Potions and Privilege

A review of Maleficent, Disney's dark remake of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale

"Maleficent" opened in theatres on May 30, 2014
"Maleficent" opened in theatres on May 30, 2014

Now more than ever, the word privilege is an intensely polarizing entity in our collective consciousness; specifically, between a male and a female.

In the archetypical Disney context, what is seen as a woman’s privilege to be the central protagonist is, in reality, her plight — an illusion. The true privilege belongs to the anonymous male, typically a near-silent, handsome messiah who “rescues” our identifying damsel from certain doom and reaps the benefits.

Mercifully, Robert Stromberg’s magnificent Maleficent is so much more than a green-screened rehash of Sleeping Beauty — one of the most alarmingly archaic fables ingrained in our minds from infancy.

The most memorable characters from the Disney canon are always indisputably the larger-than-life (and usually female) villains. And now, the most childhood nightmare-inducing of them all gets a $200 million facelift.

To see one of the most powerful corporations in the world invest such exhaustive money and faith into such a decidedly feminist enterprise is certainly a small step in the right direction.

It is a film of many opposites. Hero and nemesis. Love and betrayal. Man and Woman.

And who better to personify the yin and the yang than Angelina Jolie? Her intimidating, charismatic sexuality has always been in sharp contrast to her unimpeachable humanitarian efforts. It’s an impressive balancing act to say the least.

Easily the most famous woman in the world, Jolie’s tremendous strengths as an actor are unfortunately overshadowed by her overwhelming fame and tabloid presence. After a near five-year absence from film, it’s very refreshing to see her exotic gaze once more.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
All high-gloss contrast, full lips and diamond-cut cheek bones, the poster campaign designed by fashion photographers Mert and Marcus has already deservedly become iconic. While you read this, I guarantee there’s a legion of drag queens in expensive Angelina suits performing routines to the Lana Del Ray cover of “Once Upon a Dream.”

Lavishly portraying the rise and fall of Maleficent, the strongest of the fairies, the narrative has myriad familiar features and wisely combines a prequel format that leads into the earlier version in surprising ways. Hailing from a parallel kingdom of radiant flora and enchanting supernatural fauna, the young Maleficent falls in love with a kindly human peasant boy only to face shattering betrayal.

Increasingly at odds with the human world, Maleficent’s nihilistic tendencies quickly manifest into the classic horns and thorns. Her stunning intrusion at the christening of the human princess Aurora — initiated by a slender, bull-headed silhouette — is spine-tingling.

Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora
Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora
The gender dynamics of the original Disney dynasty have faced increasing scrutiny over the years. “Benevolent” Uncle Walt watering down sadistic European juvenile morality tales into colour-coded Happy Meal Toys that teach tots their place in a utopian heteronormative society. Hi Ho! indeed.

Maleficent, while remaining utterly family-friendly, reconciles with the rather shocking Grimm original. The central plot point of sexually engaging the sleeping innocent — though so strangely digestible when we were children — is bravely inverted from being a depiction of true love to the source of all evil in the narrative.

Yes, a Disney film is pretty candidly addressing sexual assault. The solution to the curse may be a tad predictable, but this does not diminish the potent beauty of its powerful message.

Unlike the usual Disney fare, "Maleficent" reconciles with the shocking original story of Sleeping Beauty
Unlike the usual Disney fare, “Maleficent” reconciles with the shocking original story of Sleeping Beauty
Despite having been in production for years, Maleficent‘s thunderous arrival is relevant and necessary. The in-your-face empowerment demonstrated by many interesting and engaging female characters is a vibrant antithesis to the recent and deeply upsetting vocal misogyny that has touched all of us in one way or another. Seeing a cinema full of adoring young girls — and boys — cheering on our titular heroine during the fire and brimstone showdown was absolutely exhilarating.

The writhing debate of sexism is more prominent and personal than ever and is now being fought on all mediums. If this is a conversation you’re sick of having, picture what it’s like for the countless women who must endure these appalling facts on a daily basis.

Maleficent Trailer

All photos courtesy of Disney