CAUTION: This review contains SPOILERS. Proceed with caution!
After seeing Maleficent, I walked out of the theater feeling hopeful, inspired, and empowered. There were a group of teenagers walking in front of me and I overheard one of the young ladies say “I think I’ll stick with the cartoon version,” while another said “I hope they don’t ruin Cinderella too” (to be released in 2015.) I was taken aback and confused by these comments given the strong message of feminism, female empowerment, and female unity in the film. These themes were so prevalent in the film that I was surprised it came from Disney–an entity that, to an extent, has a track record of perpetuating the damsel in distress trope. On the contrary, Maleficent is a far cry from the traditional gender roles of Sleeping Beauty (1959.) So, one might understand my dismay at deducing that this young girl would essentially rather watch a movie with 1950s-era gender roles than a film that paints a complex and empowered view of women.
Early in the film, Maleficent is drugged by a childhood friend/love. She falls into a deep sleep in which he, deciding to have “mercy,” cuts off her wings rather than kill her in order to gain the favor of the dying king so that royal succession might be passed to him. Maleficent wakes up and immediately discovers her great loss. Angelina Jolie gives a chilling reaction in her anguished, pained screams–a portrayal that echos a woman in our own world who may have been taken advantage of. Maleficent’s former friend not only betrays her, but takes her symbol of power and strength.Rather than feel shame and self-loathing, Maleficent lets her pain translate into malice and revenge. She becomes embittered and even mentions at one point in the film that she does not believe true love exists. She saves a raven’s life by turning him into a man who does her bidding. She creates a wall of thorny roots around her newly claimed fairy kingdom and shuts the kingdom of men out–literally. And rightly so. As an audience, we sympathize with Maleficent.
Later, when her lost-friend-turned-king has a celebration for his daughter’s birth–Maleficent crashes it. She curses the child as revenge against the king and takes pleasure in him begging for mercy. She concedes, partly, in driving his betrayal home by saying the only way the curse can be broken is with true love’s kiss (one that he had bestowed upon her at upon her sixteenth birthday.) Of course, Maleficent doesn’t believe in true love, so she essentially dooms this innocent child to death-sleep when she turns sixteen.
Maleficent begrudgingly watches over young Aurora, who is raised by three bickering but good hearted fairies. As Aurora grows, Maleficent takes note of the girl’s kindness, curiosity, and compassion for the creatures of the wood. Maleficent allows Aurora inside the fairy kingdom…and in turn begins to melt her bitter heart.
When Aurora learns about the curse and Maleficent’s identity, she rushes home to her now crazed father. She is promptly locked in a room where she inevitably escapes, pricks her finger, and falls into a sleep–the story we all know. The story we don’t know, however, is that Maleficent tries to reverse the curse before Aurora’s sixteenth birthday. But she fails and knows she must come to terms with the fact that she has already destroyed the one person who was able to mend her heart. Here is where the old trope of the prince saving the princess is thrown out the window.
Prince Philip, who Aurora briefly met on the road, is rushed to the sleeping beauty by Maleficent. She watches silently as the three fairies press him to kiss Aurora. But it feels all wrong to us because Philip is essentially a stranger–and he says as much too. But he does it anyway, perhaps highlighting the notion that it was a little weird for that to happen in Sleeping Beauty in the first place. Aurora does not wake up and Philip is thrown out of the room. While the fairies set about finding another man to kiss Aurora, Maleficent says her goodbyes to her “little beasty.” As a mother to a child, Maleficent kisses Aurora’s forehead and is ready to leave when–yes–they actually did that–Aurora wakes up! Such a simple remedy to an old trope, and yet amazing at the same time. To have this twist come from Disney astounds me because it essentially says that Aurora did not need a man to save her–but a woman!
Chaos soon ensues as the King attacks Maleficent. Aurora runs away and happens upon a cabinet containing Maleficent’s wings, which appear to be alive. Aurora, realizing that Maleficent has been more of a parent to her than her father ever was, frees the wings. Maleficent’s wings are magically adhered back onto her body and badassery commences. The message of female empowerment and unity is embodied in Maleficent and Aurora helping each other against the king and his soldiers. Neither of them need men to save them or mend them, as they have found that in each other and in themselves. This message, that perhaps the teenage girl at the theater didn’t understand, was that women must stop “cursing” each other, i.e. stop body-shaming, slut-shaming, gossiping, etc. and start supporting and nurturing each other.
Maleficent not only passes the Bechdel test, but also succeeds in portraying a real woman who is not “too feminine” (princess) or “too butch” (evil queen,) but rather a woman who is a complex entity like all of us are! What a simple concept this actually is that most of Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand.
This all being said, Angelina Jolie is an absolute beautiful badass as Maleficent and is perfect for the role. In fact, we have Jolie partly to thank for the outcome of the film given her influence as Executive Producer. Having that position in itself is a win for females in the movie industry, as the number of women in power positions behind the camera is low. Jolie’s second Directorial project is Unbroken, which comes out December 2014. With amazing source material (seriously, read that book!), one would be hard pressed to believe that Jolie would not receive high accolades as Director. Perhaps the success that she will no doubt receive from her involvement in front of and behind the camera in Maleficent will encourage more people to see Unbroken. This outcome is something Jolie could benefit from given the remnants of bad press from her days of being vilified as a “husband stealer,” despite her humanitarian work and large family. In fact, a lot of women may still dislike her because of public perception and gossip. This situation in itself is why women need Maleficent and everything it stands for.