Going to start this one off with a disclaimer, which is this:
I am not an original dyed-in-the-wool Maleficent fangirl. I do not have a massive ladyboner for this Disney villain the way quite a few of my friends do. So I’m taking this movie as itself. It’s been well over a decade (man, probably closer to two) since I last watched Sleeping Beauty, so all I really can say about the original animated lady of menace is that she sure had some style.
TL;DR: I have absolutely nothing to say about how this movie relates to the character as seen in Sleeping Beauty. So please don’t yell at me.
I really, really liked this movie. Even more than I expected to, and I was already looking forward to it.
Angelina Jolie? Fucking amazing. I am already so in love with that woman I could write odes to her (non-enhanced) cheekbones, so this did not surprise me. She made a stylish Maleficent, from menacing to downright intimidating even when she was being “good.” And man, those contacts she had. Holy crap, her eyes.
Other than Maleficent, Diaval (Sam Riley), and Stephen (Sharlto Copley), there wasn’t a lot to most of the characters. I found the three pixies particularly grating. There were some odd pacing issues, and the movie seems to kind of get lost and meander during the second act until it remembers where it’s going and launches into the third.
The movie was pretty enough, but could never quite decide if it wanted to look realistic or be overtly cartoonish. I think either style can work just fine (even cartoonish does all right mixed with live action if the movie just jumps in with both feet) but never being willing to commit to one or the other or draw lines between the two realities of the film didn’t serve it well visually. I found myself wishing there was less cgi. A lot less cgi. Particularly when they were in the fairy lands, pretty much everything was computer generated and some of it just…didn’t quite make it out of the uncanny valley, I think. (And missed a golden opportunity for some gorgeous puppets and practical effects.) Or maybe it just looked a little too fake. I found the miniaturized pixies disturbing. They just did not look right in some fundamental way that really bothered me. Score was all right but nothing to write home about.
So, not the best offering I could have hoped for. Honestly, Snow White and the Huntsman did a much better job visually, I think.
What really made me like Maleficent was the story itself, and I found several aspects of it very interesting:
Going to cut this now for major spoilers.
Quick summary: Maleficent is the most powerful fairy in her lands. She meets Stephen when both of them are very young, and they fall in love. The humans, led by King Douchebag, decide to try to invade the fairy lands and Maleficient sends them all packing. King Douchebag says he’ll give his kingdom and daughter to whoever takes revenge on Maleficent. Stephen goes to the forest, drugs Maleficent, but can’t quite bring himself to kill her so just cuts off her wings and takes those back to King Douchebag. Maleficent is understandably upset about this. She takes vengeance of her own by cursing Stephen’s daughter, Aurora, though she eventually she develops real affection for the girl. On Aurora’s 16th birthday, Maleficent drags Prince Philip to the castle to try to get him to kiss Aurora and break the curse. That doesn’t work, however. Maleficent apologizes to Aurora and kisses her on the forehead, which does break the spell. As they try to leave, Stephen attacks; Aurora runs away and finds Maleficent’s severed wings in a case, which she breaks open. The wings reattach to Maleficent, enabling her to escape, though Stephen clings to her and ultimately ends up falling to his death. At the end, Aurora is crowned queen of both the human and fairy kingdoms and Maleficent has returned to her rightful place as the protector of the fairies.
Got all that?
So first of all, this movie did what Frozen attempted with the concept of true love being more than just romantic love, but did it much, much better. In fact, I think Maleficent even takes a potshot at the notion of true love being essentially romantic in nature. At the beginning of the movie, Maleficent thinks she’s shared true love’s kiss with Stephen, and then not long after he betrays her and cuts off her wings. She later tells her raven, Diaval (who is my second favorite character in the movie; he brings the sass) that the reason she cursed Aurora the way she did, to sleep as if dead until woken by true love’s kiss, is because true love doesn’t exist. (Stephen also says this to the pixies, that there is no such thing as true love.) And indeed, when Prince Philip is convinced to kiss Aurora (more on this in a minute) it doesn’t work. The true love that saves Aurora—and effectively saves Maleficent as well—is familial love.
I cannot begin to describe how happy it makes me that this is a message that’s getting put in more than just one Disney movie. So. Very. Glad.
As an extra even better treat at the end, there is no wedding. Instead, Aurora is crowned queen of the fairy and human lands. I honestly can’t even recall if Philip was anywhere around—because the point of that scene was most definitely the fairies accepting Aurora as their queen, and the emotional exchange between adoptive mother and daughter.
Vengeance is the main driver behind the plot. King Douchebag wants revenge for his defeat. Maleficent wants revenge on Stephen for cutting off her wings. Stephen wants revenge on Maleficent for cursing his daughter. If nothing else it shows the perpetuating cycle of vengeance. But what I found most interesting was the way the story draws parallels between Maleficent and Stephen, and then shows them diverge. (Though I’ll say right here, don’t get me wrong; Stephen is the bigger asshole in this equation by far.)
Both Maleficent and Stephen are taken to a very dark place by the initial act of violence perpetrated by Stephen. Maleficent is enraged, distrusting, and closed off. I’d say from the first time we see King Stephen, even before the curse, he doesn’t exactly look like a healthy man; perhaps he’s been haunted for years by the guilt for what he did. (We can only hope.) After Aurora is cursed, he too becomes angry and closed off, to the point that he refuses to be diverted from his thoughts of revenge even to attend to his dying wife. Both of them are rulers of their respective lands, and are generally obeyed.
The difference we see is that Maleficent is not entirely closed off and alone. She has Diaval to sass at her. And she comes to love Aurora like a daughter. Stephen, in contrast, turns his back on everything but the thought of revenge and killing Maleficent. So at the end of the movie, when Maleficent tries to flee rather than fight, he clings to her. She even tells him that this is over; she’s done with trying to have her revenge. He refuses to let his own desire for vengeance go and subsequently falls to his death.
So ultimately, on one hand there’s Maleficent, who is effectively healed by her (rather reluctant) love for others, and with that chooses to try to end the ongoing violence. And Stephen, who has isolated himself completely, is consumed by his own hatred.
At the beginning of the movie, when King Douchebag tries to invade the fairy lands, he mocks Maleficent for being an “elf with wings.” As I write this now, I actually had to stop and check with my housemate that, at no time, did any of the humans explicitly insult Maleficent for her gender. I think that’s partially because it’s sort of expected, when it’s a man versus a powerful woman in a fantasy setting. (Well, let’s be honest, in a lot of settings.)
But after thinking about it post movie, it feels like the fairies were very much meant to be read as female. The vast majority of the humanoid fairies were overtly feminine, and the lands were led and protected by a Maleficent—a woman. On the other hand, you have the human kingdom, where there are basically two women outside of the servants: Aurora and her mother. Aurora’s mother is little better than living scenery, and is basically given to Stephen like an object as a reward for his betrayal of Maleficent. I think Aurora’s mother has one scene in which she gets to speak, and then dies off screen while Stephen is having a truly creepy conversation with Maleficent’s severed wings.
So if you’ll grant me that, the idea that the conflict between humans and fairies can be easily read as one between a completely misogynist society and one that is either matriarchal or at least truly equal, it makes for an interesting way to examine the movie.
Consider the inciting incident of the movie: Maleficent humiliates the humans, then has her wings cut off in retaliation. Stephen comes to Maleficent with the intent of killing her; he abuses her trust by getting her to drink drugged water, then cuts off her wings when he can’t quite find it in himself to murder her outright. Immediately after leaving the theater, my housemate mentioned to me how much that scene bothered her because it came across as very date rape-y. (ETA: I was right.)
I think that was probably quite purposeful. Maleficent humiliated the (male) humans. She was subsequently punished for it by being drugged by a man she thought she could trust, and then being violated in a very fundamental way while drugged. And considering that much is made of the physical power and freedom her wings grant her, having her wings removed reads very much as an attempt to humble and reduce her. (I suppose Stephen might have even convinced himself that he was doing her a favor because this way he let her live, but ultimately he used Maleficent to get something he wanted, which was the kingdom.)
Rape is a sickeningly common trope used to take powerful female characters down a peg. Rape is also a sickeningly common trope substituted as character development or reason for vengeance, insanity, and so on. In this case, the result for the character is thankfully one that isn’t so common. Maleficent was an incredibly powerful character both before and after her wings were cut off; the only real difference after is that she has to take on Diaval to do her flying for her. Stephen’s betrayal does make Maleficent into a cold, angry person for a time—and who could blame her, at that point. But she doesn’t go mad, she doesn’t acquire the fantasy land equivalent of a buttload of guns and go on a vigilant field trip.
There are a couple of larger twists that I find even more interesting. Her major act of revenge is against Stephen’s daughter, rather than directly on Stephen himself, and it’s because of Aurora that she comes to decide that she wants better things than vengeance. But I think far more importantly, Maleficent is symbolically healed not by completing her revenge or (barf) finding her one true dick to make it all better, but by the actions of another woman. One whom she loves deeply in a non-romantic way.
Aurora, acting completely on her own—no one tells her to find Maleficent’s wings, or to help her in that way—gives her godmother her wings back. So it’s ultimately a brave and loving act by another woman that heals Maleficent. At the end, she obviously hasn’t forgotten what’s happened to her, but she’s moved on and become happy again. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever really seen that in another movie. Definitely not recently.
I think it’s very worth noting that the one (human) man in movie who is presented as unambiguously good—Prince Philip—actually brings up the issue of consent. When Maleficent drops him off at Aurora’s room, the pixies drag him inside and tell him he has to kiss the girl. He immediately objects on the grounds that he and Aurora only just met, he doesn’t know her that well, and he doesn’t feel right doing it. He only agrees to try to kiss her once he’s basically badgered with the fact that it will supposedly save Aurora’s life. The implication being that, left to his own devices, he wouldn’t have though it was at all right to violate Aurora’s personal space like that.
Finally, I’ve found a prince charming.
Anyone else a little freaked out that the only obviously non-white human(oid) character in the movie got physically assaulted by Stephen for failing to get past the wall of thorns? Eeagh. (And, as usual: It’s a generic fantasy land. Why the hell is almost everyone white, anyway? And the humanoid fairies too. Gosh.)
And in conclusion…
Obviously this movie made me think. A lot. Way more than any other Disney movie I can recall in recent years. I think that’s a fantastic thing. Is it a perfect movie? Gosh no. It had some definite pacing and history issues. But if you like things along the vein of Wicked, this is definitely a movie worth seeing. (To be honest, I enjoyed watching this movie far, far more than I ever enjoyed reading Wicked.)