Be aware, this review WILL be LITTERED WITH **SPOILERS**, so avoid if you don’t want any of the plot revealing.
I approached Maleficent under the impression that it would manifest itself as the latest in a new Disney trend of alternative (though somewhat apologetic) retellings of fairytales to atone for the chauvinist twaddle of the 20th century. The film is akin to the likes of Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Frozen, all of which contain at least one female lead who maintains an active role throughout the plot in a bid to challenge her Disney original. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I was ready to have my socks knocked absolutely off by a tidal wave of subversive genius. And yes, in some ways the film utterly delivered; in others, there were shortcomings and missed opportunities.
There are many aspects of Maleficent that demand our praise. We are presented leading female characters whose presence monopolises the duration, and whose stories form the plot. Indeed, Disney artistically expresses its awareness of the damaging themes of their earlier fairytales by having Maleficent’s wings clipped by a man who lets his ambition rule him. Metaphorically, this suggests that the patriarchy figuratively clips the wings of women, stripping them of power, authority, independence and identity – an act performed symbolically in the majority of Disney classics. Equally, regaining her wings at the end of the film allows the restoration of all those qualities as well as the restoration of harmony in the world of the film, boldly stating that existence is healthier and just for us all when women are empowered.
Disney dismisses the bonkers notion of “love at first sight” in the awakening of the princess Aurora. Having spent years acting as a distanced guardian to the child she’d cursed, Maleficent grows to love the princess, establishing a maternal relationship with her when Aurora reaches her teens. Consequently, only Maleficent can bestow “true love’s kiss” on Aurora to alleviate her own curse; it’s truly wonderful to witness Disney exploring the value of love which has had time to develop naturally and believably, rather than hammer home the fabricated “necessity” of idealised, heteronormative, young, romantic love.
Conversely, there are problems with the kiss. The young prince is reluctant to kiss Aurora; he acknowledges her beauty but asserts that love is impossible having only met her once. All the same, when urged by Aurora’s three failed guardians to kiss her and despite being very uncomfortable, he acts without her consent. For me, this is lad culture at work; being coerced into performing an evasive or disrespectful act in order to conform, avoid chastisement or attain a certain image. To a young audience, this legitimises force and being forced, especially since the intentions of the the prince and the guardians were basically good (although the guardians were more concerned with saving their own skins having failed to shield Aurora from the curse). In a modern context, Aurora is unconscious at a party and assaulted by an older man as a result of pressure from his friends – this is utterly inexcusable, so why isn’t this made clear in the film? Indeed, the scene would have been so much more powerful had the prince refused to kiss her.
One might also argue that Disney’s exclusive switch in focus from Aurora’s story to Maleficent perhaps wasn’t entirely just or necessary. In both versions, Maleficent is a active character, empowered both by her evil and her heroism. Unfortunately, Sleeping Beauty’s lot never really alters. Despite growing up outside the influences of patriarchal society, she is still a passive character haunted by an impending doom against which she cannot defend herself; she doesn’t save herself, she has no influence over the direction of the plot, she’s to some degree incarcerated and is embarrassingly naive. When comparing the Sleeping Beauty to Maleficent, it’s disheartening to witness no change in one important essential – though the active does remain active, so too does the passive remain passive. The film is subversive, just not subversive enough. Despite her fate being in the hands of Maleficent rather than the patriarchy, once again we witness a beautiful, powerless aristocrat with no control over her own destiny.