Maleficent: Feminist Fairy Tale

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, c/o Walt Disney Company.

It shocks me that this movie was made by a major Hollywood studio. Not because it’s feminist, because we’ve already seen Frozen reject a number of popular tropes, but because this movie is about a woman’s recovery from something horrific.

Frozen is, at heart a sweet movie about the love between two sisters. Dark elements are hinted at, about men being untrustworthy and the difficulties in coming of age under special circumstances but it’s a very happy movie.

Maleficent has a happy ending but it delves into something far darker.


Maleficent couldn’t have come along at a more opportune time, as our society is in the midst of a long discussion about the way women are treated. It’s a discussion that erupted after the shootings in California in which a young man went on a rampage because he hated women for not having sex with him and hated the men who were lucky enough to have sex. See #yesallwomen.

Maleficent opens in a wonderful, eye-popping sequence with young Maleficent flying all over the land of the enchanted, an obvious metaphor for childhood innocence. She’s wide-eyed and happy, innocent, but never stupid. Into the land comes a young thief that she saves from punishment. They became friends, then lovers as they grow into adulthood.

But Stefan, the young man, isn’t content. He started as a thief and he’s intent on winning a kingdom. He leaves with the intent to make himself king of the land of humans. Though sad, Maleficent grows up strong, happy, and the protector of the enchanted land, beloved by all. Hers is a good life. This is not a scorned woman. This is a happy, mature person.

But Stefan re-enters the picture, apparently comes to apologize. What he’s really come to do is kill her, as he gets to marry the king’s daughter  and thus win the kingdom if he does.

Maleficent trusts Stefan, she has no reason not to trust him. Stefan can’t quite kill her. So he does something else that robs her of power. He drugs her and rapes her. Oh, not as we’d call it in the real world. What he does is a symbolic rape: he cuts off her wings. He cuts off her freedom. He wrecks her hope and faith in the world.

It’s a moment of such cruelty that it takes your breath away.

At this point, I wondered where the movie would go. Having established Maleficent had valid reasons to hate the new king, Stefan, and to curse his firstborn, Aurora, I expected a descent into villainy with a small redemptive moment at the end.

I expected a revenge fantasy or the tale of how one woman couldn’t be saved but the next generation could.

I expected Prince Phillip to play some sort of part in it.

None of that.

There are scenes of action, of course, as Stefan and his men try to find and kill her and the usual silliness with the fairies who raise Aurora. But the second half of the movie is taken up mostly with the growing bond between Maleficent and Aurora.

Instead of it being about her revenge and madness, the story becomes about Maleficent’s recovery.

And that’s where  it’s genius.

Jolie has to carry this part of the movie. Because becoming emotionally involved in the growing bond between Maleficent and Aurora entirely depends on Jolie’s ability to convey several emotions at once. Her facial expressions, sharpened to a point with make-up designed to feature her cheekbones, show off the smallest flicker of emotions.

And carry it she does.  While on the surface, Maleficent is all about her anger, underneath, it’s all about how she comes to love watching over the little girl she calls “beastie,” the little girl who’s not afraid of her, the little girl who calls her, unironically, her fairy godmother.

And, reminded of kindness, Maleficent tries to break her curse. She wants healing for herself and for the innocent she made her victim. At this point, I really expected Prince Phillip to have something to do with this, especially as the movie recreates his and Aurora’s first meeting from the original Sleeping Beauty.

Would Maleficent set it up so Phillip would fight her and then Aurora would fall in love with a stalwart hero? Would his true love’s kiss awaken her?

No, again.

It’s Maleficent’s own heart breaking at her failure to save Aurora that instead saves them both. After her heart is restored through compassion, Aurora helps Maleficent get her wings back, a moment that has symbolic resonance for all victims. She can fly once more.

After, Maleficent is even willing to let the feud with Stefan end. But he’s too lost in his anger and guilt to survive any longer. He’s the cautionary tale of who she could have become. Phillip does show up at the end, hinting at a possible romance in the future for him and Aurora but one that will be built over time on trust.

And so, in the end, Maleficent not only survives her ordeal but to regains love and compassion. It’s a very happy ending, not only of survival, but ultimate recovery.

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