Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014)
There are often good moral lessons to be learnt in fairy tales. For example: be wary of strangers (Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel), don’t tell lies (Pinocchio, The Boy Who Cried Wolf), it’s what’s on the inside that counts (The Ugly Duckling), don’t be a cocky wanker (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Gingerbread Man), and sometimes it’s better to just invite bitches to parties to save yourself from added drama (Sleeping Beauty). But fairy tales – and of course the versions we know often differ from the original stories – can also include quite questionable morals. Jack and the Beanstalk encourages stealing. The Princess and the Pea suggests that anal-retentiveness will win you the guy, and since when has that EVER happened in the history of the universe? And let’s be honest, Beauty and the Beast and The Frog Prince may both contain messages about not judging a book by its cover, but they also sort of encourage bestiality. So that’s awkward.
Earlier Disney ‘princess’ films unfortunately stayed consistent for a long time in respect to a) the stupid notion that a woman needs a man to save her, usually by “true love’s kiss”, even when they’ve only known each other for about five minutes (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid) b) the presence of a one-dimensional villain who is often – but not always – female (same examples as above), and c) the absurdly unattainable waist circumferences of its protagonists (every Disney movie made ever). While we certainly still have a long way to go regarding the impossible beauty standards that infiltrate Hollywood and Disney, it is refreshing to see that we are finally starting to see more feminist representations in these films. In Disney’s most recent animated hit Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee, 2013), they do away with male saviour bullshit and openly poke fun at notions of love at first sight. They also eliminate the evil wench stereotype, instead putting a new spin on original source material The Snow Queen, with Elsa far from a villainous queen, but instead the protagonist that we root for. There are mild villains in supporting roles, but they’re not ridiculously one-dimensional.
Sharing many similarities with Frozen, Disney’s live-action Maleficent retells the story of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of ‘evil’ fairy, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), who curses the young Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) to eternal sleep. In Maleficent we learn that she is not evil, but rather a woman who wants revenge, and one who is unfairly made out to be the enemy of society. It is Aurora’s father, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who is the villain of the piece now, however even he is shown to be far from black and white. Some further development on his character would have elevated this film higher, but it was sufficient. I won’t go into the specifics of the events that led to Maleficent’s curse upon the princess, but let me tell you, she had reason to be pissed. Maleficent further challenges the old theme of being saved by “true love’s kiss” but that’s all I’ll say here.
It’s easy to forget that Angelina Jolie is actually a really talented actress, and not just a woman who smiles seductively and adopts lots of kids. There was a risk of Maleficent being played too over the top, and the trailer is misleading in this respect. I wouldn’t go as far to say that it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen this year, but she was very good. The younger Maleficent (Isobelle Malloy) was gorgeous, as was Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora, who could have easily been sickeningly sweet, but was a joy to watch. The ‘good’ fairies, played by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple (my favourite), were fun to watch and provided the bulk of the laughs. They were somewhat reminiscent of the witches from Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega, 1993), but less scary and with better names (how great is the name ‘Thistletwit’?!)
Maleficent was visually stunning, and exactly what you expect from a fantasy/epic fairy tale film. Rich, deep colours, lavish production design, and lots of sparkly magical fairy dust to keep the kiddies (and let’s face it, me) happy. The score was well-matched – I could have sworn it was one of the Harry Potter composers, but discovered it was James Newton Howard, composer of The Hunger Games trilogy. Regardless, it worked well. Add to that Lana Del Ray’s cover of ‘Once Upon a Dream’ from the original Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959) in the end credits (a much creepier version), and the music was perfection.
I personally thought the film was a bit too violent for kids, but it seems I am in the minority. There are battle scenes where people get killed, but then again Disney kills off characters all the time – Gaston, Mufasa, BAMBI’S MUM! So I suppose kids are used to all the killing – preparing them for the realities of life or a bit concerning? I’m not sure. There is also a key scene that Angelina Jolie confirmed was meant to be symbolic of rape, however children won’t pick up on this – I barely did. It’s possible the young’uns will have nightmares about Angelina Jolie and her creepy cackle (like I did with Angelica Houston in The Witches and Joanna Lumley in James and the Giant Peach) but it’s unlikely considering that she isn’t actually a real villain here. I am happy that the kids of today aren’t getting tricked into thinking that life is so black and white, and I hope that we continue to see films like these that challenge the previous stories we’ve been fed. There’s still room for further growth (especially around the leading characters’ waists) but we’re on our way.