Film Review: Maleficent (2014)
Occasion: In-flight movie
A retelling of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent focuses on the titular character’s origins, motives and relationship with King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and his daughter, Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning).
A human boy, Stefan, wanders into the fairy-inhabited Moors. There he meets young Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), and the two strike up a friendship. As they grow older, Stefan gives her what he calls, “true love’s kiss”, but ultimately Stefan’s ambitions prove to be stronger than his affection for his fairy companion.
— This article has a lot of spoilers. Sorry. —
When the dying king promises the throne and the hand of his daughter to anyone who kills Maleficent, Stefan uses their friendship to get close to her, drugging her. She passes out and he cuts off her wings, bringing them back to the king as proof of her death, and claiming his prize. Maleficent awakens, realizing what has happened, and feeling the pain of her violation, cries out. She can barely walk, her body so sore from her loss, she has to support herself with a branch.
Maleficent is broken; raped by her childhood friend.
The Sleeping Beauty story has included a rape narrative before. A version dating back to the 1500s included the rape of the sleeping heroine by a king so overcome with her beauty, he couldn’t help himself. Still sleeping, she gives birth to twin children, one of which suckles on her finger, pulling out the splinter which had caused her slumber, finally awakening her. Later she marries this king and – apparently – they live happily ever after.
But rather than giving in to her rapist, Maleficent vows revenge. Her pain darkens her and the Moors she lives in. As in other versions of the tale, she curses King Stefan’s infant daughter, Aurora, adding that the curse can only be lifted by “true love’s kiss”, a spiteful nod to Stefan’s betrayal.
But anger and hatred don’t help her overcome her grief. Unlike other rape revenge fantasies which climax in blood-lust in their search for satisfaction, this film proposes that revenge does not bring happiness; it does not allow the victim to move on. Instead Maleficent finds comfort in watching little Aurora grow up, eventually sharing the secrets of the Moors and introducing her to the fairy-folk.
Ultimately, Maleficent rises above the problematic Disney ‘Prince Charming’ trope. No man can save Aurora; in fact it is men who are at the root of her curse. The nice prince, whom Aurora had only met once, and briefly, could not possibly have been her true love. It was improbable for him to be the one to save her. Instead, it is Maleficent’s motherly kiss, filled with tenderness, sadness and regret, which finally lifts the curse. True love after all doesn’t have to come from ‘Prince Charming’; it can be found in the hearts of good friends and family also.
It isn’t just Aurora who was rescued by true love. Maleficent too was saved from falling into the darkness of her revenge and hurt, given back her wings by the very girl she had cursed. The two see past their pain and realise that despite an age-old rivalry between fairy and mankind, Maleficent and Aurora have the power to end the violence and bring peace to their kingdoms, and themselves.
According to Box Office Mojo, Maleficent sits at number 5 in this year’s top 10 grossing movies in the US, in the company of Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America, The LEGO Movie, Transformers, X-Men, Dawn of Planet of the Apes, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla and 22 Jump Street. Maleficent is by no means a perfect movie; character development and the ‘whiteness’ of it all still smacks of Disney and Hollywood in general. But Maleficent’s ‘chicks before dicks’ message is a refreshing one in the current story-telling climate, saturated with male leads saving the day, and peppered with hetero-romantic narratives.
Like all good fairy-tales, there is a moral to the Maleficent story. But it isn’t that the right man will come along some day if one is only patient, or that “those whom fortune favors, find good luck even in their sleep”. Maleficent’s message is much more significant in an age in which women compete with each other for male attention and criticize each other for how they look or behave (see fat-shaming, slut-shaming, and any women’s magazine with a “hot or not”, “celebrities without make up” or “bikini bodies” spread).
Maleficent seeks to remind us of our sisterhood, of the things we can achieve when we work together. It implores us to overcome our differences, put aside our rivalries and grievances, in favor of finding peace and happiness.
Directed by Robert Stromberg
Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville