Make no mistake, Maleficent is a revisionist, feminist retelling of a familiar princess story, one of THE princess stories.
When I was a little girl, my favorite Disney movie was Sleeping Beauty. When I look back on this now, the only possible reason I can think of for loving it so much was that Aurora was, to me, the prettiest of all of the princesses. With her long cotton candy hair, her tiny waist and her generally sweet disposition, somewhere in my tiny brain it registered that if only I could be like her maybe someday my prince would come. This was before I fully realized the legacy of what past Disney Princesses left behind them. Now that the Disney princess thing has become its own industry, we’ve all started to look more closely at the princesses — who they were, what they stood for, what options they were given in various films. In almost all of them, even when they were given stuff to do beyond wandering through the forest and singing with butterflies, there was that ever-present man, or prince, destined to come along and complete them.
However, with Frozen last year and Maleficent this year, Disney has all but shattered their own legacy. Instead, they have done what few other studios has the balls to do: make the women matter on their own, without a male protagonist looming over them. More than that, make the relationships between women as important, if not more important, than the love interests by which they are usually defined. This is revolutionary stuff in an industry that rarely deviates from the formula.
Why should they deviate? The formula works. Hollywood choices are driven by the box office. Studios aim films mostly at the target demo, males 18 to 35. The film critics are mostly male in that same general age group. Box office success ensues. But the Twilight franchise and then the Hunger Games franchise showed the studios that women could be ticket buyers too if Hollywood started making movies for them. No, not rescue fantasies but movies where women did more than parade around as decoration.