Tuesday, August 12, 2014

“This Fairy’s Tale is Different”: How Disney’s Maleficent Gets It Right

“This Fairy’s Tale is Different”: How Disney’s Maleficent Gets It Right



Aurora: All the other fairies fly, why don't you? 
Maleficent: I had wings once, and they were strong. But they were stolen from me.

©Walt Disney Pictures 2014
Maleficent:  [My wings were] so big they dragged behind me when I walked.  They were strong.  They could carry me above the clouds.  They never faltered, not even once.



When I first met Maleficent, she was the arch
©Walt Disney Productions 1959
nemesis of Sleeping Beauty.  The 1959 Disney animated feature was a favorite of mine as a young girl.  I remember the fairies three who took care of her, and the sheer beauty of Aurora as she grew.  My best recollection is the day her guardians decided to create a dress as a birthday present for
©Walt Disney Productions 1959

her, one fairy wanted pink, the other, blue and such a battle of wills resulted in a beautiful dress that combined the two.  




Maleficent was scary, and shrewd, she wanted and needed it seemed, not beauty but power.  

©Walt Disney Pictures 2014
It's never satisfactorily explained exactly why she needs to curse a newborn, just that her feelings were hurt that she wasn't invited to the christening...which, honestly, seems more than a bit ridiculous.




What is interesting to me in these films, these
Angelina Jolie 2014 and Disney artist rendition 1959
©Walt Disney Pictures 
stories, is that there are always two women, one older the other young, and both are held in opposition to each other.  The older woman is often cast as jealous and angry, hungry for beauty, desirous of power.  While the
Elle Fanning 2014 and Disney artist rendition 1959
©Walt Disney Pictures 
younger is innocent, humble, beautiful and virtuous.  The older woman uses magic often for evil and there is, in the shadows a handsome and excellent prince who will fight the old shrew for the hand of the young maiden and all live happily ever after.




It is such a fairy tale, isn't it?  Because then we see what happens as we get older as women, we're cast in the role of the envious, unhappy and troubled woman past her prime.  There is no gentility or compassion, no kindness or humanity normally ascribed to women.  (In fact, in these tales usually all the mothers are dead.)  For Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella--the young women in question were always at the mercy of first, an older woman trying to take something from them, and a young man to liberate them.

But something has changed of late and it's not such a bad thing.  When Maleficent came to the big screen in 2014, the press was mixed, critics universally panned the film citing excessive script rewrites and a broken storyline.  All were enthralled by Angelina Jolie's portrayal but they pitied the actress on such poor material with which she had to work.  This was probably wasted on Jolie who remarked that she was very moved by the script.

The story is the redemptive tale of Maleficent—this fairys tale is different.  Why she became a legend of terror and how she manages to save herself and her would be victim.  But Disney began to change this narrative even before the appearance of Maleficent--with the runaway hit of Frozen.
©Walt Disney Pictures 2013



The story, if you are the only person in the world who may not know it, is about two sisters, Elsa and Anna and how the former's magical ability to freeze anything with her hands leaves her isolated and terrified of her own power.  As Elsa gains the throne of her country, her secret cannot be held any longer and she runs away, offering young girls everywhere a chance to sing along to her freedom anthem of "Let it Go," which allows her for the first time in her life to live as exactly who she is.  

In the end though, the villain wanting power is a suitor from another kingdom who positions sister
©Walt Disney Pictures 2013
Anna the cheerful and kind and unmagical, against Elsa.  That climax needing true love's sacrifice to release an ailing Anna from an icy curse, comes from Anna first protecting Elsa from harm and Elsa then showing her true love for her
©Walt Disney Pictures 2013
sister.  The girls both survive and thrive and a new standard is set for a fairy tale.  It may be the first time in Disney history anyway, that the prince is not needed and that the girls can save themselves.

Perhaps the enormous popularity is due in part to this essential lesson, that to be young and a woman can come at great cost and sacrifice but also great opportunity and privilege.  And maybe there is something that resounds in our young women about that fact.

But into this new space of possibility, old narratives can be reclaimed.  And it is brilliant to begin again with arguably one of the most terrifying Disney villains to date: Maleficent.  A retelling of Sleeping Beauty, a tale based on Grimms Briar Rose.


Aurora and Maleficent. One light and one dark.  One innocent and one evil.  
©Walt Disney Pictures 2014
One young and one old.  And yet...  it is not so simple.  Even though Aurora and Maleficent are placed in opposition to one another, their circling around and about one another ends up twisting into an infinity point of meeting.  One cannot exist without the other.  

Maleficent, it is revealed, is a fairy of incomparable power.  In fact, because she was the strongest of them all, she was chosen as the enchanted woods protectoress.  An immortal, her vulnerability lies in her wings.  Strong and true, giving her freedom, and
©Walt Disney Pictures 2014
offering her a firm and solid identity—but they are also her vulnerability.  She is strong because of her wings, and because of her belief in them.  In this tale, as in Frozen, it is the madness of men, not women, who ruin peace and take power.  For Maleficent it is Stefan, Auroras father, who cares more for the throne of the adjoining kingdom than the fairy child that he once said he loved.  After Maleficent defeats the reigning Kings attempt to overtake the forest, Stefan comes and courts her, drugs her and using the one substance known to hurt fairies—iron—takes her wings by force. 

The scene is brutal and the denuding of Maleficents power is very much a metaphor for rape.  Her cries upon waking, realizing how she has been shattered,
©Walt Disney Pictures 2014
her lack of physical strength all show a soul in torment.  And her madness, darkness, rage from the attack can be understood.  What is harder to understand is her more than token interest in the baby Aurora, who would have died under the care of the inept three fairies without Maleficent
s intervention.  What happens then, the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora becomes the heart of the film, and the rebirth of Maleficents character.  Together they forge ahead, create a surrogate mother-daughter bond, and the fairy godmother of Auroras imagining doesnt turn pumpkins into coaches, or offer pretty gowns, or even the promise of a true love, instead she shows her self-reliance, courage, respect of the things around her, gives her unconditional praise and love and asks for nothing in return.  When Aurora leaves her after learning about the curse and her identity, Maleficent goes to her, tries to make amends finding a young Prince, and yet—true loves first kiss doesnt break the enchantment. 

Maleficents love does.

“I was lost in hatred and revenge, sweet Aurora.  You stole what was left of my heart and now I have lost you forever.  I swear to you, no harm shall ever befall you and not a day shall pass that I don’t miss your smile.”
©Walt Disney Pictures 2014
It is her love, an honest one, a pure one that brings Aurora back and gives her the strength to reign and to love in return.  Maleficent gets her wings back thanks to Aurora, who shatters the glass between Maleficent and her power and offers that power right back to her, without any fear
©Walt Disney Pictures 2014
of retribution or that Maleficent will usurp Aurora.  It is the younger woman who offers Maleficent restoration and healing.  Together they are stronger than apart.  Take that Brothers Grimm.

The reclamation of this narrative of women, fear and rescue has been a long time coming.  It is extraordinary to see a woman of great depth and skill, reclaim her humanity despite what has happened to her to bring her to the very edge of madness.  Women can be powerful, but they can also be nurturing, they can be older but intuitive and discerning in the advice they can offer another generation.   There is no need to fear growing older because the wisdom and compassion inherent in that process is a welcome one.  Maleficent cedes her throne to the "new Queen" without any qualms
©Walt Disney Pictures 2014
about her own power.  She does not feel threatened nor does she feel alone.  In giving power, she retains it.  And that's a wonderful lesson for all of us.

Next up in the Disney reimagination is Cinderella's story.  The trailer only shows a glass slipper, which in and of itself can represent so much, but now having seen where they want to go, where they want to lead young women (and men for that matter, because a woman who knows  her strength will demand a partner who not only can acknowledge it but understand his own), I look forward to it.  And to Walt Disney whose own personal mantra was to "keep moving forward," I can say only say brava; these stories are tales whose time has certainly come.