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May 30, 2014

There have been recent rumblings of feminist themes in the Disney-verse, but Maleficent goes much further. On the surface a re-imagining of Disney’s own Sleeping Beauty, along the lines of Wicked‘s treatment of The Wizard of Oz, this film not only upends the gender politics of the tale often cited as among the most regressive of Disney’s princess stories, it serves an interrogation of the original along not only feminist, but downright Marxist lines.

Maleficent barely bothers to code its symbolism, to the point that those inclined to engage with the underlying themes — and you know that I am — might find that they obscure such petty details like quality. So let’s get this out of the way: there are a lot of flaws here. Large chunks are little more than CGI-candy, and even that’s not always particularly well done. Sharlto Copley’s Scottish-ish accent is all over the map, and often barely intelligible. And yes, much of the story is less than elegantly motivated in favor of an extended allegory.

But what an allegory, and what daring it takes to bring a story with such an honest darkness at its core to a mainstream audience, and with Disney’s name slapped across it, no less. For now there are two realms to the story: the kingdom of men, and the moors where the fairies and other magical creatures live in, to be blunt about it, an anarchist utopia. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is the most powerful of the fairies, and acts as the moors’ protector against the attempts by the greedy king to encroach upon its lands. The king demands revenge, offering his daughter — and thus the kingdom — to whoever can kill her.

The young Stefan (Copley) has an edge. He knew Maleficent when he was younger, and he knows that iron harms fairies. He plays on their friendship to lure her into a trap but, unable to kill her outright, he settles for burning off her majestic wings with an iron chain. There’s no honest way to view it as anything but a rape, and Jolie plays Maleficent’s resulting trauma honestly and unflinchingly.

The stage is set for the story as we usually know it to begin, set in its new context. Maleficent learns through her spy, Diaval (Sam Riley) of the birth of the young princess Aurora. She crashes the christening — a scene filled with visual references to the original — and lays the famous curse on the princess that she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday and fall asleep, only to be woken by true love’s kiss. King Stefan, in a desperate attempt to prevent the curse, sends Aurora into the care of three good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple).

But Maleficent follows them and watches over the princess herself, though I admit it’s not made clear why she intervenes at all after bestowing the curse. And as Aurora grows into a young woman (played now by Elle Fanning), Maleficent grows fond of her. She approaches Aurora as a sort of fairy godmother, shows her the wonders of the moors, and eventually regrets ever placing the curse at all. But she is stymied by her own words, hastily delivered in her desire for revenge, which prescribe a remedy she believes not to exist.

Meanwhile, King Stefan is not merely content to avoid the curse, he seeks his own revenge on Maleficent. There’s a wonderful symmetry between the two. As Stefan runs his kingdom into the ground with his obsession, the darkness in Maleficent’s heart infects the moors around her. Her wall of thorns is matched by the iron spikes erected as the kingdom’s own defense. But only one of them will find a way out of their own self-imposed prison.

Film and television are littered with “anti-heroes”. Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Rust Cohle — all complicated, morally ambiguous figures, and all guys. Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans is the only notable exception, and half the time she’s upstaged by her ersatz husband. Jolie plays Maleficent as irreducibly complex as any of these men, and also as her own unique character. She is powerful and beautiful at the same time, with her own regal bearing, and yet she is alien. Her proportions are just a bit off, especially her incredible cheekbones; she is attractive on her own terms, not ours.

She possesses her own power, not one derived from or subservient to the world of men. “Good” and “Evil” are both inadequate to sum her up; she is both and neither, sometimes at the same time, depending on how you look. In fact, the single biggest symbolic failing of the screenplay is not giving her her own name. Maleficent — “evil-doing”, for those who skipped Latin class — is the name men give her, declaring the exotic other to be evil, and thus deserving of any ill-treatment. Surely she does not see herself this way, except maybe in her regret.

After seeing what happened with something as relatively innocuous as Frozen, I’m certain that some audiences — and even some critics — will be livid at Maleficent. They may focus on the technical flaws, but what will have them up in arms is the sight of a woman literally smashing the patriarchy. No less: a woman in the age range normally considered untouchably old by normal Hollywood standards.

And so I’ll take the uneven story elements. I’ll take the dodgy CGI. I’ll take twists any fan of recent Disney films will see coming a mile off. I’ll even take Copley’s mushy accent. It’s all worth it to see any film with the backing of a major studio and aimed at a younger audience even try to engage so honestly with some very dark truths about the evils in the world that we can’t always keep from them.

The argument can even be made that Maleficent doesn’t go far enough, or that it misses the mark in some ways. It’s not a perfect allegory, but the film’s heart is surely in the right place, even just to admit that this ugliness exists. Maleficent may be many things, both good and bad, but one thing it’s not: Disneyfied.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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