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Narrative Fail: Maleficent

“And I Know It’s True, That Visions Are Seldom All They Seem…”

–Thus was it true of the Maleficent trailer. It gave such promise, chilling hints of Disney’s most ruthless, sadistic, dark villain. But these visions were not all they seem, for the movie itself decided to make Maleficent a hero. They gave an intriguing back story to how Maleficent reached the point of placing her infamous curse, but once they embark on the tale of Sleeping Beauty they betray so much of both the story and the characters as to leave this movie anemic.

Taking a revisionist gothic twist on the 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty, we delve into the film with a narrator patronizingly saying how we’ll soon find out “How much you really know” about the “true” story of Maleficent.

Lack of adhesion to their own professed canon is one of few constants within the film. We are told that the there are two lands, one of humans and one of fairies, and that fairies have “never needed king nor queen”. Later, of course, Maleficent proclaims herself Queen of the Fairies and builds herself a throne and has every magical creature in the moors bow to her, which they do without hesitation. They were described as proud to have never required a monarchy and considered it one of the main ways to differentiate themselves from the greedy corrupt humans, and yet the instant one of their own decides she’s queen they simply scrape and bow with nary a question.

The premise of the remake is that the human kingdom is at war with the fairy realm, the moors. Stephan becomes successor to the throne only by convincing the dying King that he has dealt with the growing power, aka Maleficent, and that she will never again threaten their kingdom. Hundreds of years of distrust between these two peoples, enough so that a Kingship is awarded to the man who can cripple the strength of the moors, and yet King Stephan orders three fairies to pose as humans to watch over his cursed daughter. How was there not a public outcry over sending the princess to live among the fairies, the very creatures they fought against? The same type of creature who cursed her to begin with? How does King Stephan believe he holds stronger sway than Maleficent, that these fairies will only obey him and not their own Queen, a faerie like themselves? He is never seen to have a reason to trust them with something as precious as his daughter, and it grates against the grain of the culture that’s been described.

The power of Maleficent’s curse is invalidated. Originally, she cast: “Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, and die.” In this incarnation, Maleficent casts: “She will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, and fall into a death-like sleep.” When the king begs for mercy, she grants it and alters her own curse to include a cure: true love’s kiss. Why not curse death upon his daughter? Why include a cure to her curse? Granted, she no longer believes in true love, which is why she created the cure in that fashion…but where you allow a loophole, you allow the chance. Why should the King’s pleading make any difference to her? She’s doing this to hurt him; she shouldn’t allow him concessions to her revenge.

Maleficent curses Aurora, strictly for the purpose of hurting her father. The infant’s well-being does not concern her. She has had this plan from the moment Diaval, her raven, told her of the child. Despite being premeditated and planned enough to include her closing rite of “No power shall ever alter it,” she immediately locates the newly moved child at the cottage of the three fairies and watches on in concern. Seeing their ineptitude in feeding her, Maleficent takes it upon herself to visit daily and make sure the baby is fed, and orders Diaval to perform the feeding under her supervision. This makes no sense. She makes the decision to curse the infant, and within 24 hours she can’t bear for the child to starve. The situation – choosing to harm the child as punishment for her father – has not changed, yet her character does a one-eighty degree flip as she helps the baby. If the baby dies because her father made the poor choice of entrusting a human infant to fairies that should be a great victory, for the guilt would consume him even further. So why take action to make sure the baby survives? She continues to proclaim that she hates the child, and calls her a “beastie” before saving her life yet again! As toddler Aurora literally runs off a cliff, Maleficent uses her magic to make a tree grow out of the cliff side and catch the child. Because…trees are soft? The toddler giggles and runs off again, safely deposited back on ground. Maleficent babysits the preteen girl every day, and poses as her Fairy Godmother.

The entire love story behind The Sleeping Beauty is negated. We first meet Prince Philip as Aurora is in the woods, practicing her speech to her aunties about how she will be sixteen tomorrow and it’s high time she live on her own. First off, this is not a line of thought congruent with the time, for men or women. Young men and women lived with their parents until they married, at which point they move in together to start their own family. But Aurora wants to live on her own in the moors where her fairy godmother lives. Prince Philip sees her, and stops to ask her for direction to the castle. She stares silently at him, mouth slightly gaping. For minutes. He finally turns away, and she points and says, “It’s that way.” He thanks her, and she says, “Will I ever see you again?” and he gives this cheesy smile and says, “Oh, absolutely,” or something to that effect. Brenton Thwaites, Prince Philip in the movie, says in an interview: “When they first meet, it’s more of a curiosity than a deep love interest or anything.”*

This does such a grave injustice to the romance meant to permeate the story of Sleeping Beauty. In the animated classic, Prince Philip’s horse throws him and he lands in mud. He removes his soiled tunic, boots, and hat, in order to wash up. The forest critters steal his clothing so they can cheer up the lonely Aurora and play the part of her true love. She laughs and joins them in dancing and playing a courtship. Prince Philip discovers his clothes are missing, and soon sees this girl has stolen them — but after watching for a moment, he realizes she’s playing, that she means no harm. He’s enchanted by her, and wants to join her game. This startles her, and the moment he realizes he’s invaded her space and is not necessarily welcome, he apologizes and turns to leave. She then invites him into her game.

This is one of the most important character moments in their story. We watch how these two are perfect for each other. Yet in Maleficent, it’s boiled down to some teenage lust and curiosity. When Aurora falls under the curse, Maleficent captures the prince in a levitating sleeping spell and somehow sneaks past all the castle guards despite being the Kingdom’s Most Wanted with an unconscious young man floating behind her. No alarms are sounded, she breaks into the castle smoothly. She drops the prince to the ground outside Aurora’s bedroom, and with a thud he awakens. Hearing the sound, the three good faeries open the doors from within, and explain to the confused prince where he is.

Immediately on learning he’s a prince, they push him towards the unconscious girl and demand he kiss her. Shocked, he says, “But it wouldn’t feel right! I only just met her, I don’t even know her!” They reply with, “But you want to! JUST KISS HER!” Prince Philip goes against his morals to obey the deranged shrieks of “JUST KISS HER.” They don’t explain the curse to him, they don’t have reason to believe he could be a candidate for her True Love, they simply override his own weak protests because, hey, if society deems it acceptable to impose sexual contact on an unconscious teenage girl then morals be damned!

It’s hard to imagine that such a romantic interlude would not be successful, but sure enough, nothing happens.

What a gutting disappointment to the classic story of the prince hacking through walls of thorn bushes, evading fire, and defeating a dragon, all to run up the tower and gaze upon his beloved, and slowly, lean down to awaken her with a kiss.

In the animated version, Aurora has the shortest screen time of any Disney princess, yet she leaves a strong impression: she’s playful, her sexuality is emerging, she has a deep sense of responsibility, she is kind and hopeful. Conversely in the retelling, Aurora is excessively child-like. She gazes wide-eyed at everything, her bubbly chatter so rapid and tangential that Maleficent interrupts her by casting the sleeping spell on the girl. Aurora’s deepest desire is to live in the moors among the fae folk—basically, to never grow up. And when the curse takes her, her body does not waken under a man’s touch; only through the love of her “fairy godmother.” Again, she is rendered a child, as sexuality and romantic love do not reach her.

The purpose of a retelling is to share fresh ideas within the framework of something well-known, to guide the audience through new perspectives. Retellings should always build on original elements; they should add to a story. Maleficent’s retelling detracts from the classic. You can have a villain be the protagonist of the story without transforming the villain into a hero. You can do a retelling of a story without butchering the things that made the story great in the process. The Maleficent who became the iconic Disney villain, the horned epitome of evil, the cruel sorceress who genuinely struck fear into those around her… this is not her story. This is a tale that has stolen the names of characters and torn out the core plotline of a classic, to create a spasmodic script, crude characterization and violently amputating important thematic elements.

*Brenton Thwaites interview, source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4RLj6FX9DM

Article by: Jaime Fraser

One Response to Narrative Fail: Maleficent

  1. […] superstitious peasants believe. So, in effect, the film is using a similar trope to Spring’s Maleficent, telling us “what really happened” to our famous legend. What is left ends up feeling a lot […]

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