Disney’s much-hyped new adaptation of the classic Sleeping Beauty fairytale steers the story away from the familiar dashing prince protagonist, focusing instead on the story’s supposed villain: Angelina Jolie takes wing as the powerful Maleficent. In the film, Maleficent is an intense, powerful woman who kicks butt as a fairy queen, but who hurts from the isolation of being, well, a perceived villain.
In case you’ve forgotten, Sleeping Beauty is a messed up fairytale. The pre-Grimm versions of this story include a roving king who does not stop at kissing Sleeping Beauty without her consent. He rapes and impregnates her. Sleeping Beauty, still unconscious, carries twin babies to term and delivers them, only awakening when one of the babies sucks the spindle from her finger. Newer, less shocking versions of the story helped set the archetype of the brave-knight-rescues-passive-damsel narrative. This is not a moral tale, exactly, and there have been many attempts to figure out exactly what Sleeping Beauty is supposed to be about. Disney—family-friendly monolith that it is—created the most memorable modern version when their 1959 animated film hit home that the story was really all about true, everlasting love. This new adaptation, Maleficent, furnishes a refreshing twist about forgiveness and redemption and how even the “good guys” can have nasty, selfish motivations.
When I was a little kid feminist, I dreamed about having a tough warrior role model. I wanted to grow up to be a ninja turtle, ideally Raphael. Raphael was sarcastic, funny, and prone to anger—characteristics missing from the female heroes of my youth. Now, even as an adult, as I watched Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent stand with proud wings outstretched against her enemies, I felt goose bumps. Years of non-violent philosophy aside, I want her to beat up the bad guys. It’s so cool! Do I feel this way because I’m a bad human? I think I’m a powerful female character junkie and I didn’t even know I was in withdrawal.
Right from the beginning, a gentle narrator explains that although young Maleficent looks like a human girl, she is actually a fairy. She’s a very strong fairy, possibly the strongest. She is the kind of fairy that looks just like a human child, if the human child were wearing an unsettling amount of makeup. The narrator continues to explore Maleficent’s beautiful homeland, the Moors, and the longstanding grudge between this enchanted land and the neighboring kingdom of men: Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom. For all the promise of backstory and explanation that we’ve heard about this Sleeping Beauty remake, there isn’t much background about why these kingdoms hate one another—other than that one is magical and green and the other is metallic and full of humans.
As the sum of all its parts, Maleficent is a downright fun film. First time director Robert Stromberg, shows high standards for humor, pacing, and astounding visuals. His previous work as a visual effects designer, production designer, and matte painter on Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, Avatar, and Pan’s Labyrinth leaves an obvious signature. This is the guy responsible for bright colors, exceptional visuals, and the impressively diverse assortment of magical creatures that populate Maleficent’s world.
The question hangs in the air, however: if there are so many diverse fairies in the Moors, why is the powerful, benevolent Maleficent always on her own? Her dearest friend is a human boy, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), from a nearby farm. Being that young Stefan is a greedy human, he strongly desires to be king. When the opportunity arises, he betrays Maleficent in order to become king.
Through this dark act, Jolie’s Maleficent hardens. When the betrayal becomes clear, she utters a single series of heart-wrenching cries and then becomes silent. Her resolve turns to stone. She is strong and forceful. She does not falter. Hey Maleficent! Now would be the time to reach out to your strong allies and fairy support system! Instead, she shoulders her grief alone and becomes isolated and furious. When humans are betrayed, it seems for the most part we need to mourn, receive support, and recover. Harm does not make me stronger. It makes me tired and sad. The same seems true for Maleficent, though instead of allowing herself sadness, she pours her pain into a productive vengefulness.
We’re getting a lot of these steely movie heroines lately. In the film version of the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen shoots her way through the second championship with barely any of the PTSD she had in the books. We’ve got Bella Swan’s chapter of whited-out time expressing/not expressing her grief in Twilight. This all makes me wish Sailor Moon would rush in to trip on herself, get food in her hair, and save the planet.
Maleficent, despite its violence, revolves around some good themes of forgiveness and the senselessness of war. In the end, enjoying Maleficent as a fiery warrior fairy queen feels like a guilty human pleasure.
Suzette Smith is a writer and illustrator living in Portland, OR. Of all the social medias, her twitter is best:@suzettesmith.