It’s Good to Be Bad: Maleficent
I always thought Maleficent was the scariest and the most fascinating of all the Disney villains. So from the moment I saw the first trailer at Catching Fire back in November, I was thrilled that she was getting her own movie. It turned out to be so much more than I expected.
In recent years, Disney has made a refreshing departure from their standard princess movie to a new generation of tough heroines like Merida and Elsa, who determine their own destinies, fight their own battles, and want more out of life than to marry a prince. (If you have not read it yet, you should really check out Hannah Gomez’s Hub review of Frozen.) In Enchanted, we even saw Disney poke fun at some of its own tropes before sort of reinforcing them. Maleficent goes a step beyond to do something it has never done before. It takes one of those classic princess movies and turns it on its head, not just by telling the story from the perspective of the villain, but by putting ALL the power in the hands of the women.
It is almost impossible to write about the themes of this movie without being spoilery, but I am going to try. Even if you have a Disney-obsessed seven-year-old in your house like I do and have seen all the extended sneak peaks on the Disney Channel, you probably have not seen much that deviates from the 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty. And I am going to try to honor that because I really want everyone to go see it and be surprised…and delighted, and terrified, and maybe even moved to tears.
Here we meet Maleficent as she was long before we first saw her at Aurora’s christening party at the beginning of Sleeping Beauty. Beautiful, powerful, and fierce—the guardian of the fairy realm—she is no tame Disney fairy, but an old-school faerie. So of course, Disney would have to create a vibrant female character like that and then turn around and make her evil. Well, not exactly.
It always confused me that anyone would get so upset over not being invited to a party that she would curse an innocent baby and then spend the next sixteen years obsessing about it. When placed in the context of Maleficent’s backstory, the reasons all become clear, even understandable. After an unthinkable act of betrayal leaves her body maimed, her heart broken, and her soul twisted, Maleficent takes revenge by placing a curse on the child who was the product of that betrayal. Three fairies disguised as peasant women take the infant princess into the forest, hoping to thwart the curse by raising her as their own in hiding. From there, you know the story—and yet you don’t know it at all.
Like Frozen, Maleficent also plays with the idea of what “true love” is and what it is not. There is little romance to be found here, but there is definitely true love—a healing, transformative, redemptive love more powerful than the strongest magic in the world.
I planned on being a bit more objective and critical, but I just can’t. I loved every single thing about this movie. The visuals are breathtaking, especially the richly imagined fairy world of the Moors. Angelina Jolie is so brilliant in the title role I’m not sure anyone else alive could have played it. The whole time I was watching, I kept thinking, Yes, this. This is the version of this story I want my daughters to grow up with.
If you are looking for more twists on “Sleeping Beauty,” there are plenty of YA literature adaptations out there that each take on the fairy tale from a different perspective.
Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross (check out my Teens’ Top Ten interview with the author here) is a deliciously creepy contemporary version featuring characters from other fairy tales. Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose weaves elements of the fairy tale into the story of a Holocaust survivor. In A Kiss in Time by Alex Flinn, an American teen traveling in Europe inadvertently awakens the sleeping princess and her kingdom–after three hundred years. Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley is basically the Brothers Grimm version fleshed out into a novel with a fully developed fantasy world and an unexpected protagonist.
Apparently, some controversy has grown up around Maleficent, and a lot of people out there saw the movie differently than I did. What did you think?
—Wendy Daughdrill, currently reading Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson