BY DENNIS R. UPKINS
Let us tell an old story anew, and we will see how well you know it….
Like many people I had my misgivings when Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie, was released in 2014. To date none of the live action Disney fairy tale films took. Most of the adaptations have been lackluster at best and derivative at worst. The possible exception may be the upcoming Mulan film which looks very promising. So one can imagine how shell shocked I was (and still am) to discover that the Maleficent films are as cerebral as they are ethereal and haunting.
Inspired by the Disney animated classic, Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent tells the story from the Sleeping Beauty villain’s perspective. More than that, the film is narrated by an older Aurora. Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom known as the Moors. Maleficent rises to be the land’s fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her cold. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces a battle with the invading king’s successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realizes that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom – and perhaps to Maleficent’s true happiness as well.
The genius of this movie series is that it operates on multiple levels. By acknowledging the legend of Sleeping Beauty in the movie, Aurora the Narrator breaks the fourth wall and brings the audience into the film. This is a testament to the power of storytelling. This is also a masterful technique and a showcase of true artistry on the filmmakers’ part.
As one of my art school professors used to reiterate: character is story and story is character. For Maleficent, one of the biggest character defining moments was the tragedy and betrayal she suffered from childhood best friend and paramore, Stefan. In the film, Maleficent is drugged and her wings are cut by Stefan so he can win the ailing king’s favor and succeed as ruler.
This scene was significant for a number of reasons. As an allegory for rape and sexual assault, the Disney fantasy film sparked much discussion on social media. More than that, the scene pays homage to Charles Perrault’s 17h century version of Sleeping Beauty. In this iteration the king assaults his new wife and it addresses society’s habit to vilify women without any plot or motivation. Alluding to the horrors of rape and sexual abuse in a Disney flick is virtually unprecedented. The sanitized fairy tales are often a disconnect for those whose childhoods weren’t Disneyesque: Two loving and married parents and an upbringing sans abuse or trauma. So having a fairytale with a complicated protagonist connect with many viewers who have survived similar ordeals, means that on some level the viewers had a Disney fairytale for them.
However, Maleficent wasn’t the only lead with a complex story arc. After all, a heroine or villainess is only as good (or bad) as her adversary. In the first film audiences watched Stefan, the sweet impoverished boy with political ambitions allow greed and treachery to twist him and turn him into a mad tyrant. Maleficent’s conflict with him was as much stopping King Stefan’s tyranny as it was gaining her proverbial power back (and reclaiming her wings) and saving her soul from bitterness, hatred, and vengeance.
In Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Queen Ingrith proves to be an even greater threat than the first film’s big bad. Like Stefan, Ingrith’s origins are mired in poverty but also the death of her brother for which she blames the Moors and the other Fey. Like Stefan, Ingrith maneuvered her way to the crown and discreetly planned a military campaign against Maleficent and the Moors. She made the destruction of the magical race her obsession. This point was emphasized when Ingrith reveals that in the five year gap since the events of the first movie, she was responsible for distorting the legend of Maleficent and twisting the narrative where the heroine of the tale was the villainess. After all, give the people a monster to fear and hate and they can be easily manipulated into supporting tyranny. This harkens back to these films operating on many levels and how stories wield power.
Ingrith also has the added bonus of learning from Stefan’s downfall and planning accordingly. The Queen proves herself to be as cunning, ruthless and formidable as Maleficent. In many respects she’s Maleficent’s equal. Finding an actress with the presence and poise to rival Angelina Jolie is no simple task. Michelle Pfeiffer meets the challenge with ease. Also, Pfeiffer and Jolie going to war in a dark fantasy is the raison d’etre I didn’t know I needed in my life.
The Queen proved to have Maleficent’s number and would have succeeded had it not been for the last minute arrival and intervention of mysterious new allies who change film’s landscape.
After being ambushed and severely wounded in a trap orchestrated by Ingrith, Maleficent discovers that she’s not the only one of her kind. Enter the Dark Fey: Winged, horned humanoid beings like Maleficent, the exiled Dark Fey were nearly extinct and forced into hiding because of human oppression. Among them is the militant Borra who favors open conflict with the human world. Their leader is the wise and regal, Conall.
Played by the immensely talented and dreadlocked Chiwetel Ejiofor, Conall is in the film for all of five minutes but not before hitting virtually every Magical Negro trope: The wise Black mentor to the white female protagonist; dreaming of a peaceful coexistence with the human oppressors in the spirit of a watered down version of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; making the Noble Negro sacrifice and dying to protect the white protagonist. Seriously Disney, what the hell? From Conall, Maleficent learns that even among the Dark Fey, she is unique and is the last direct descendant from the Phoenix which is why her magic is unmatched. Both Borra and Conall believe Maleficent will end the conflict through peace or annihilation.
War, peace, vengeance, justice, anger, love, hatred, healing; these themes not only comprise the external story arcs, but also Maleficent’s internal journey of self discovery. While Maleficent displayed great power and morphed into many forms, she truly came into her own when she allowed true love to heal her and make her evolve. A few examples: saving and befriending Diaval; Maleficent becoming a devoted guardian of her surrogate daughter, Princess Aurora, brokering a truce with the human kingdoms.
The film series reiterates that contrary to popular belief, romantic love is not necessarily the highest form of love, i.e. true love. True love can be a budding relationship between young star crossed royalty. It can also be a special bond between parent and child. True love can break curses, derail diabolical schemes, and defeat and dethrone evil queens.
While the second film wraps up the series sufficiently, there’s definitely an opening for one more sequel (possibly further exploring Maleficent’s origins) to bring franchise full circle.
In the end, my kingdom was united not by a hero or a villain, as legend had predicted, but by one who was both hero and villain. And her name was Maleficent.
Ultimately, the magic of Maleficent and why they take with unlikely audiences is the theme of true love and all of us being deserving of it. Be it survivors of trauma and abuse, members of a marginalized people, or Disney’s most iconic villainess/anti-heroine, everyone is entitled to a happy ending.