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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.

31 Comments on this Post

  1. First and foremost great piece, and while I did not hate the movie (I would probably give it a C+) there are two things that I liked:

    1-Jolie in the role, she was great fun, and carried the movie

    2-Wolverton’s script is solid, and the message is great, I do like what she does with the character at the end.

    My problem’s with the film center on Wolverton’s essential lack of development with the other characters. I know you do not always need to develop everything, but I felt as though Sharlto Copely’s Stefan was too one note, are the psycho manipulative men who do things without motive, yes, but I would have like to see some mild evolution into his need for power other than trying to steal something once. Although I guess they did show him as a bit of perturbed youth, I would have liked to see more. I wanted more Aurora being nurtured by Jolie, more “beastie” connections. I feel this was rushed too. I also hated the way the three fairies were represented, I am not sure where that neglectful baby sitter role came from, but I almost feel as thought they were pointless, and they had them in the film for branding.

    My other problem was the direction, having Stromberg direct who is all about the visual took away from the deeper meaning in the film for me. Stromberg is all style and no substance. I couldn’t help but think Catherine Hardwicke Lynne Ramsey or Nikki Carro would have been better for this film. I am not saying that woman needed to direct this film, but I think it would have added more the substance. Disney is consistently putting these overly visual men at the helm, and that’s where they lose me.

    At the end of the day I was entertained, and I liked the film more than the other revisionist Disney films but there were flaws.

  2. I literally watch Maleficent four times starting this past Thursday. I admit, the first time I saw it, I felt a little bit off, but I can’t deny the strength and allure of Angelina Jolie’s performance in the film. There’s something off about the flow and certain CG scenes. I don’t know how to describe it to make sense of it, but I know it doesn’t feel and look right at times. Interestingly enough, on the subsequent times that I went to view the movie, those flaws didn’t bother me anymore. But, don’t get me wrong, I still sort of sense them in the film.

    I can care less for the critics. In my eyes, the film should be in the high 80s on Rotten Tomatoes. The only thing I concur with the critics 100% is that Angelina Jolie’s performance is jaw-dropping and magnificent. She’s so elegant even when she’s malevolent. She’s so fierce and beautiful. And, ironically, she can be truly benevolent even with those sharp horns and cheek bones!

  3. Oh, can I just say how this movie really pushes that PG rating limit?! I mean, come on, just call it PG-13 already. And I understand how that change can influence audience who goes to see it, but still.

  4. I already had a friend bitching that (spoiler) the ending was too much like Frozen. We can’t have two movies that deal with different kinds of love? What the hell people?

  5. @Jesus

    My and my husband said the exact same thing. The end especially with Jolie caught in the net we were really disturbed by. I bet they got a PG rating on the basis that they didn’t show any bloodshed.

  6. Christophe

    A few remarks:

    1. Who would’ve thought Twilight would actually end up having a positive impact on film history?

    2. Glad you’ve finally joined the wild side: “F*** the critics/bloggers/Academy! I like what I like and I’ve got my reasons!” Let’s remember some of the greatest and most visionnary films in history were grossly underrated, if not universally panned, when they were released, so it’s a really good thing as a film observer to remain unfazed by the mass mind and try to look at the big picture instead of joining the herd.

    3. Let’s also remember that in religious texts, fairy tales, legends,… the reason women are often shown to be subservient to men, or bearers of evil when they’re not subservient, is that they’re not real-life women in real-life stories, but representations of spiritual principles in metaphorical stories, that is representations of the feminine and masculine principles in all of us, and how the interplay between them can either run or lives amok (unbalanced relationship) or create harmony and peace within ourselves (balanced relationship). It’s a tragedy that humanity so often misunderstood those stories and rules, and used them as justifications to enslave women.

  7. @Joey,

    In Frozen, it’s true love between siblings instead of a man. In Maleficent, it’s true love between a maternal love to a daughter (even if it’s not by blood) instead of a prince. I don’t think it’s the same at all. I think it’s absolutely refreshing to have these types of true love to shown and told. I’m sick and tired of the man saving the day.

    And in regard to the PG-rating, yeah, I find it’s funny and kind of irritating that if it is indeed true that bloodshed is a determinant of whether or not to pass the limit of PG rating, then it’s pretty silly to me. What about all of those … jabbing… poking… throwing sharp objects … I think the movie is even more violent than the cartoon.

    Oh, well, regardless, I love the movie. :)

  8. Thanks Sasha for that review. I completly agree with you. This movie is a response to the 1959 classic and Angelina is perfection. I hope she gets some award recognition. This is the best female performance of 2014 so far.

  9. Hi Sasha,
    WONDERFUL piece. I had avoided all reviews before seeing Maleficent and left my first screening at odds with the ending.
    However, on reflection and watching Angelina interviews where she explains the character, I fell in love.

    I’m so glad it’s done well at the box office. I saw it again yesterday, and going in with this new perspective that it does for Sleeping Beauty what Wicked did for Wizard of Oz helps.
    Also, it’s a beautiful story, that true love is not necessarily a man.

    Fabulous piece!!

  10. Mikael

    Excellent piece

  11. I’m not one to leave comments but I had to for this. Wonderful piece, I’m glad to see that someone “got it” and that women supported this movie. And sasha your last piece on Jolie her treatment and critics was much appreciated as well.

  12. Talie

    I was surprised by the message of this film, but of course, I knew Angelina wouldn’t want to be part of anything too frivolous. I agree the scene with her wings being burned off was painful to watch. It was like date rape, he even drugged her with the drink! Lots of interesting messages there. Powerful.

  13. Bryce Forestieri

    I was going to see. In preparation I read La Belle au bois dormant, Dornröschen, and saw SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959) for the first time in well over a decade (I liked it very much, but once the reviews came in saying Jolie was good, but they just didn’t get the character I lost all interest. I mean revisionism is good and all, but you have to keep certain essence or might as well do something different and call it something else, you know as in ‘original’. I usually don’t a shit about what critics say, but this time, for some reason, they just deflated my interest, which in retrospect, was just a fragile, overinflated kind of sentiment. I’ll wait for it to hit Redbox. I prefer to give my American dollars to this week’s female-centric offering, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS — I keep hearing it’s “AMOUR for a new generation”.

  14. Bryce Forestieri

    (I liked it very much)*

  15. I enjoyed the movie overall and liked parts very much. My main issue is with how it ended. I dont know how, but I wish the ending wasnt such a HUGE departure from the Animated classic. Everything going on in the first 2/3 of this film could have coincided with action going on in the 1959 film, loved that (Maleficents adolescence, her looking in on Aurora over the years, stuff with her raven). But then, the climax was completely different. I found that very jarring. Perhaps re-watches will lessen the WTF impact I had. But yeah, I was all aboard til the ending; which just completely changes the story. Still would recommend it for sure.

  16. Corvo

    “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?”

    This is an Oscar site and you were pretty happy that critics (not audiences) gave the Oscar to 12 Years a Slave instead of Gravity (the one audiences wanted to win).

  17. SallyinChicago

    AJ’s next movie is Cleopatra. I hope she puts on some curves for that role.

  18. Kelly

    I loved this movie.

    There were obvious flaws here and there (technically), but my biggest pet peeve was with the three other fairies. Why were they so stupid and crazy? I get they have to be different from Maleficent, but they were just not fun. And certainly not funny. In my opinion, the screenplay wasted all of Imelda Staunton’s talent. And she can make a mountain out of a mole hill, so to speak, so it wasn’t that she just had a small part. She had a small, shitty part. Ugh. Ok rant over.

    I thought there were so many great moments about this film. First, I think the story line was really awesome in regards to Maleficent, Aurora, and I like what they did with the crow! That was really cool. The scene where Stefan takes her wings was just incredible and amazing and spoke volumes even though there was no (or very little) spoken dialogue… it was just blasting. My favorite scene was when [SPOILER] Maleficent realizes she was the person who possessed true love’s kiss, even though it was completely obvious to the audience leading up to it. I actually cried. It was so touching.

    I just loved this film. Jolie was great, and kudos to her for making this film.

  19. I agree completely about the way critics are not upholding their duties when it comes to this film. The general conversation surrounding Maleficent bothers me so much. People seem so insistent upon focusing on the fact that critics were divided on this film versus the fact that a studio like Disney has been consistently releasing films about and aimed at women.

    When was the last time a woman was given the opportunity to open a summer blockbuster on her own? I think the film undoubtedly had somewhat of a built-in audience, yet Disney chose to hinge their marketing around Jolie, not the film’s ties to Sleeping Beauty. I mean, the success of this film only further proves that a good number of the the few remaining (consistent) box-office stars are women (Jolie, Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock).

    A $70 million domestic weekend is proof enough that audiences are willing to consume stories where women are the focus. If the critics aren’t going to make this the focus of the conversation, who will?

  20. Joey, The Hunger Games movies focused mainly on Lawrence. Salt, The Heat, Bridesmaids released during the summer. I know it’s not a whole lot but we’ve seen a lot more in the last handful of years than before, which is a victory. What’s sad though is the actresses you’ve listed may be consistent money makers but they don’t pick the best projects all the time. I’d say Lawrence the best working actress who can juggle independent and blockbuster/franchise cinema and not deliver a bad performance or star in a bad movie…The Last House on the Left notwithstanding :P

  21. Aragorn

    Angelina Jolie somehow getting an Oscar nod for her performance would be icing on the cake.. I know I know, that wont happen but one can still wish:)

  22. SallyinChicago

    @Aragorn: there are other AWARDS besides the Oscars. There’s GG,Critics, National Review. I’m sure if she’s as good as everyone says (I’m going tomorrow) then she’ll get some recognition. Who needs the stinking Oscars anyway?

  23. ‘once the reviews came in saying Jolie was good, but they just didn’t get the character I lost all interest. I mean revisionism is good and all, but you have to keep certain essence or might as well do something different and call it something else, you know as in ‘original’.’

    Bryce, don’t be so ridiculous. How about the notion that the original Sleeping Beauty character was shit, and that this one is so much more than that one? Isn’t the whole point of this article that the critics are the ones who didn’t get it? And you don’t have to keep a certain essence of shit. You can do whatever you want with your new film.

  24. Bryce Forestieri

    “Bryce, don’t be so ridiculous.”

    Tying not to

    “How about the notion that the original Sleeping Beauty character was shit,”

    I liked it a lot, it’s an animated character in a Disney movie intended to make a profit, and for kids to be able to see it in the 1950’s! So if you consider it a product of its time and the context, it’s a brilliant characterization in such small amount of time — in general the whole film exhibits significant artistry you don’t see this days in anything coming out of Disney. Animation is always stunning, ornate, meticulous and never feels repetitive, always baroque (but good). And all the music is direct or rearranged from Tchaikovsky, wut. Maleficent is so good that she and the three old ladies are actually the main attraction and carry the whole show — because Sleeping Beauty and the Prince are actual assholes, and jeez, their respective fathers are insufferable (both would fit well in the Pixar canon). Their scene almost killed it for me.

    “and that this one is so much more than that one?”

    I haven’t seen it, but the film is about her so “much more” is logical. Whether it’s “more” of a good thing I can’t tell yet.

    Isn’t the whole point of this article that the critics are the ones who didn’t get it?

    Might as well be case. American critics don’t often understand/can’t appreciate animation so they might not really know what they’re talking about when they say “this is not really Maleficent” so yeah you’re probably right — but that’s what they’re saying, that she’s a wounded puppy in this film. Bad me for listening to them though.

    “And you don’t have to keep a certain essence of shit. You can do whatever you want with your new film.”

    I mean you can’t have a movie with Maleficent saving president Kennedy from being shot can you? Why call such a thing Maleficent? I’m all for different approaches in style, mood, explore the characters further. I happen to enjoy all three THE WIZARD OF OZ, RETURN TO OZ, and OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, and the three couldn’t be more different from each other, but Oz remains ‘the great bullshitter of them all’ in all three films, I don’t care for a legit Oz because that’s not Oz.

  25. Hi Kane! I did consider mentioning The Hunger Games in my original comment as another film that featured a female-driven narrative that also happened to be a blockbuster, but I don’t think it fits in with the discussion about Maleficent for a few reasons:

    1) It is a YA adaptation, meaning it has a pre-established audience regardless of who is in the lead role, which means its success cannot be attributed to its lead. Maleficent had a connection to another beloved Disney classic working in its favor, but there’s no way casual affection for an animated version of Sleeping Beauty translated to $170 million in worldwide ticket sales all on its own.

    2) The Hunger Games was not initially marketed on Jennifer Lawrence’s appeal, simply because she wasn’t a superstar when the first film was released. Sure, she had Winter’s Bone (an Oscar nomination) under her belt, but she had no proven track record as a box-office draw. The film could have starred anyone and still been successful. A true star-driven film relies on the power of its star’s ability to transcend the role and bring people in to see *them* and the movie. Jennifer Lawrence’s presence in The Hunger Games merely coincided with the already-proven success of the book series. It would have taken off with or without her.

    Maleficent is a film that rested almost entirely on Angelina’s shoulders. It has always been her film to carry. Disney marketed Angelina Jolie over Maleficent, whereas Lionsgate initially pushed The Hunger Games over Jennifer Lawrence.

    Lawrence’s career undoubtedly skyrocketed after the first Hunger Games film, but the franchise created her, whereas Angelina Jolie undoubtedly created the success for Maleficent.

    The same things I’m saying about Maleficent can be said about Salt–again, because Jolie was marketed by herself as the sole reason for people to see the film. The public seems to like Angelina much better when she’s the sole draw. Even The Tourist (which wasn’t an abysmal box-office failure) faltered a bit, and I think it’s because Jolie’s presence wasn’t compartmentalized from other aspects of the film. She’s sort of an all-or-nothing star when it comes to attracting audiences; if the focus is on her, audiences are intrigued. She doesn’t work well as an accessory.

  26. Joey, you’re right about Jolie being marketed over Maleficent, the film, but that only cements my point that Jolie never really needed any help (I think I said this in the other article).

    Also you’re #2, I yield. Lawrence wasn’t a proven box office star as of yet regardless of her Winter’s Bone nomination (which I feel is her best performance). She had already played Mystique in X-Men: First Class but I digress. Hunger Games is a YA novel so the studio was focusing on the book’s fan base. I will say they casted the movie wisely, obviously.

  27. Jorge

    This proves only thing Angelina is the biggest star of the world even she is not making movies wich it hurts because everyone wants to see her more in the screen she is an amazing actress and she could make more movies and a better ones before jlaw and bullock she was the first option for gravity ,Serena and the second one after Hathaway for silver lining so … Haters gonna hate but this is just another proof about what Jolie is even the tourist still manages to get over 200 millions worldwide

  28. Yes, Kane, I agree that the casting was perfect, and without The Hunger Games (and material that really played to Lawrence’s strengths and she seemed to be really invested in) she wouldn’t have an Oscar (or the career she currently has).

    I don’t think you’d said anything about Jolie not needing any help (perhaps I missed it? Forgive me if I did), because I agree on that point. Jolie didn’t benefit from Maleficent, Maleficent benefited from Jolie. That’s a movie star, and that’s not how the roles throughout Jennifer Lawrence’s career have worked thus far.

  29. People be cray. I love Angelina and I loved her in this role … But this is not the type of role that gets an Oscar nom.

  30. SallyinChicago

    @Jesus: I literally watch Maleficent four times starting this past Thursday. I admit, the first time I saw it, I felt a little bit off, but I can’t deny the strength and allure of Angelina Jolie’s performance in the film. There’s something off about the flow and certain CG scenes. I don’t know how to describe it to make sense of it, but I know it doesn’t feel and look right at times. Interestingly enough, on the subsequent times that I went to view the movie, those flaws didn’t bother me anymore. But, don’t get me wrong, I still sort of sense them in the film.

    ^^
    I enjoyed the film, but I got the same feeling as you did. Something about the flow of the movie. It would flow smoothely and then stop and then flow. And I got confused when Malecificent “reversed” the spell. And if the wings were clipped, we never saw where the King PUT the wings to know they were still around until near the end. The storyline needed tightening up.
    The CGI didn’t bother me too much, but the fight scenes were poorly staged and edited.

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