Why Maleficent Matters (Spoilers!)
I saw Maleficent on Monday after reading various critic reviews, audience comments, etc. I was unsure what I was going to think about the film as a whole. I knew I would at least love the cast (Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley and Sharlto Copley – what did they do, cast this based on my Tumblr?!). I’ve been thinking about the film ever since and have decided that despite its muddled construction, there are aspects of the film that are very important to today’s film landscape and I think important for little girls to see, and for their parents to (hopefully) discuss with them. It’ll be interesting to see what a generation of women who grew up with this movie will be like. I discuss my take on few very specific aspects of the film after the cut, but if you haven’t seen it yet, there are plot spoilers a-plenty.
Maleficent starts out as a happy, wondrous, powerful child fairy. She encourages those around her to keep doing the good jobs they’re doing. She marvels at the beautiful world in which she lives. And when a human boy comes into this world and tries to disrupt it, she saves him. In that same scene she comforts a tree-like being, saying she thinks he’s classically handsome. Right away, the script is digging in to the insecurities of men. After saving the boy, she takes him out of the forest herself, just to make sure he gets home okay. They shake hands – but his iron ring burns her finger. He immediately throws it away. Again, we see the goodness of youth. He doesn’t even think about what the ring means to him, just the pain it can cause others. This is a great moment. And it affects Maleficent deeply.
Then the film goes a bit awry, showing their friendship “naturally” developing from friendship to “something more.” I think perhaps Linda Woolverton’s original script was probably deconstructing all these tropes – and a few of these deconstructions make it into the film – but I think the film needed a stronger director than Robert Stromberg to really be as biting as it had potential to be. Anyways, at sixteen the boy – Stefan – gives her “true love’s kiss.” I think it’s very important that this moment takes place at sixteen. Girls in our society are often told sixteen is a turning point in their lives. You have the sweet sixteen party, quinceaneras at 15, bat mitzvahs at 13. This is when children become adults (and up to just shy of 100 years ago, this is when children really did become adults and join the working masses, get married, etc. The term “teenage” is a post-war invention).
I think by setting this first kiss at sixteen, then having Stefan disappear into the world of man because of his ambition, thus marking her first disappointment is also very fitting. At this point the average American teenager has been kissed by 16, if not earlier and/or actually having sexual intercourse. Most fairy tales, however, show girls this age falling in love and everything is roses and sunshine. Showing heartache instead, in a way, is more natural, even in a fairytale setting.
Then we get to the most controversial part of the film. Stefan comes back, and we the audience know it is to kill Maleficent so he can become king. He drugs her (helllllllo girls first introduction to date rape), but he can’t quite bring himself to kill her. Instead, he does the unthinkable – he cuts off her beautiful, strong wings. This scene is horrific – especially when Maleficent wakes up and finds herself mutilated and betrayed by someone she loves. Now, here we have the problem. This is some intense shit and it is not really dealt with well at all. I mean, this movie is only rated PG, so I guess they couldn’t. But, it’s also a pretty brave scene. Maleficent doesn’t have any family. She doesn’t feel like she has anyone she can tell about this assault. Sound familiar? I think the stats are something like 60% of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported. Even worse, in this world even if she did report it – who would she report it to? What repercussions could happen to Stefan? Nothing. Also sound familiar? *cough* most colleges *cough* the military *cough* The commentary is there, I just wish a more deft hand had been used in relaying it. Maybe a PG Disney movie is not the place for a critique of the rampant rape culture in our society, but then again it seems no place is the right place for it.
Everything Maleficent does after is done out of the anger (and trauma) of losing her wings, of being betrayed by the man she thought she loved (maybe some commentary on the ridiculousness of young love?). But, even after she has turned “evil” she still saves someone – Diaval the raven. He becomes her companion (and sort of slave?).
We then get to the christening of Aurora – the bumbling fairies are in the midst of giving her “gifts”, but if you think about it they are really curses and I think the dialogue really shows that. I don’t remember verbatim, but watch it again and see how they word their “gifts.” Most of the critique I read about Elle Fanning in the film revolved around her having nothing to do but grin. YES. EXACTLY. Those stupid fairies really cursed her – she cannot do anything but be happy and be beautiful. She’s not allowed to be sullen or be ugly or be anything but those two things because the fairies put spells on her, limiting her range and ability to explore the darker sides of life. This is tragic and I don’t see anyone talking about that. The curse Maleficent puts on her is mild in comparison. If this isn’t commentary on the way people talk to little girls, “oh you’re so pretty!”, I don’t know what is.
So then throughout Aurora’s childhood the bumbling fairies have no idea what they are doing in raising a child – why Stefan thought he could leave his kid with them is beyond me. I’m not sure what this is trying to say beyond maybe read a book about parenting before you try to do it for the long haul. Maleficent, true to her nature, saves the girl from falling off a cliff. She helps feed her and is always watching, silently. Eventually, a teenage Aurora and Maleficent meet and spend a good deal of time together. This sequence is important for a variety of reasons. It helps the film pass the Bechdel test. I don’t think they ever mention Stefan or men at all. Though Maleficent does allude to a “great evil” – which is later interpreted by Aurora as Maleficient herself. But I think it could either be about men, about the vulnerability that comes with allowing yourself to love and trust others, about acting in anger – really about how hard it is to be true to your nature in the cynical world of “adults” and compromise.
Now, is this section about the joys of motherhood or is it about the importance of female companionship outside the world of men? It could be both, and to be honest I think it is a little of both. Is this a bad thing? NO. Did I read a ton of reviews that belittled this friendship? YES. Why? Why can’t we have movies that show women being friends? That show how generations can relate to each other? That shows the healing power of children? Are all the movie critics so bitter and so lonely that they can’t imagine anyone relating to anyone else in this kind of maternal/sororal way? Aurora’s love heals Maleficent’s wounds from her girlhood and it’s beautiful to watch.
We get the silly Prince Philip and in true fairytale fashion, he and Aurora fall in love at first sight. But it’s also clear this is because they’ve never seen someone of the opposite sex before – sort of like Maleficent and Stefan earlier. This is definitely a deconstruction of the boy-meets-girl trope. There’s more to love than that, and this movie is going to make sure little girls know it. Philip bumbles in and out of the story, but he never serves any real purpose and it’s fantastic because it’s not his story!
Same goes for Stefan, whose ambition drives him mad. He won’t see his dying wife. He won’t hug his daughter he hasn’t seen in 16 years. All the things that should be important in life, he does not care for. But why? Because he’s trying to protect them. But what is the point of protecting your family if you don’t spend any time with your family? What’s the point of protecting your kingdom if you don’t go about in it? I think this is commentary on our society’s obsession with working ourselves to the bone, leaving us little to no time to appreciate the things we have. It’s very Harry Chapin-esque.
And Diaval, what of him? He and Maleficent are best friends. There’s no sexual tension. They are just a woman and a man who respect each other and work with each other and heal each other. Again, this is a great thing to show young people. And Sam Riley’s not bad to look at either.
Eventually, Maleficent wants to revoke the curse, because she has repented her ways. She realizes she acted out of anger and haste and is punishing the wrong person. But it’s too late. Here we have a lesson about how our actions have consequences and the importance of thinking things through thoroughly before doing something that is irrevocable. She curses Aurora in way that she thinks cannot be fixed – because “true love” doesn’t exist. But, in the end, “true love” winds up being Maleficent’s motherly/sororal love for Aurora. How is this a bad thing?!?! It’s not! It’s great!
The story ends with the narrator (Aurora) telling the audience that the kingdoms were united not by a hero – but by a hero *and* a villain. By someone who contains both darkness and light – by a complex woman who can learn from her actions, who can make mistakes, who can learn to forgive, who can love and hate. Are people upset with the film because they don’t want their villains to actually be made of shades of grey? You still have the original Sleeping Beauty – which if memory serves is about a woman so envious of a child’s beauty she curses her to death before she actually reaches womanhood, so as not to have a rival. Is that really something we want to hold on to? If so, it’s not like this movie overwrites that one. If you want that Malefient, you can still have her. No one is taking her away from you.
Also, how can you not love an ending that’s basically like, FU patriarchy, we’re a matriarchy now!
Like Brave a few years back, Disney has given us a movie that is about female love and female friendship and motherhood and sisterhood. Like Brave, they haven’t quite figured out how to do that *and* have a story that totally works. This film in particular needed a stronger director. Someone who knew more than just how to bring to life great visuals, but someone who could bring to life a great woman. Someone who could tackle the difficult themes imbedded in the film and explore them in-depth. It probably needed to not be made by Disney for one. It also probably needed a woman’s touch. Oh, could you image what Jane Campion would have done with this story? (I think that about most films). But, because it was done by Disney, because it is part of the Disney Princess cannon, it will be seen by a larger amount of young girls and boys and I hope they learn from it and I, for one, look forward to the new generation of young men and women who will grow up in a post-Maleficent world.