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Maleficent: How Disney is Reshaping its own Princess Legacy, Giving Back What was Taken

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.

As if to punctuate this point, the trailers before Maleficent featured a trailer for Transformers. If you want to know what kind of films Hollywood likes to make? There you go. Macho man at the center, pretty helpless blonde girl who needs protecting, toys from the target demo’s childhood that were menacing to them in their imaginary world now brought to vibrant life. Legos, comic books, toys — it’s a boys life, all right. They never have to grow up. But recently, Disney is changing the possibilities of what kinds of films might start to change the box office dynamic.

Maleficent is not an evil woman embittered by jealousy and rage seeking to destroy Aurora — she is a fairy queen who lives in defense of the Moors and all the creatures who live there. That world, her world, exists almost in direct opposition to the world where humans live. Early on in the film, Maleficent befriends Stefan, a young peasant boy with dreams that he may one day rule the kingdom. But in order to ascend to the throne, he must prove to the dying king that he’s able to defend the realm. The royal authority is threatened by Maleficent and her powers so Stefan slashes off her wings. In so doing, Maleficent loses the one thing that defines her as a fairy, her source of natural freedom, her identification of self. That is what corrupts her power to pull her toward wickedness, and that is what motivates her to put a curse on the young Aurora (Elle Fanning). Stripping her of her wings is filmed in such a fashion that it resembles a sexual assault, or even could be interpreted as genital mutilation — taking away power, rendering her helpless. Her rage stems from that violent act — not spurned love.

If the story didn’t evolve from there, Maleficent might be just your run of the mill “fairy tale,” but it does evolve, quite beautifully in fact. Maleficent, despite her desire to rob the king of something as significant as the thing he took from her, is softened by the good cheer and loving heart of Princess Aurora — again, not defined by her beauty necessarily but by her willingness to love. That suddenly turns this story into one where women protect women one another rather than tear each other down — which is what Sleeping Beauty and many of the past Disney princess stories were really about: jealousy.

Part of the reason Maleficent succeeds as well as it does must be credited to Jolie’s performance. Jolie has finally learned to harness that smoldering sexuality and self-assuredness she’s shown in flashes throughout her career. Here, she is really funny for the first time ever. She delights in being bad, toying with magic and silly humans. She is comfortable in the role of leather-clad dom, to be sure, but it is the more tender, vulnerable moments that really elevate this performance. The way she navigates the unexpected affection for Aurora is one of the more surprising aspects to the film. It is Jolie’s best performance to date.

Though you’d never know any of this from many of the critics on the web and on Twitter. It’s a mess, they declared. The movie falls apart, they lamented. It doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be! One actually told me, “go ahead and waste your money” to see this film.

This reaction is more telling of the demographic that now covers film news than it is about the film itself. Maleficent is entertaining to audiences overall (earning a Cinemascore of A), and is absolutely a worthy effort to be applauded, celebrated, appreciated. More than anything it is yet another moment for most of us to step back and take a good long look at how movies are rolled out now. If those critics kept anyone from seeing Maleficent, shame on them. That is not their job. That can only lead us to the inevitable conclusion that Hollywood should only make movies they approve of, that meet their own special list of criteria. Please don’t ever let it be so that filmmakers make films for critics and/or bloggers. They make the movies that are supposedly for audiences, right? Isn’t that the whole point of making movies, especially movies like this one? At least here, when the families go in droves to see this film, small children will get the enormous benefit of seeing women treated as actual people, something I can’t say about the majority of films this community of critics approve of.

That Angelina Jolie successfully opened the movie, that it is going to help raise the awareness of generations of young girls to see that their stories really do matter. Girls will now see that a woman is important beyond the man who rescues her, and that makes Maleficent one of the best stories, and best films, of 2014 so far. The doors are being opened. Who chooses to walk through them and who chooses to keep them closed will separate those who willingly live in the past and those who reach for the future.