Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Disney's Maleficent -- Pure Girl Power Magic

[NOTE: There will be massive spoilers after I do the review part, but there will be an angry wall of asterisk thorns, so you'll know when to stop.]

I'm an unabashed Disney fan. Love the movies and the parks. And they've done some really great retellings and revivals of classics in ways that I've generally found pleasing. But nothing, to me, really compares with the truly awesome and inspiring redux of "Sleeping Beauty" that is "Maleficent."

For those who know me, let me say this: I am not being sarcastic; there is no dagger hidden behind this review. No bloody prick of irony. I promise on my black, ribald heart that I truly enjoyed this film and was actually quite moved by it. Both by the very different take on the story itself, and by the sheer guts it took somebody/somebodies at Disney to attempt such a radically and beautifully feminist retake on what is, arguably, one of the weakest of the original Disney classics and, frankly, a pretty horrible original tale from the Grimm Brothers' dank vault. As much as I never liked the original nor the Disney film, I loved this movie.

If you see it for no other reason, do so because of the 100% pitch-perfect casting of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent. I loved that she was cast as Lara Croft in the "Tomb Raider" franchise, but was deeply disappointed by those movies. She was great in them, but they basically sucked. In the case of "Maleficent," she's super, the writing is solid, the action is good and the story/message succeeds on at least two levels at all times, three if you count the frisson between the original and this retelling. There is a minimal amount of cheesy cuteness, mostly limited to the three fairy god-aunts who aren't horrible. Yes... we need Happy Meal toys to pay for these movies, so it's a fair exchange. If they'd had about two more minutes of screen time, they'd have been annoying, but managed to feel more "Rosecrans and Guildenstern" than Jar Jar Binks.

The king (Sleeping Beauty's Father), Stefan, played by Sharlto Copley was somewhat uninspired and blocky and I wished they'd gone for someone with a bit more... elan... for lack of a better word. He was serviceable, but I couldn't really fathom the "why" behind the casting when there are so many other folks who could have done better. To be fair, I didn't like him in either "District 9" or "Elysium," either. If you did, then you'll be fine with his take on the role here.

Elle Fanning was lovely and did what she was supposed to do, which was to make us all fall in love with her. They could have held back a bit on the glorious, glowing nimbus of hair and ripe, apple cheek make-up a bit... but we need those signals and the movie is ostensibly for kids, so there you are: she needs to look like a princess, even when hiding out in the woods.

Maleficent's steward/crow/dragon, played by Sam Riley, was a pleasant surprise. A little humor, a little gentle nudging, excellent special effects during transitions... he was lots of fun to watch.

Now... if you want to watch it without knowing basically everything about it that makes it truly interesting, stop here and go see it and then come back and either agree/disagree with me on the stuff below. This is your warning... Beyond this point, there by prickly spoilers.

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If you've ever studied folklore with any seriousness, you know that Grimm's Fairytales are full of sex, mayhem, psychological darkness and some truly heinous social shite that really didn't deserve to be handed down for generation after generation. Good writers? Sure. Sometimes. Important work in terms of the canon of western entertainment and culture? Of course. But, lord almighty, read any deeper than a wishing well and those are some weird, troubling messages down in the depths.

"Sleeping Beauty," or, as the Grimms titled it, "Little Briar Rose," is simply awful. Again, if you've done any exegesis of folklore (especially the Grimms), you'll know that it's chock full o' sexual symbolism. Go read the original (well, the translation) at the link above. It's short.

The message? In brief, the "curse" of the thirteenth fairy (the one in black) is, of course, the "curse" of menstruation. That horrible, ugly, filthy, burden that God has placed on the daughter's of Eve ever since she caused the fall of man. The curse arrives, of course, with blood and the arrival of adulthood. This curse sets up a wall of thorns that, for 100 years, protect the sleeping beauty from men who would claim her as their own. Eventually, the curse is broken -- interestingly, in the original, NOT by the kiss of true love, but simply be the odometer of time -- and the kingdom can go on about its business while the random hero whose timing was right gets to marry the princess and enjoy her post-thorny beauty.

Classic stuff. Girls as victims of nature and whim. Exploration as danger. The discovery of "women's work" (spinning) as the trigger for a fugue state between pure childhood and the sexual duties of a grown-up. Men -- even a random man whose only virtue is being there at the right time -- as the answer.

It's a crappy narrative from a misogynistic time that didn't deserve the effort the 1959 Disney film put into it. But it was free, public-domain writing for Disney to pilfer (that's another rant), and so we got a decent animated classic with a bit more meat on the bones, spruced up for the American audience of the time. But the central message was left largely the same, more's the pity.

Not so with today's "Maleficent."

So much better. So, so, so much better. So much more complex, so much more heart, so much more thoughtful and -- if I had a daughter -- so much more appropriate for a modern look at some of the themes treated casually and superficially (and sexist-ly) by the original. Here come the spoilers, kids...

In this version, Maleficent starts with wings. Great, big, beautiful wings that let her fly all over her the fae lands of which she is not the queen... but sort of the leading cheerleader. The kingdom next door is run by a king who's a simple, European flavor of conquering asshole, and he wants the moorlands (the faerie kingdom) for his own.

Maleficent, a girl at the start of the film, meets a young boy from the human world, and they become friends. When he learns that the iron in his ring can hurt her, he throws it away as a gesture of his friendship. Over time, they become closer, and share what Maleficent believes is "true love's kiss" at the age of sixteen.

However... The king, having tried once to overthrow the moorlands (serviceable action-set-piece Ents vs. Knights), promises that whomever vanquishes Maleficent will be his heir. And so Stefan, eager to rise from his place as a servant, drugs the trusting Maleficent. At the last moment, he cannot quite kill her... but cuts her wings from her instead, bringing them back to the evil old king as proof of valor and coin of reward. He is made king, and given the princess' hand in marriage.

The scene where Maleficent wakes up and realizes her wings are gone is shockingly stark and brutal for a Disney film. We do not see the actual butchery, but Jolie's shrieks of, first, shock and surprise and, eventually, horror and pain over what has happened to her are, essentially, those of a rape victim. She has had the source of her joy and power severed by the man she thought loved her, and she descends into darkness and revenge almost immediately.

Hearing those screams, you know, "This ain't your daddy's Sleeping Beauty."

Her pain and anger transform the faerie kingdom from a land of bright, amusing hi-jinx into a dark, sinister wood of grief and shame. When, years later, she hears that Stefan and his queen are expecting a daughter, she goes and lays upon the girl the curse we know so well from the original. Although, in this case, she (not another fairy) is the one who mitigates it with the codicil, "The curse may be broken by true love's kiss." This, she makes clear to her crow-familiar, is irony: there is no such thing as true love, and so the curse will remain in place forever.

The king, trying to prevent fate, adheres to the original, hiding the spinning wheels and sending his daughter, Aurora (an interesting name choice, compared to "Briar Rose" from the original) to be raised by the three "good" (read: charmingly eccentric) fairies so that she won't be able to prick her finger and trigger the curse.

Maleficent, of course, cannot help but spy on the baby/child/teen's life, and, over time, becomes more and more enamored of the girl. She brings her food when the three ninnies give the baby raw vegetables, saves her from wandering over a cliff, and generally keeps trouble off the girl's path. When, at sixteen, Aurora goes to the wall of thorns and calls out to her unnamed benefactress, she (Aurora) claims that she has known all along that her "fairy godmother" was the "shadow" watching over her. Maleficent acknowledges the fact, and the two become, openly, friends.

Skip forward a bit through some emotion-building scenes... and a prince from another land wanders by to be smitten by the girl's beauty. Check. Set up for true love's kiss.

Maleficent tries to break her own curse a few days before the girl's sixteenth birthday, but can't... her original need for revenge was too strong. Instead, after Aurora (discovering that Maleficent is the source of the curse) goes back to the castle, Maleficent magics the prince behind her (ironically, in a spell-bound sleep which lasts far longer than the eventual nap Aurora will take) and deposits him in the castle.

The prince, prodded by the good fairies, kisses Aurora and... nothing. "You see?" says Maleficent to her crow... "It is as I told you. There is no such thing as true love."

You see where this is going, don't you? Of course you do.

Maleficent, truly saddened by her own earlier act, bids goodby to her god-daughter, promising to keep her safe and "miss your smile" every day of her life. Tears in her eyes, she kisses the girl on the cheek and... yup. That's true love's kiss.

Not the random act of prince-ness. Not the man who waded through various symbolic brambles and menstrual yuckiness. Not the guy in charge of providing the next generation's batch of little princes... the woman whom her father had disfigured and raped before she was born.

Cue big fight, which, well... we need, of course. The crow becomes a dragon, King Stephan is even more brutal and awful. Aurora discovers the case where Stefan kept Maleficent's wings and frees them. They reattach and she is restored to her flying prowess. She and Stefan fight on the tower of the castle, and, in defeat, he grabs her in a bear-hug and jumps off the edge. If he can't win, at least they will both lose. Maleficent frees herself at the last minute and hovers, somewhat sad, over the lifeless body of the man who had once set aside iron in the name of friendship.

Aurora moves back to the woods, which go back to being colored like a Disney movie instead of an Edward Gorey book. She's made queen of both lands, the briars come down, and everyone lives happily ever after. I was a little disappointed that the new prince showed up just long enough to make a kind of, "Hey... Maybe later?" face at Aurora, who batted her eyes a bit and looked OK with the idea. Yeah, yeah... Princess needs a prince... I guess. But I'm sure, at one point, the idea was tossed around that there didn't need to be a prince, really.  The End...

SO, SO, ***SO*** MUCH BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL!!!!

I'm going to assume that we owe all this chunky, girl-power, feminist goodness to Linda Woolverton, the main writer on the film. She's worked on a number of Disney films, and so knows her oeuvre very well, almost meticulously sticking to language and plot that, while new to the story, never feel out-of-place or non-Disney. That's a hard row to hoe, people. Many props to her for really, really hitting this one out of the theme park.

For those of you who didn't spend four years doing postmodern, textual deconstruction, here are the main, symbolic points of the new version that make me inordinately happy:
  • Maleficent's power is not, originally, evil. She is a natural creature, using her magic to help heal and inspire others. She is the joy of being a girl with wings.
  • An act of male-power-base barbarism and really brutal violence causes her to lose the part of her power that provides freedom, perspective and the ability to move among worlds. That's a big deal. She still has lots of magic... but now it's all about protection (from the evil kings) and revenge.
  • Stefan does this solely for worldly power. Maleficent, upon hearing that he's been made king, cries out in rage and confusion, "For this you stole my wings!"
  • The second victim -- the daughter, Aurora -- becomes the vehicle by which Maleficent lets go of her hatred. Watching and protecting her, as mother-to-daughter, is what heals her heart.
  • Aurora herself isn't just a stick-figure. She asks questions, makes conclusions and takes some action.
  • Aurora's actual mother sickens and dies when her girl is removed from her life. For the king, a daughter is only as good as her ability to whelp heirs and attract suitable suitors. The mother of the princess is, in the absence of the political vehicle of her daughter, useless. 
  • The king becomes obsessed with killing Maleficent, although that won't break the curse. Knowing what he does of the power of iron to harm the fae folk, he turns over the entire production of his economy to the creation of iron weapons. While the visual imagery used isn't (thankfully) too phallic... "hard iron" being cast to kill the powerful she-witch isn't exactly subtle stuff, either. 
  • The "evil" faerie queen isn't a Man-Hating-She-Bitch. Her familiar is, while not an equal, a friend who eventually seems more like a buddy than a servant. The Ent-like tree warriors have a fairly male vibe, and Maleficent respects them as the guardians they are. The new prince is heralded as a possible way to save Aurora, and Maleficent treats him... well... not with much respect, but certainly with some affection.
There's all kinds of chewy, allegorical goodness in here. We truly sympathize with Maleficent's anger and wish for revenge. We see Stefan's lust for power as a destructive thing, both at the personal and kingdom-level of badness. We like watching Maleficent's heart melted by the baby/girl/teen and enjoy her interplay with her crow.

It's truly great stuff. And has, at its heart, the benefit of being true to the way the world actually works, rather than a simplistic, moralistic, misogynistic (ahem) fairy tale. The world is a worse place when men let their lust for power drive them to acts of violence and degradation. The reward is never worth the price, personally. There is healing to be had in forgiveness. There is, finally, "true love" for those who care for their daughters beyond keeping them pure as a vessel for the next generation of cruel tyrants.

You don't have to watch this movie as a feminist recast of the original to enjoy it. There's plenty of Disney-style fun and emotion to be had regardless. But if you give yourself just a moment to examine the delta between the female roles in the original and those in this remake... well, if you're anything like me, it will go from being a PG, family-friendly action-romp to a new classic with some important and relevant messages for mothers and daughters to share.







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