Bulletpoints: Maleficent

I loved many things about Maleficent and rolled my eyes at many others. Some rambly bulletpoints because I can.

  • Sleeping Beauty is one of the best of the classic Disney fairytales to adapt because it is presented to us in the form of a book. We come to Maleficent (those of us who have seen and remember the original) with a sense already of the story as something told.
  • Maleficent gives us two countries, side by side. One of them is populated by “people like you and me”, says the voiceover, making me wonder as it always does if I’m a person “like you and me”. The other country is populated by communists.
  • I don’t know why Maleficent is so much bigger than the other fairies, or why she flies around graciously telling the other residents of the moors what a good job they’re doing, if there’s no hierarchy in this country.
  • Meanwhile, the King of the other country claims to have promised his people he’d conquer the Moors. Perhaps it’s because I have no honour but I don’t get why this is such a problem. Is he worried that he won’t be king anymore if he doesn’t fulfil his electoral promises? I don’t understand the political systems of these countries, is what I guess I’m saying.
  • It’s with patchy films like this one that I’m most grateful that the bulletpoint format doesn’t require me to come to conclusions. This film does some things so well, and others so very badly.
  • Maleficent befriends and falls in love with Stefan, an ambitious young man who gives her “true love’s kiss” before drugging her and cutting off her wings in order to be appointed the king’s heir. Hurt and angry, she seals off the Moors and settles down to wait and plan her revenge. When Stefan and his new wife (who has more screentime in this than in the original and is still barely present) have a child, she curses the baby, throwing “true love’s kiss” in Stefan’s face as the only thing that can save the child. This is the point at which the scene diverges from the 1959 film, to which it is otherwise faithful—and I have to wonder if the role of making the curse breakable is given to Maleficent as part of her redemption.
  • Instead of spending years looking for the child, Maleficent instead spends years watching her, occasionally saving her from the effects of the “good” fairies’ (i.e. collaborators with the people who tried to invade their country) incompetence at parenting. Eventually the two women meet, and grow to care for one another.
  • One of the things the original does better than the new one is Aurora herself. A thing that I find annoying about even new!feminist! Disney is the wide-eyedness of its heroines—and I mean this literally. When Frozen (a movie I mostly really liked) came out, it was pointed out that Disney’s recent animation style demanded that female characters all be tiny with tinier hands, huge heads and even huger eyes. Aurora has rMaleficent Aurora 1elatively normal sized eyes, and it’s not even obvious what colour they are—they appear dark for most of the film, though in the scene where she awakes from her enchanted sleep we find that they’re blue. She’s allowed to look knowing, to be amused by her fairy godmothers in ways that don’t involve tinkling laughs, to have, when singing, quite a deep voice. And in the film’s final scene, you get the sense that she and Philip are thoroughly enjoying the fact that they know what has happened and their bewildered elders do not.
  • I think this is important. Because of all the classic fairytales Sleeping Beauty is among the worst in terms of the lack of agency it gives its heroine. She’s a baby, then sixteen, then unconscious; then a man she doesn’t know kisses her and somehow this is enough to wake her and have her live happily ever after. In some versions, as Sady Doyle notes here, she is raped and only awakens after she’s already had children. The 1959 movie doesn’t entirely fix any of this, but it does have Aurora and Philip meet and actively choose one another (though Aurora hasn’t exactly had much opportunity to meet other young men). Even in the trance-state in which Aurora succumbs to the curse (and I’m amazed this didn’t give me nightmares as a child) she isn’t entirely robbed of agency—just before she reaches out to prick her finger on the spindle you can see her come to herself. One of the things that makes the 1959 Philip work (and I do genuinely enjoy new!Philip’s gormlessness) is the sense that he, like Aurora, has the measure of the powerful adults around him. When this couple are both present and conscious, you can imagine them as allies.
  • Maleficent uses this sense of children who know things also, though it does so mostly by making every adult who isn’t the title character comically incompetent or entirely absent. The three fairies who raise Aurora should clearly not be trusted with a child (does Juno Temple always play characters who could conceivably be called “Thistlewit”?); Stefan goes from power-hungry and obsessive to power-hungry, obsessive, and completely falling apart; his wife is absent. Aurora is aware of Maleficent’s presence when her guardians are not; she also knows instinctively that she is safe with her. She figures out that the woman she’s been visiting every night (which is such a good use of the “Once Upon A Dream” thread) is the evil fairy of whom she’s been told.
  • Aurora is also intolerably twee—as Maleficent recognises, and is played for humour more than once. From Smiley Baby and Cute Toddler she grows into the sort of person who calls people her fairy godmother (Jolie’s “ … What.” is one of the high points of the film) and who adorably has mud fights with trolls. She’s nauseating, but you can see why someone who has literally raised a wall of thorns around herself might also see her as new and bright and grow to love her. Which is all very well except
  • In the early scenes of the movie when everything is still good and the moors are still a place of fullcommunism and rainbows, when Maleficent flies around spreading sweetness and light and telling the other crcommunism rainbowseatures what a good job they’re doing, like a royal visit from Madeline Bassett, she’s nauseating as well. This is the perfect state of affairs that Stefan’s violation brings to an end, and taken in conjunction with Aurora’s character later, the film seems to position these traits as necessary to lovability. Meanwhile the adult audience and Aurora herself, at least, are learning that the opposite is true; that the decidedly un-sweetness-and-light adult woman is the one thing about this movie to love.
  • This will be a problem throughout. Jolie is at her best when she’s playing the villainess, whether caustic and funny or hurt and enraged; she’s particularly enchanting when she’s tormenting people. The moors are far more interesting when they’re dark and fertile and swamplike. Her redemption—protective, possibly maternal (though possibly not!) love, the institution of monarchy in the moors (wait, why?) is boring.
  • As far as I can tell, her evil!headdress is to wrap her horns in leather. Her battledress is leather trousers. Look, leather’s just really evil, okay?
  • In my headcanon Maleficent knows about the care and feeding of children because of the communal, it-takes-a-village-ness of the moors. Instead, we get the sense that even this scarred, hurt, angry woman cannot but love babies because babies. Which feels of a piece with the film’s discomfort with its title character’s anger, as well as with her evil. No, but she’s nice really! She likes babies! And rainbows! Even though we’re acknowledging that babies and rainbows are annoying! And so on. And yet there’s that wonderful moment when she tries to lift the curse and can’t, that seems to hint at rage and grief as the powerful, irreversible things that they are.
  • I think Jolie’s great in all her evil!scenes, but the best scene in the movie is one lifted almost entirely from the 1959 film; the christening sequence. Still so good.
  • I’d been warned in advance that the film had chosen to portray the theft of the wings as rape, and was consciously arming myself against that moment (one of things that recent debates around trigger warnings have done is to make me mindful of how I do this, and sometimes notice other people doing this). It still hurt a bit to watch.
  • Some of the strongest moments in this film take emotional beats, rather than plot points or lines, from the original. The thorns that come out of the ground to create a wall – around the Moors this time. The iron-spike-maze that Maleficent must walk through to get to the castle.
  • Maleficent is the latest in a series of Disney movies that very carefully signal their discomfort with the idea that hetero-monogamous love is the cure for all things. Brave has Merida escape the need to make a political marriage; Frozen has Anna happily paired off but has the act of true love that saves the day be between sisters; in Maleficent Philip’s kiss doesn’t work, and comes after he protests because he’s only met Aurora once and she’s unconscious.
  • That it’s Maleficent’s kiss that does wake her leaves the whole thing open to an obvious queer reading; particularly since soon after we learn that “the kingdoms were united”. Alas, this doesn’t mean what I want it to mean; merely that Maleficent has made the Moors boring again and handed them over to Aurora to rule, with her useless but very pretty prince.
  • It is still not as pretty as the original.

800px-SleepingBeauty_(2)Disney

8 Comments to “Bulletpoints: Maleficent

  1. Stefan and his new wife (who has more screentime in this than in the original and is still barely present)

    I found this utterly bizarre in both films. The 1959 version goes to the trouble of giving all the characters names, which is unusual in Disney fairy tale movies pre-Little Mermaid, but it’s almost belligerent in its refusal to name the queen. And it’s not as i the film doesn’t refer to her, but it’s always as part of the construction “King Stefan and the queen” – a phrase that is repeated many times, and yet still no one involved with the film thought the character deserved a name.

    But on the other hand, at least in the 1959 version the queen is still around at the end. Maleficent kills her off at some point in the sixteen-year interval. This is obviously done in order to remove a figure who could compete with Maleficent for Aurora’s affections, but it’s yet another way in which the film puts the lie to its obvious good intentions – the queen doesn’t even get to be a self-hating instrument of patriarchy, the way the good fairies sort of are; she’s just removed from the story. And it also draws attention to the film’s glossing over of what should be Aurora’s justified anger at Maleficent at the end of the story. There’s no acknowledgment of the fact that Aurora should be pretty conflicted about Maleficent, and her battle with Stefan – rightly or wrongly, this is the woman who cost her the life she should have lived, and her relationship with her mother, and Stefan is the only parent she has left.

    • The disappearing of the queen annoyed me, but this particular aspect of it hadn’t occurred to me. You’re right; the queen would have competed with Maleficent for Aurora, and this is a big part of why she has to be jettisoned (and it’s interesting that child- Aurora never says she wishes she had parents, considering this is Disney).

      It’s also making me think about an issue I’ve had with a lot of recent films that do one important female character–no one seems quite sure what to do with the women who aren’t the protagonist.

  2. Milton had a similar problem: good is dull, because it’s inherently conflict-free. No conflict, no drama; no drama, no fun.

    Did you read: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2014/07/loves-true-kiss-maleficents-complex-sexual-politics.html

  3. Outstanding points all. Sheepish to bring this up in refined company, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who has read Ann Rice’s reboot of he Beauty story. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sleeping_Beauty_Trilogy The New Yorker piece came closest…but I guess we’re supposed to pretend Rice’s version didn’t exist, right?

    • I’d never heard of the Rice version, so (dubious) thanks, I think? I hope the comments section of this blog will never again be considered “refined company”.

  4. This is great. I really didn’t expect much from the film because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Jolie in anything I liked or found worthy of even a reaction. But it took me by surprise how much I loved her in this, even if you consider that she doesn’t speak very much at all. (That “wot” was brilliantly done.) I was also unprepared for how much I felt like crying every time there was a close-up of Maleficent’s face, watching beasty. I don’t consider myself a “aww, babies! ” person, either, but you never know. It seemed to emphasise to me Maleficent’s profound regret for how she had turned out, how things had turned out.

    I also read the TNI piece before I watched it so I was expecting the scene and to understand it as rape; the anguished scream was hard to watch. But the thing about that reading is that it has its limits, too, in a way that bothers me–she gets her wings back in the end.

    The part where Stefan has the wings stored in a glass case, where he then sits and stares at it by communicating with the fetish object, produces his own version of the enemy, all speak of colonialism. The full communism bits are, as expected, weird–but there is a very “From each according to her need, to each according to her ability” thing about it. If you just stop exploiting less powerful beings for individual gain, ppl can live together or alone without wanting each other dead. Sounds nice, doesn’t it, kids? #smashcapitalism But Disney communism does seem to require a twee, earnest child praising what seem to be smaller beings for their efforts; can we ever be free of the enlightened, liberal (read: civilised, white) subject?

    • I can’t make up my mind how I feel about the rape thing, and I suspect the film does itself a massive disservice by making the analogy so explicit. I’ve seen comments from people who genuinely did not see it as date rape, but the drugged drink, made it impossible to see it as anything else. At which point it pretty much forced a viewer to examine what was being compared with what; in a conversation on twitter someone was talking about how uncomfortable she was with having what amounted to a disability being read as a rape metaphor. And she gets the wings back, as you say, and what does that suggest? And YES to the Stefan-and-colonialism reading, and I wish you’d write it.

      I think some of my resentment re. twee, earnest children may be that I tried to be one as a child, and either was not cute enough or no child is. I suspect some combination of the two, but I’m sure we can all agree that such children are cringeworthy.

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