I remember when I saw the first trailer. It was during an award show I think. There was something about the way Angelina Jolie perfectly embodied her that captured me. A cryptic Lana Del Ray cover of “Once Upon a Dream” played in the background. I remember thinking to myself, Oh I need to go see this move. But I didn’t. Every time I tried, something came up. Fast forward a couple months to when I found some free time and was finally able to sit down and watch this movie. When it was over, I couldn’t have felt more fulfilled.
Maleficent is essentially a re-framing of a classic Disney story. Classic Disney stories usually go as follows: there’s a princess, she falls in love at sixteen after about two days, she gets saved by the prince. Roll credits. But this film was so different it didn’t even feel right to have the Disney logo on it. Firstly, it took away the damsel in distress aspect from the women and made them the active in their own stories. Secondly, they made a villain a hero, too – which is a direct reflection of how women are. We are not good or bad. We’re both. We are not strong all the time. We’re complicated. We’re human.
You see, many of the false ideas of gender and gender roles that we twenty-somethings and over have are because we grew up with Disney movies. We are taught from a young age that women are meant to be rescued and men are the ones who do the rescuing. We are taught that true love happens in an instant and that it will save us from everything. That marriage is the ultimate goal and the end of our story as women. That’s the happily ever after. But nothing about that is a reflection of real life.
This film chose a different ending. It was Frozen-esque in that Maleficent ends up being the one to save Aurora with true love’s kiss. I love this plot change because the original, and pretty much every Disney princess movie, is dishonest in this way. True love doesn’t always happen in an instant and women don’t need to be saved by men on white horses. Sometimes we save each other. Sometimes we save ourselves. Love can exist beyond romantic love and the bond Maleficent and Aurora have in this film is so beautiful because of its complexity. How often are the ones we love the most the ones we hurt the most? How often do we choose not to disclose the truth to the ones we love because we think it’s for the better? How often are our most rewarding relationships the ones that are the most unlikely? The truth is, these things happen a lot. And these instances were beautifully demonstrated in this film and part of what makes it so intriguing. The best storytelling is the unusual and the complex.
Essentially what Maleficent did was take this classic story and make it real. Well, it still had a fantastical element of course, but the movie itself is really one giant metaphor. Disney changed its own story from a traditional, stereotyped, and damaging version to a thought-out, abnormal, feminist one, which is exactly what we need to be doing. We need to grow and change, too. We need to be examining these stories and ideas we were brought up with and update them. We need to realize that forced expectations, particularly gender roles, are damaging. That the idea that everyone is either good or evil is misinformed. That people who are different from us shouldn’t be cast aside, but welcomed and respected. That even though we believed something to be set in stone and socially accepted as “the way things should be,” everyone has their own truth. There is always a gray area. No one can define you but you. You make your own identity.
In addition to being its own metaphor, the film also contained many within. One thing I love about re-makes that tell the villain’s story is that it allows the audience to see motive. It allows us to explore why people do bad things and give humanity to even the seemingly most horrific of creatures. What I like about what they chose to do with Maleficent’s story is that they didn’t have her go dark because she was heartbroken over a man. Well, not entirely. A man does leave her, but for years she goes on, hurt, of course, but continues to have happiness and joy in her kingdom. It isn’t until she has her wings cut off – the very essence of her stolen, the very thing that makes her who she is taken – that she turns to evil. He robs her of her ability to trust and to love because of his vile act of hatred. This scene was speculated and confirmed by Jolie to be a metaphor for rape. Her reaction in the film is so raw and devastating. You can feel her pain. It’s a horrific moment and truly gives insight to why her world went black and the need to seek revenge from her offender.
This film is a great piece of feminist art because it has moments like that. It goes beyond just having a “strong, female lead.” It explores the complexity of womanhood, morality, and relationships. It takes negative aspects of our culture and issues women deal with at horrific rates and shows you how damaging they are without really showing you. And it breaks down the typical Disney format that the original aligns with closely. This film didn’t hold back with its message and I hope that message was received by the millions who saw it. Because at surface level, this is a movie about fairies and humans. It’s filled with CGI and gorgeous visuals. The characters are familiar. It’s easy to get swept up in the fantasy of it all. But if you take the time to go deeper, this movie is incredibly important. In fact, its importance can even be summarized in a single piece of voiceover from the end of the movie: “the story isn’t quite as you were told.” And that’s the truth. Fairytales have been feeding us lies for as long as we can remember. So, let’s make the story right. Because unfortunately, our once upon a time has already been decided. But happily ever after? That part is still up to us.