based on the motion picture Sleeping Beauty and La Belle au bois dormant by Charles Perrault
Let me be frank: Maleficent is not a very good movie.
In an attempt to cram as many visual effects as possible into a ninety-eight minute film, much goes by the wayside—including major plot details that outlined in narration instead of, you know, actually shown in a visual medium. Said visual effects are dazzling, but weightless, reminding me of nothing so much as this film’s beautiful but heartless sister, Alice in Wonderland. (What do you remember about that movie? Nothing, that’s what.) Its attempts to mimic its source material miss more than they land, although the christening scene is everything you’d want from an elaborately produced live action version of that scene. The humor can devolve into not very clever slapstick, especially when it comes to the three fairies. And it takes the film seventy minutes of its running time to finally tell the story it wants to tell.
But in those last twenty minutes, Maleficent reveals itself as possibly the most subversive fairy tale film to hit theaters in the last decade, destined to be beloved by the hordes of little girls who saw it this weekend because it tells a story that they’ve only seen, recently, in Frozen—a story about two women whose familial love for each other saves not only the day, but the world.
Maleficent hits this point much harder than Frozen, because Maleficent’s enemy isn’t herself. Instead, it’s a male-dominated, violent, and oppressive power structure that decides to write its quest for power on her kingdom, her people, and her body. There are two kingdoms in Maleficent: the utopian fairy commune of the Moors and the jealous, conquering human kingdom. Politically, the two cut neatly along a gender binary. Maleficent, reimagined here as an angelically winged and demonically horned fairy, is the Moors’ only real authority, a peacekeeper who wards off the human attacks. King Henry rose to power expressly because he promised to conquer the Moors and the fair folk, and, on his deathbed, promises the kingdom and his daughter (who is not even named in the film) to whoever can kill Maleficent and bring back proof. Maleficent’s power-hungry childhood friend, Stefan, sees an opening.
What turns Maleficent to evil—or, more specifically, revenge—is not that Stefan romantically spurns her, as I feared from the film’s original description. (The two do kiss as teenagers; Stefan falsely claims it’s “true love’s kiss,” setting up a major theme for the film.) What turns her to revenge is that Stefan assaults her, drugging her and cutting off her wings so that he can become king. The rape subtext is brought right up to the surface, complete with Maleficent howling in anguish and despair after waking up to find both Stefan and her wings gone. With her physical freedom now gone, she acquires a walking staff and Diaval, a raven who owes her his life. (And turns into Sam Riley a lot.) When Aurora is born, Maleficent sees a perfect opening and curses Stefan’s only child.
It’s with the introduction of Aurora that Maleficent stops explaining Sleeping Beauty and starts diverging from it to tell its own story. Maleficent keeps an eye on Aurora, since the three fairies are borderline neglectful, and their relationship becomes the crux of the picture. Aurora, believing that Maleficent is her fairy godmother, adores her, and Maleficent, despite herself, comes to love Aurora, who she takes on frequent field trips to the Moors. It’s very easy to say that their relationship is a mother/daughter one or a mentor/mentee one, but it’s more nuanced than that. At one point, Aurora confesses that her sole desire in life is to live with Maleficent so that they can look after each other—not that she can run away to the Moors so that she can be Maleficent’s daughter. They become family to each other, to be sure, but a family consisting of a fairy, a raven, and a princess is a unique and untraditional one that we don’t really have vocabulary for. I adore it.
As you might imagine, it’s Maleficent’s love for Aurora that redeems her, but even that’s not traditional. She sees the error of her ways because, in a way, she’s doing what Stefan did to her—she’s writing her quest for revenge on Aurora’s body. She even treats Aurora’s bodily agency fairly casually, bewitching her into a sleep to take her into the Moors for their time together. She tries to revoke the curse as soon as she realizes that she loves Aurora, but the curse can only be broken with the true love’s kiss failsafe she put in—a failsafe expressly designed to mock King Stefan, because neither Stefan or Maleficent believe in true love’s kiss. Prince Phillip, relegated to three scenes, turns up and gives it a go, after expressing concern over kissing an unconscious girl, but it fails. True love’s kiss, the film argues, is complete bosh, if you’re a pair of straight teenagers who don’t know jack about each other. Real love is knowing someone inside and out, and that’s why it’s Maleficent, kissing Aurora’s comatose forehead goodbye as she promises to protect her forever, who wakes her up.
Aurora returns the favor by restoring Maleficent’s wings, long locked up in her father’s castle. It’s a beautiful shot—small Elle Fanning startled by, and then determined to free, those sentient wings—and a grand, perfect gesture. In one shattered cabinet to the ground, Aurora rejects her father and everything he stands for and literally puts Maleficent back together again. The two women save each other, and King Stefan, by now almost a caricature of paranoia, fear, and hate, is disposed of. The film ends with one last image of female power, as Maleficent crowns Aurora as Queen of the Moors, uniting the two kingdoms and passing her power over to her. All will be well in the land, the film promises, now that Aurora, child of two worlds, is in charge, with her unique family behind her. (Phillip turns up to be glanced at, but he, as the film points out again and again, is not remotely important.)
Normally, I don’t lay out films like this, but I am absolutely blown away by what Maleficent says about power, gender, love, and family. You can tell a film’s politics by its last five minutes. That’s when the villains are punished and the good are rewarded. Maleficent ends with Maleficent and Aurora destroying the patriarchal structure that’s harmed them both and reinventing their divided world in the image of their happy and unique family. Frozen might be progressive, but Maleficent is downright radical—the bond between Maleficent and Aurora doesn’t just save the world. It changes it.
So, again, let me be frank: Maleficent is not a very good movie. But I hope that there are a thousand more like it.
I saw this film in theaters.