Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Tragedy of Maleficent

Spoilers abound for anyone who has yet to bear witness to the festering bed sore that is Disney's latest abomination,

Once upon a time, humans lived among the fair folk. They were allowed to live as they liked, so long as they paid the fey their due respect. Some fairies responded with obeisance, others with reward, and still others with disinterest, so long as the humans observed the appropriate rights.

As it happened, one king and queen allowed the power they had over their fellow humans to go to their heads, and upon the birth of their daughter, publicly spurned an unpopular but vastly powerful fey named Maleficent by expressly not inviting her to the christening. In equal parts retribution to the royal upstarts as well as a reminder to those to follow of the foolishness of incurring her wrath, Maleficent cursed the newborn princess. She bore the babe no ill will, the child was merely collateral damage in the political chess game that the royal family had instigated. Sadly, Maleficent's quest for justice was thwarted by lesser fairies and the entitled entourage of the human royals, and she died a martyr to her own brand of retribution.

Sadly, this is not the story that Disney chose to tell with their re-imagining of one of their most beloved villains. In the trio of films that would go on to anchor the Disney princess franchise, Maleficent was a larger than life powerhouse among the vain, aging queen and the social-climbing, sycophantic stepmother. While Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora are all equally innocent victims, Sleeping Beauty was the first film to depict a villain who was provoked before lashing out. Aurora, the titular beauty, is merely the catalyst for the events of the film, but it has always been Maleficent's story.

The live-action adaptation starring Angelina Jolie is, at best, a subpar Lifetime movie about a good woman done wrong by a bad man, and oh look, sparkles.

Maleficent starts out as a sunshine-vomiting fairy who epitomizes the Dark is Not Evil trope, and right away that's a major flaw in the film. Maleficent IS evil, deliciously evil, her very name is a portmanteau of mal (French: bad) and magnificent. Her malevolence is just a manifestation of her nature, and nothing, nothing that happens from here on out will convince any moviegoer that the 2014 Maleficent is capable of becoming the 1959 Maleficent.

As the film progresses, with a helping of trite and redundant narration, Maleficent falls in love with a sweet but ambitious boy named Stefan, whose human kingdom fears and loathes the neighboring fairies. In a quest to prove himself worthy of the throne, Stefan cuts off Maleficent's wings to prove to his warmongering king that he has slain the fairy, and so marries the milquetoast princess and becomes king.

Heartbroken and stung by betrayal, Maleficent uses her magic to curse her former lover's newborn in an almost word for word recitation of the animated film's iconic scene. She mentions the lack of invitation, but she's merely mocking the king--make no mistake, this is a classic example of woman scorned. Three fairies take Aurora off to raise her as a commoner, but while this is a cunning plan in the original,  the fairies are so bafflingly stupid that Maleficent herself is forced to keep watch over the child so she can live long enough to enact the curse. Over the next sixteen years, in various sickeningly sweet scenes, Maleficent predictably falls in love with the child and seeks to undo her own curse, which, failing to do so, she unwittingly breaks it with True Love's kiss in a "twist" that Disney property Once Upon A Time has done much better. Twice.

No one fears the bite of a de-fanged cobra, and no one will find anything to fear in the vacillating cream puff that purports to be one of animation's most terrifying villains. Maleficent was introduced as a badass, and the creators of this latest film should be ashamed for what they've done to her.

It's hard not to see Maleficent's stolen wings as a huge and disturbing rape metaphor. The first king makes war on her lands because he fears her power. Stefan drugs her, and then takes what is rightfully hers without her permission. Notable at this point is that Maleficent is the guardian of her moor, friend to all fairies, with long brown hair and a dress to match, the virtuous embodiment of "good" womanhood. Following her "rape", the film justifies Stefan's victimization of Maleficent by turning her into a "bad" woman who kills babies while the crowning glory of her femininity is bound under tight, uncomfortable looking black leather. She finds her way back to "goodness" by forming a maternal bond (the pinnacle of womanhood) to the child she swore vengeance upon. You can tell her redemption is complete by the end of the film because she once again has long hair flowing around her face, and the moor sparkles in her presence.

Following the USCB shootings, this is an especially disturbing parallel to our view of rape victims. Rape turns victims into "bad" people, continuously accused of lying, of asking for it, as being damaged goods. Stefan, for most of the film, gets away with his actions, even achieving his ambitions as a direct result of what he did to Maleficent. Even as he spends the majority of the film in a downward spiral of insanity, it's due to his fear of retribution, not guilt.

Maleficent started out as one of the greatest characters in film canon. She was conceived as evil, she died evil, and from beginning to end she terrified the audience with a drama and flair that female characters 55 years after her debut would kill to possess. The tragedy is we've used this strongly defined villain to paint an ugly portrait of how our society sees women, and splattered it across screens to show girls everywhere what we do to those who don't fit our molds.