Is the star of Maleficent Angelina Jolie, or is it her cheekbones? They’re “the best part” of the Disney fairy-tale revision, according to Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr admiringly describes them as “so sharp and jutting that one could juice oranges on them.” The headline to Anthony Morris’s review for The Vine reads, “Angelina Jolie, 3D cheekbones shine in uneven Maleficent.”
Anecdotally, I’ve already had a few conversations with people wondering whether the bones are real, CGI creations, or something else. The answer is that they’re prosthetics. Makeup artist Rick Baker told Allure that Maleficent's cheekbones were inspired partly by the 1959 Sleeping Beauty character (“If you look closely, they actually follow the line of Maleficent’s cowl in the Disney cartoon”) ...
... and in part by Lady Gaga. The singer’s Born This Way-era look featured angular enhancements to her forehead, cheeks, and shoulders. (“They're not prosthetics,” Gaga said to Harper’s Bazaar at the time. “They're my bones.... They've always been inside of me, but I have been waiting for the right time to reveal to the universe who I truly am.”)
As Gaga’s example suggests, facial modification is a sure route to seeming otherworldly. But not all modifications are the same. Individual facial features carry cultural and biological connotations, a fact that fantasy and sci-fi creators must consider when coming up with new, unusual creatures. For example, the makeup artist Michael Westmore helped design the faces for many of the alien races on Star Trek by drawing from the animal kingdom: rhinoceros skin rolls for the tough Jem’Hadar, dinosaur-like ridges for the primitive Klingons.
So why choose to accentuate the zygomatics to transform a former Sexiest Woman in the World into a mystical villainess? “She’s basically a fantasy creature, but it still had to be very beautiful, you know? It couldn’t just be effects with silly, heavy makeup,” makeup artist Arjen Tuiten said in an interview with Fashionista.com. “Disney was very nervous in the beginning. They were like, ‘Wait, what? Prosthetics on Angelina? Why are we covering her up?’ They were not very keen on it.”
It makes sense that Tuiten & co. chose to highlight the cheeks, rather than, say, the chin, to make Jolie appear strange but not ugly. Research has shown that high, defined cheekbones are perceived to be more attractive in females, and evolutionary biologists say that's because those features correlate with reproductive ability. Hence the term “supermodel cheekbones" and cheekbone implants as a cosmetic-surgery procedure.
Scientists have also suggested that pronounced cheekbones are an indicator of dishonesty in men. I haven’t seen any such research on women, and I haven’t seen the film, but it's a safe guess that Jolie's curse-casting character isn't all that trustworthy. At the very least, her appearance recalls the poster man for cheekbones of sneakiness, Grand Moff Tarkin:
One more theory. Animated Disney princesses have met backlash recently for promoting an unrealistic notion of how girls should look, with huge eyes and impossibly skinny bodies. Maleficent, which humanizes Sleeping Beauty's villain and offers a more progressive vision of "true love" than the 1959 version did, tries to critique old Disney fairytale tropes. "Let us tell you an old story anew," says the narrator at the start of the film. You could see Jolie's cartoonish cheekbones as part of that subversion—demonstrating that when beauty gets taken to an unnatural extreme, the results are scary.