Disney’s Maleficent

Maleficent is a movie of failed potential. Despite its undeniably feminist bent and some interesting ideas, the overall result is decidedly “meh.” Not a terrible movie, and certainly worthy of discussion, but not all that it should have been.

And the problem, in part, is the very source material that inspired it. Because Maleficent is a highly iconic villain, and the movie never seemed to quite know how to interpret her.

Maleficent has a lot of fantastic ideas. It’s about the unlikely mother-daughter (or fairy godmother-daughter) relationship that forms between Maleficent and Aurora, and about how the two women save each other, both literally and emotionally. In obvious and dramatic terms, Maleficent’s motherly kiss is the one that awakens Aurora, and Aurora finds and frees Maleficent’s wings, allowing Maleficent to return to her former self. And in more subtle terms, Maleficent ends up supporting and loving an incredibly lonely, neglected child, and that child brings Maleficent peace and joy for the first time in years.

But despite its good intentions, the movie wasn’t really committed to Maleficent’s story. It seemed to struggle with the idea that Maleficent is one of Disney’s most iconic villains, and miss the fact that she’s iconic precisely because she’s just plain evil. She doesn’t act out of a desire for pretty much anything. She just wants to make people suffer. Her curse is brilliantly cruel, and she obsesses over ensuring that it comes to pass. And then she turns into a dragon. It’s iconic stuff.

But Maleficent takes away that calmly cruel demeanor with its backstory and its desire for Maleficent to appear as a heroine. In this movie, Maleficent is both evil and not evil. She dresses in black and turns the Moors into a place of sorrow, stealing the light and ruling terrified creatures from her own version of the Iron Throne, but she also spends a significant chunk of the movie pestering the three fairies with childish pranks. She claims to be cold-hearted, but she immediately feels affection for Aurora and works to protect her. And although the fact that Maleficent isn’t really evil is the entire point, the movie’s execution just leaves it feeling rather wishy-washy. Maleficent’s pain after her wings were stolen felt incredibly real, but I didn’t entirely follow why that meant she became a seemingly cruel dictator over her one-time friends, or why she went from a joyful and loving fairy who was accepting and protective of all creatures to a woman so dark that she curses an innocent baby to death. She becomes the cold villain of Sleeping Beauty, but only for about ten minutes, and without the change fully making sense. She becomes both too evil for logic, and not evil enough for expectations.

And then there’s the scene where she loses her wings. Writers have already described the moment as a rape scene, and although the Huffington Post responded to this fact positively, saying that the subsequent movie is a tale of Maleficent reclaiming her power and her agency, I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of metaphorical rape as a plot device yet again. Maleficent is iconic because she’s a powerful female villain who doesn’t act out of jealousy or revenge. Her reasons are entirely her own, and she’s terrifying because those reasons appear to be little beyond “because I wanted to.” But her curse is now about King Stefan. It’s about spitting his words back in his face, and punishing him for his treatment of her. It’s a reactive moment, motivated entirely by King Stefan’s own choices and actions. And this reactiveness continues throughout the movie. He’s driven mad by paranoia that she will come for him, but she never does. She tries to break the curse once, but then does little to stop it once one attempts fails. She doesn’t look for loopholes or craft a new, counteracting curse to save Aurora. Her whole plan is to knock out and kidnap a random prince after Aurora has already fallen asleep. She’s presented as the protagonist, but it all comes off as a little passive.

And although the special effects were fantastic, and the last ten to fifteen minutes were gripping (I genuinely worried that Maleficent would die), so much of the movie felt incredibly generic. We had our unnecessary fantasy battle, with a poor imitation of Aragorn’s speech and deadly fights between armored humans and fantastical beasts. We had incompetent comic relief characters who didn’t quite inspire laughs, and sprawling shots to show off the CGI department’s efforts. Even the ending was Disney-generic, with Maleficent deciding to spare Stefan and him attacking her when her back was turned, causing him to fall to his death. And none of that is bad, per say. It’s just a bit “meh.”

But despite this, the movie’s fundamental themes are still solid. It’s a story of unlikely female friendship, a story where the female characters are the heroes and their emotional journeys are the ones that matter. It has the message that love and kindness are far better than fear and cruelty, and even warns us not to judge a person’s worth by their appearances. There’s a lot of good stuff hidden in here. It just didn’t quite come together the way I would have hoped, as hampered as it was helped by the context of the original Disney movie.

07 comments on “Disney’s Maleficent

  • M.C , Direct link to comment

    Not planning on watching that. I’m sorry, but why does Hollywood keep making and re-making the same 5 fairytales over and over again?

    I love fairytales and new interpretations, but for fuck’s sake why not get Vasilisa the Beautiful to the big screen? That would make one hell of a fine mystery thriller.

    Or – oh, I don’t know – how about the thousand tales from 1001 Arabian nights? Plus the frame story – escpecially the frame story since Scheherazade is THE smartest and bravest fairytale heroine ever.
    Saving uncountable lives and stopping a civil war from breaking out just by using her wits and her knowledge of phychology 101 – that’s 200% more badass than all those fairytale damsels that Hollywood recently turned into warrior princesses. Sorry, army-leading Snow White, but Scheherazade would have talked the Evil Queen out of killing her and then they would have started a book club together or sth.
    And it would be so great to have a heroine who thinks that violence is NOT the answer. What a message that would send to out violence-adoring culture! Education and empathy turning a monster into a good man.

    Sorry for this slightly off comment, I just have a lot of feelings on the issue since a certain interview with Hanan al-Shayk about fairytales and feminism: http://www.npr.org/2013/06/09/189539866/scheherazade-from-storytelling-slave-to-first-feminist

  • Sean C. , Direct link to comment

    One issue with doing a “feminist retelling” of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is that it overlooks that the original story already had a trio of female heroes (the good fairies), so it was never a story about a girl literally sleeping and being rescued by a prince. The fairies did all the heavy lifting.

  • Linda , Direct link to comment

    My main “problem” with this movie, is not that Maleficent is both good and evil, but that she is not really evil at all. She only does what most people would have done after being betrayed, mutilated and threatened with extinction. And it´s not her love for Stefan that drives her, at least not only. It´s the mutilation that pushes her over the edge, not that he is leaving her.

    She does one cruel thing in the whole movie, and that´s cursing Aurora. While Stefan does many cruel things. For the same reason, the baptist and cursing scene, seems out of place. It doesn´t “fit” with the rest of the movie, it´s like it has to be there just because it is an expected part of the plot. Maleficent suddelnly turns up like a dark, laughing femme fatale, though she has shown few such charactaristics prior to the scene. Angry yes, revengeful yes, but that´s understandeble, considering what she has been through.

    What saves this movie is Jolie´s performance and the wonderful relationship between Maleficent and Aurora, especially Malifecents melting heart. After all, she is more of a parent to the girl than Stefan ever was.

  • Linda , Direct link to comment

    I forgot, Maleficent does turn the fairy land into a dark place as well, but it happened and was done with so sudden that I hardly noticed. All in all: If they wanted to make M both a villain and a heroine in this version, they made her too “nice”. Not that I mind, just sayin. You almost sympathize with her even when she curses Aurora. You feel sorry for Aurora but not for Stefan, he had it coming.

  • David , Direct link to comment

    The problem here, is that this movie doesn’t make men look too good at all. I understand wanting to explore a different side of the original Disney classic, but why ruin King Stefan, and make prince Phillip an over the top moron?

    Disney already had some powerful feminist themes in Frozen, and they didn’t have to destroy every male character to do that. Sure Hans was a creep, but Kristoff supported Anna in every way possible, and without having to save the day. Anna was the true hero. Disney really needs to create more characters like that. I think it sends a powerful message to all the young folk out there, one that tells us that women and men can love and support each other – without having to ruin each other to get there.

    • Necco Wafers are Dusty , Direct link to comment

      I agree. In fact, it could fairly be pointed out that EVERY man in this movie was either evil, or a handsome dolt. There’s not ONE positive male human character (you can’t count the raven because he’s not a man; He’s a bird turned into a man sometimes).

      Furthermore, it presents the idea that you can NEVER trust a man, even your true love, because he’ll betray you and rape you some day.

      Philip being a cute dolt who can’t wake Aurora was troublesome for me. In the end, when Aurora was with Philip beginning their new positive world together, all I could think was “But he doesn’t TRULY love her, as we saw earlier. So he’s just… what? A placeholder? A pretty face to occupy the throne next to hers?”

      If this is modern feminism, then I was mistaken in embracing feminism most of my life. This isn’t “We’re all equal” at all. This is “All men are evil or stupid, and they can never love or be trusted as much as women.” How can anyone agree with this? Do people who agree with this really want to go back to the days of “The battle of the sexes” and stop working TOGETHER to build strong communities and families? How can you have a working society when half of it distrusts and maligns the other half, ignoring individuals in favor of a sweeping stereotype?

      In that light, I found this movie depressing, not empowering. If all the female roles were changed to men, and all the male roles were females, this would be reviled as an anti-woman tale… A story where every woman is portrayed as greedy and selfish and either seeks to hurt the powerful, beautiful male protagonist and his surrogate son, or serves as pretty window dressing for him once he has conquered all the evil women.

      Why does something need to present all men as cruel villains, selfish tricksters, or handsome dolts with limited mental and emotional capacities in order to be a “feminist” story?

      I still say Fried Green Tomatoes is the best feminist film to date. The men aren’t hated– some are benevolent friends, some are loved family members– but the message that women can be strong, stand together, and succeed despite difficult odds is well-illustrated. There’s still a villainous male, but there are also unpleasant females in the story. It makes the point that we’re all PEOPLE, not just women or men or any other gender. We’re all capable of deep emotions INCLUDING LOVE, and that being of one gender or another is not a hindrance to being trustworthy or emotionally invested.

      All “Maleficent” says is that men are untrustworthy garbage. That’s not feminist. That’s something else altogether.

  • katie , Direct link to comment

    I loved this film. For many of reasons you didn’t! The fact that she was so flawed was my favorite part. She wasn’t perfectly evil or perfectly good. She reacted in a horrible way to a horrible traumatic event in her life. It made her angry and act irrationally. She took her power back wrongfully by dominating her friends and lashing out irrationally. I think the scene where she subjugates her friends makes perfect sense. As someone who was raped I completely relate with this, I hit back at those who I felt I could win against even though they did nothing wrong to me. And I hurt people I loved in awful ways because of my bitterness. I, like Maleficent realized it and tried to fix it but I couldn’t. Like her I realized there are consequences for my actions, just like there were consequences for his. And that made me feel helpless and lost. But I found strength in realizing my fallibility much like she did. I didn’t have to be in complete control or in complete power. I realized I did have the strength to about what I did wrong to my friends and it wouldn’t break me. I could come to those I loved that I wronged, recognizing I couldn’t take what I did back. And they forgave me like Aurora forgave Maleficent. I also think it’s beautiful when she realized she doesn’t need revenge on Stephan. That he hurt her, and there is no excuse, no fixing it, but that she is still strong and not defined by it. I loved this movie. I lived this movie. An evil woman doing evil just because she can and wants to be is not the kind of feminism I think anyone should get behind. Stephan’s character was the closest to this nonsensical critique (though he was motivated by the outside force of power) and it was disgusting. Feminism has room for vulnerability. It has room for flaws. It has to, because we are all flawed and vulnerable. Even men.

What do you think?

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