beauty and youth. Roberts blew all of the evil from the part and went for self-amused stress. Theron dove into tortured hotness. But it was saddening either way. These are essentially petty hag parts that two famous actresses were playing as if they were Shakespeare. Female villainy in these movies comes from a kind of insecuritybut the films are structured only for comeuppance. Why the queen curses and casts spells doesn’t matter. Just finish her!

Both Snow White movies were in some way also about older actors ceding the floor to younger actors — Roberts to a missing-in-action Lily Collins; Theron to Kristen Stewart. It just seemed too soon for what essentially felt like a concession. I say, just do the Shakespeare. Like a lot of films since The Little Mermaid, both movies also wanted to address the “princess problem.” They wanted to turn the princesses into tough cookies. There is feminism in these movies, but it’s on crutches. Their most appealing ingredient isn’t the ingenue but the hatefully jealous older star.

That’s the hook for Maleficent, too: Come watch Angelina Jolie be awful to Princess Elle Fanning. Jolie hasn’t appeared in theaters since 2010 with Salt and The Tourist, which means she hasn’t been in an (arguably) good film since Changeling in 2008. So the invitation to watch a star who has always struck me as canny about her image fall into the evil-queen trap seemed like one that should be refused. But Jolie knows what she’s doing. It’s as if she has seen the cartoons and the attempts to redress princess politics and deduced that what’s been missing is feminism that can stand on its own two feet — that what’s been missing is her. She makes this movie something to see. I might feel that way even if she acted more than she does, but her return from a prolonged absence only enhances the mystique of a star we only think we know.

In Maleficent, she arrives a happy, airborne fairy with antelope horns, gargoyle wings, and high, digitally adjusted cheekbones that Henry Moore could’ve sculpted. There’s a war on between humans and woodland creatures. She’s the commander and vanquishes the king’s forces. As a girl, Maleficent befriends a human boy named Stefan, who dreams of living in the royal castle. And, as a man (Sharlto Copley), he becomes so mad for power that when the king falls ill and asks for proof of Maleficent’s death, Stefan betrays his old friend to secure the throne. He steals Maleficent’s wings. And Jolie, aided by the hysterics of James Newton Howard’s score, wails in anguish. When King Stefan’s daughter, Aurora, is born, Maleficent crashes the christening, in a helmet and cape, and puts the baby under that ridiculous spell. Three dingbat pixies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) disguise themselves as peasants and raise the baby in a cottage outside the kingdom, while Maleficent hangs back and plays pranks on them all.

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The movie’s screenplay is credited to Linda Woolverton, who’s been writing scripts for Disney since Beauty and the Beast. It’s as if she has fused Game of Thrones with different versions of Sleeping Beauty — by Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Disney. The result doesn’t make any sense. The other iterations did — more than Maleficent does, anyway. But there’s a method to the writing’s badness. To tinker with the politics of the story, the movie has chosen to tie itself in a dramatic knot: There’s really no conflict between Maleficent and Aurora, whom Fanning plays as a carefree teenager. The girl loves the woman, who learns to love her back.

It’s King Stefan and his army who have it out for Maleficent. (Copley’s become the most elastic embodiment of nastiness; it’s never the same villainy twice with him.) She seems perfectly killable, but they try chaining her up. For sport. For torture. On the one hand, it’s perfectly obvious what Maleficent is up to. But considering how flagrantly the movies have gone out of their way to celebrate misogyny, this one might have too much subtlety to be construed as blatantly feminist. Although, by the time Aurora discovers what her father once did to her surrogate mother, what else could this movie be?

Frozen does more with similar ideas (coldness and innocence and the resuscitative power of love) and without any of the defensiveness. Boys like that movie not because it’s feminist, per se, but because it’s fun. The feminism just looks like the way it is. Maleficent’s director, Robert Stromberg, is an effects artist and designer making his first movie, and revisionism is almost all he has. Some of the silhouettes and production-design ideas have the exciting ominousness of silent-era expressionism. But the movie doesn’t work — as a tract or as entertainment — without Jolie.

While her stardom has come almost entirely from her years of shooting at people on the run, this is Jolie in a new mode. There’s a vibrancy here that’s new for her. Over a year ago, the news broke that she underwent a preventive double mastectomy. I don’t want to overemphasize a connection between that decision and a reconsideration of her onscreen femininity, but here she is using one of those Hollywood contraptions to capture another dimension of her own womanliness. And she’s extraordinary. This is studiously calibrated, respectfully edited movie-star acting.  There isn’t a false close-up or cutaway. There’s barely any camp. She’s personalized her acting. You watch her screaming because of Maleficent’s stolen wings and think, for a moment, about Jolie’s surgery and her six children and the movie she directed in Bosnia. She had to do all that living in order to reinterpret an angel of death. Good parts turn her solemn. She’s better in crap.

If we accept that there’s something formative in exposure to so many princesses, shouldn’t it hold that for generations of moviegoers there’s also something damagingly formative about the evil-queen experience? Jolie is the perfect star to address the problem. She’s of the Faye Dunaway school — pitched somewhere between Network and Supergirl. Dunaway herself was of the Crawford school, having played her in Mommie Dearest, a career-immolating evil-queen part that makes the queen Crawford co-inspired for Snow White seem like Shirley Temple. Jolie seems to know the history and feel a duty to correct it. You feel a little absurd being moved by something as shoddily put together as this. But it likes these women — even the nincompoop pixies. It believes in its star. There are a couple of scenes in which Fanning looks at Jolie with radiant, admiring affection you can feel. She’s not looking at an evil queen. She’s gazing at a superhero.

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Charlize Theron went through a Dunaway phase. In two years, she played three bitches: in Young Adult, that Snow White movie, and Prometheus. She was so good that you got nervous that producers and the studios wouldn’t let her do anything else. But there she is next to Seth MacFarlane in A Million Ways to Die in the West, cracking up. What he’s said isn’t that funny, but the sight of her tipped over in laughter is contagious. It feels genuine. The movie is as much an attempt at a repair job of MacFarlane’s reputation among women as Maleficent is a revision of women in fables. Who knows what the ladies will say? But it works more often than it doesn’t.

MacFarlane has taken the canvas of a Western and graffitied it with farce, feces, and 21st-century sitcommery. If Mad Magazine wrote an Albert Brooks movie directed by Life Stinks–era Mel Brooks, it’d go something like this. When a big baddie (Liam Neeson) grabs his wife (Theron) and tells her to show him some respect in front of his men, she rolls her eyes and drones, “Oh my god, I love you. I’m, like, the luckiest girl in the history of girls.”

The movie, which MacFarlane directed and cowrote with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, is clever about its anachronisms. You stay surprised. Sarah Silverman turns tricks in a brothel, but she won’t have sex with her long-suffering, dimwitted (but not stupid) boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi) because it’s not the custom. Silverman puts as much air and mock earnestness as she can into her lines, while Ribisi spends the movie taking her at her word. Their exchanges are funnier than anything in Ted, MacFarlane’s previous outing as a director. That movie made a fortune toying with the incongruities of indecency and innocence. But it was cheap and lazy and foully violent.

The Old West sheep farmer MacFarlane plays, Albert, gets dumped, and his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) starts seeing the owner (Neil Patrick Harris) of the local mustache-grooming shop. (Albert doesn’t have a mustache because it’d cost too much to take care of.) When the baddie’s wife, Anna, shows up and befriends Albert, they use their brand-new friendship to make his ex jealous. The intercouple bickering leads to the best scene in the movie: a musical number at a barn dance with a song built around the word “mustache” whose tune I still remember. MacFarlane has the ingenuity for a whole movie of scenes like that.

At 40, he’s also got the face of an 11-year-old and the voice of a good FM-radio DJ. His hair in this movie shoots up in the front like Astro Boy’s. Albert spends the movie exasperatingly pointing out the horrors of life in the West and remains guiltless anytime something disgusting happens, like when a block of ice crushes a man’s head. He’s like Woody Allen and Albert Brooks: a charmingly self-deprecating guide to absurdity. It’s a trick, but it suits MacFarlane. You get why Theron would go for him. He’s got a Brady Bunch cleanliness. The world saw this even as the Oscars were tanking: MacFarlane’s got something.

But he’s also a comedian, always looking for a line to cross. When he, Theron, and Harris play a carnival game called Runaway Slave, complete with a sambo caricature biting into a watermelon, the line is leapt over, and the smirking crassness almost sours the rest of the movie. That comedy of randomness becomes a liability: What awfulness is next? The carnival game is the one transgression from which MacFarlane doesn’t distance himself. It’s also one that you’d like to think liberal-minded Albert would have grandstanded against, given a long sequence later on with Wes Studi as an American Indian chief. The movie tries to make amends during the closing credits, when the (very famous) actor who makes a cameo shows up at a carnival with a gun. He should’ve just handed it to MacFarlane so he can finish shooting himself in the foot.