The story of Sleeping Beauty has come a long way from the Middles Ages and Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie is its newest incarnation. Disney takes the ‘Wicked’ route in re-imagining the deliciously bad Maleficent as a misunderstood woman that has reasons for doing what she does. Maleficent is no longer an evil witch that delivers a murderous curse for the crime of being snubbed. Sleeping Beauty was my favorite animated movie when I was a little girl and I went to the theater out of childhood nostalgia. I was not expected such feminist themes from a children’s movie and was pleasantly surprised if not a little shocked.
Though I shouldn’t have been. I was just reading an interesting article by The Belle Jar about how fairy tales are, at their core, women’s tales. They were passed orally while women did time consuming tasks such as spinning wool or sewing. Sleeping Beauty is centuries old, and the original is not only sexist but downright horrible and disturbing. The earliest versions of the story (the Italian “Sun, Moon, and Talia” by Giambattista) is not about love, but about rape. The Princess is not awakened by “true love’s kiss”, or by a kiss at all. The original Princess is asleep from a prophecy, not a curse. While asleep a King is taken over by lust by and rapes her unconscious body. She becomes pregnant and gives birth to twins, still unconscious. When her baby sucks the flax off her fingers she is awakened to find herself a Mother of the King’s bastards.
Later versions have turned this into a metaphor for a young girl’s sexual awakening. A sleeping girl is “brought to life” by a physical act and starts to live her life. Symbolism 101. Although this is softened by alleged “true love” it still retains the creepiness factor of the original because the Princess is asleep and obviously unable to give consent. Disney then takes these stories and adapted it to the 1959 version that is the most widely known version in the modern cultural zeitgeist.
Maleficent is a direct retelling of the 1959 version and while it could be described as a radical interpretation of the text it does not “cheat”, which I appreciate. The species of the original Maleficent are unclear. According to different sources she’s a witch, a sorceress, a fairy, or a demon. The original Disney animator modeled her look after a vampire. The Disney Origins Podcast postulates that she’s a campion, a half demon/half human that is the result of a union between a succubus and a man. 2014’s Maleficent is very clear. Maleficent is a fairy. A large fairy with sweeping wings that is one of the more magical creatures in her realm. The realm of magic and the realm of men are divided, and as Maleficent grows in power she is posted as a guardian to her realm.
One day Maleficent meets a human boy and the two become friends and later sweethearts as teenagers. As they become adults Stefan becomes more ambitious and politically motivated, Maleficent is one of the strongest fairies and guards her realm jealously. They grow apart and lead separate lives as happens with so many high school romances. The current King tries to invade Maleficent’s land for it’s riches. After a skirmish where Maleficent defeats his troops a bounty is put on Maleficent. The prize? Her death in trade for being named the King’s successor. Although Stefan hesitates he can’t resist.
[Trigger Warning] Malificent goes into the woods with a man that she trusts and they talk through the night. Stefan drugs her drink and Maleficent falls unconscious. She wakes up to the realization that Stefan has betrayed her and cut off her wings. As Christiphor Orr at The Atlantic says:
The scene of Angelina Jolie shrieking as she regains consciousness: betrayed, defiled, mutilated, her most wondrous gift torn from her.
Although it obviously isn’t said in a kids movie, the connotations are perfectly clear: Maleficent has been raped. When she wakes in agony the camera holds on Jolie for a painfully long time and is the most emotionally affecting scene in the movie. Not only has Stefan betrayed and physically hurt her, he stole her power and ability to fly.
Time passes, Stefan is King, and Maleficent curses his newborn daughter. Though her wings are gone she still has her magic, and is easily the most powerful being in the Kingdom. What happens next is a change in the movie. Maleficent watches Aurora from afar and comes to love the girl. She shares the same love of nature and she reminds Maleficent of her younger, more innocent self. A mother/daughter bond is formed and Maleficent mourns and wishes to retract her unbreakable curse.
Later, although Aurora and the Prince are attracted to each other, his kiss is not enough to wake her. Cribbing Disney’s own Frozen released last year, it is Maleficent’s kiss that is that of true love. It is lovely and symbolic in the power of female love and friendships. Aurora awakens, Maleficent defeats Stefan, and Aurora and Maleficent live happily ever after. She regains her wings, her power, and true love reigns.
Do I recommend Maleficent as a movie? Well, no. It’s too full of CGI. The dialogue is too clumsily written. The fairies are too annoying. The King is too crazy. It’s bloated and runs too long. And yet….it contains some very powerful scenes and pockets of emotional resonance. I found it interesting to explore the feminist scenes and am not sorry I watched it. Angelina Jolie reminds us why she is one of the few certifiable “movie stars” that exist in modern society. She is just mesmerizing to watch no matter what the role.
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This has been re-posted on my Movie Review blog