At last, my long awaited post on Maleficent is here! I promised it was coming and I’m going to deliver to the best of my abilities. Because “Sleeping Beauty” is my fairy tale. I think everyone has one of these – the one fairy tale that they really identify with, that they’ll always love, that has somehow shaped their life. It might not be the one you intellectually think is the “best” or the most important or even the most interesting. It’s just yours and you know it. I love “Sleeping Beauty”: I write about it, read about it, retell it. It’s shaped my academic and creative life in more ways than I can properly name. ATU410 will always be a part of me.
So, as you can imagine, I was practically crazy with excitement upon hearing that Disney was making this film. I’ve been following all the updates, drooling over the merchandise (and maybe buying a Maleficent doll…), planning a Maleficent costume for Halloween, and reading all the blog posts people have been making in anticipation. I wound up being able to see it a couple days early with my family and then quite soon after that again with my boyfriend. I’d totally see it again too.
Warning! The following post is FULL of spoilers for the film!! Don’t read until you’ve seen it :). There are also a few spoilers for the Disney film Frozen as well so be warned about that too?
The Especially Good:
For me, the absolute best part of the movie was the incorporation of faerie folklore with the fairy tale, something that isn’t done nearly enough and really should be.
This embracing of Faerie is perhaps best reflected in the concept art for the film, which you can view here. Gorgeous, strange scenes and creatures – clearly inspired by Brian Froud’s work. Strongly connected to nature – perfect.
The fae are typically very much a part of nature and I loved how the film showed this, from Maleficent’s magical healing of the trees to the organic looks of many of the fae creatures. I loved that their weakness was iron, that there were so many different kinds of fae, that some of the promotional material for the film included things like Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child,” and I loved Diaval too, particularly the way in which his transformations always echoed his original bird form – brilliant touch.
Aurora herself was also beautifully linked to nature. As one of the Disney princesses typically associated with nature (mainly due to her forest creature friends), I thought the way this film ran with that idea was fantastic. From her immediate acceptance of the odd, unexpected creatures of the faerie world, to her demonstrated love for the creatures of the human world, to her (gorgeous) forest themed bedroom and flower crowns, Aurora’s connection to nature really cemented her for me as the ideal choice to bring together the fae world and the human world.
For me, this vision connects with the heart of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale as well. The sleeping princess is frequently seen as a representation of the sleeping spring beneath winter, the new life waiting to be born. To have Aurora be the catalyst to forming a new world in which both fae and human can exist together fits this model in a lovely way.
It can nearly go without saying that Angelina Jolie was fantastic – nearly all the reviews focus on this and I can’t disagree. She was elegant, otherworldly, mischievous, vulnerable but powerful – Jolie clearly relished playing the role and it shows in every scene she’s in.
The way the film changes the iconic kiss is, of course, also a subject of much interest to many reviewers. I loved it and thought it was perfectly appropriate – and am, I admit, a bit annoyed with the constant assertions being made that it’s just a copy of Frozen‘s depiction of true love between sisters. What reason are we giving filmmakers to show different kinds of love when the first major subversion of the typical male-female “true love’s kiss” after Frozen is treated like old news, or worse, read as a copycat attempt to ride on Frozen‘s coat tails? True love can be so many different things and I welcome this new trend to show that.
I also really like that the traditional male hero wasn’t demonized here either. Prince Phillip doesn’t have a big role but he’s not a villain either. Tellingly, my boyfriend’s verbal reaction to the arrival of Prince Philip was something like “NO. Stupid boy is going to ruin EVERYTHING” … and he could have done that, easily. I thought the same thing. That would have been an easy way to go for the filmmakers, right? Prince Philip turning out to be a bad guy, undermining the feminine connection of Maleficent/Aurora, yet another male representation of destructive/anti-nature humanity, etc. etc. – but they didn’t do it. Philip is a good guy, who really likes Aurora and doesn’t even want to kiss her without her permission when she’s asleep. He has nothing to do with the fight to take down Maleficent. He appears at Aurora’s coronation ceremony, not as a rival for attention or to undermine it in any way, but simply as a guy in the audience who has a crush on a girl who he thinks is really awesome. That’s pretty great.
Interestingly, Frozen does do a bit of a weird male demonizing thing, by making Prince Hans the surprise bad guy, but also tries to make up for it at least a little with Kristoff?
Of course, the film isn’t perfect by a long shot.
For me, the main problem is that, structurally, the film doesn’t really work as a fairy tale retelling. It’s… sloppy, for lack of a better word. There are numerous plot holes, poor character development/motivation, and several other problems. And the narrator. Oh my gosh, I hated the narrator! Completely superfluous with a syrupy sweet old woman voice, her lines about telling the “real” story are what ultimately dooms the film as a successful retelling. Because the film ends with the redemption of Maleficent and the kingdoms being united through Aurora, there’s no reason at all for there to have been any other version of the story. The original Disney tale should not exist because who would tell the story that way? There’s no reason to do so. What makes a story like Wicked work is that you can see how the “winning” side twisted the witch’s story in order to make her the evil witch they needed her to be, even though there was far more to her life than they allowed to be told. Considering the happy ending of Maleficent, why would anyone paint her as a straight villain, particularly in Aurora’s lifetime (as in the film she’s supposed to be trying to set the record straight?)
Does that mean that I wanted Maleficent to die? I don’t know. I certainly loved the character and didn’t want her to die but I think at the very least the human kingdom should have wound up believing that she did. I’ve spoken with numerous people about how the ending could have gone differently and most people seem to agree that there was something off about it. It wasn’t a bad ending, just ever so slightly the wrong ending.
Other strange choices annoyed me as well – for example, why change the names of Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather and then alter their personalities and looks so much? They were overly silly when they didn’t need to be.
I was also pretty disappointed with the music. The original Disney film’s genius move of weaving in the music of Tchaikovsky’s ballet was so spot on and gorgeous that the score they came up with for Maleficent just felt… dinky to me in comparison. Why not use at least a little of that same music? Iconic scenes felt incredibly different – and not as powerful – without it to me. The exception, of course, is Lana Del Rey’s brilliant cover of “Once Upon a Dream” that played during the credits. Her haunting vocals combined with the way the film shows the early interactions between Maleficent and Aurora almost as dreams (note how Maleficent puts Aurora back in her bed each night after their adventures) puts a completely different, fantastic spin on the classic.
But seriously, all that said, with stuff like this going on, a mainstream fairy tale film with a powerful, complex, magical female lead is pretty fabulous and needs to be supported regardless of these problems. For me, they are small indeed when stacked up next to the good things about the movie.
A Few Other Thoughts:
As Gypsy pointed out at Once Upon a Blog, it’s interesting how so much of the press for the film has centered on the history of the story itself. People want to see how this new version of the story matches up with older, more horrific versions of the tale. What’s even more interesting to me, however, is how little research has gone into many of those “histories.” There’s so much more to this tale’s history than what typically gets said and it drives me crazy to read things like “the first version of the story is Basile’s “Sun, Moon, and Talia”” or, far worse, “Perrault’s “La Belle au bois dormant” is the original “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale…” Gah!
[For the record, "Sleeping Beauty" goes back at the very least to a medieval French text called Perceforest, a text that we know was largely cobbled together from various oral stories: it's very likely that the "Sleeping Beauty" tale of the text, "Troilus and Zellandine," was one of the stories pulled from actual folk narratives. How old those stories might be or where they're from, however, we have no real way of knowing. There are several other medieval versions of the tale as well.]
Here are a few articles on the film I liked:
- “Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty: Where Did She Come From?” – Some interesting notes from the always thoughtful Heidi at SurLaLune – I don’t agree with everything but some good food for thought for sure!
- “Disney’s Maleficent: Romancing the Devil” – A cool article overall, despite the fact that they call “Sleeping Beauty” itself a myth. I do really like the connection to Demeter and Persephone that this article makes though (a connection that’s actually quite supported by folklore scholarship.)
- “Maleficent: The Pleasures and Perils of the Revisionist Fairy Tale” – I definitely don’t agree with everything this writer says but there are some good things here (plus an appreciation for the original Disney Sleeping Beauty film, huzzah!)
- “Maleficent and the Rise of the Grim Fairy Tale” – A good article on the trend of going “dark” in fairy tale films – obviously a big interest of mine!
Thanks for reading this far – I know this post was crazy long but I hope you enjoyed it! I certainly enjoyed writing it :).