I fucking love magical shit. I love spells, monsters, castles, wisecracking animal sidekicks, forest glens, robes, curses, small flying women, and the healing power of love. INTO IT. So I went into Maleficent with medium hopes, despite the dismal failure of earlier fairy tale adaptations like Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. And, initially, I pretty much loved it. It ticked all my boxes. But the more I thought about Maleficent, the more complicated my feelings became.
WE OPEN IN FAIRYLAND, YOU LUCKY DUCKS. It's a realm of glitter and bougainvillea and flying jellyfish horses and horrible toad-gnomes that throw feces right at your mouth and then are like [wacky oversized trombone slide gnome-shrug]. And the whole place is governed by this whimsical child-mayor named Maleficent (seriously, HOW DID YOU GET ELECTED YOU ARE EIGHT) who mainly spends her time flapping around, giving advice, lovin' life, and occasionally ejecting a human intruder who's bopped over to yoink some treasure from the Pond of Jewels. Typical big government fairy bureaucracy.
Right next door to the fairyland is this bullshit human area ruled by a "vain and greedy king" (#NOTALLKINGS) who is mean and gross. The humans hate the fairies because humans are jealous dill-holes, and the fairies are not super jazzed about the humans either because humans are jealous dill-holes. But when a hunky human boy named Stefan crosses the border for the aforementioned pond-yoinking, Maleficent is like KA-BOIOIOIOIOIOINGGGGGGG in the pants and they decide to do a little inter-species butt-touching. Over the gossamer tunic, you pervs. This is a PG movie.
Alas, humans are forever the worst, so right after the pair shares "true love's kiss," Stefan jumps 'ship and heads back to his parents' house (probably) to focus on his career. His career, as we will discover, is MASSIVE STANK DILDO.
As Maleficent blossoms into a fully-grown adult fairy mayor, Stefan secures a position as one of the king's inner circle of advisers and turns into that bug guy from District 9. After Maleficent completely douches the idiot king in battle, fatally wounding him, he develops a hardcore deathbed grudge. "Yo," he goes. "Trusted advisers including bug guy. Whichever one of you can kill that flying horn lady can totally be king after me, because apparently we have no rules about line of succession in this stupid garbage kingdom and 'good at murder' is a totally legit hiring criterion. Oh, also, you can 'have' my daughter too, for your penis, because she is more of a microwaved ham hock with a hole in it than a human being. L8r."
So Stefan's like, "Lean in, Stefan. You deserve this. You are powerful and golden and you deserve this. LEAN IN," and marches off toward his bitchy ex-girlfriend's
apartment oversized calla lily. Maleficent is reluctant to trust him again, to let him back into her world, but he's charming and familiar and they did share true love's kiss that one time, so what the hey. After a few hours of chit-chat, reminiscing about their youth, as Maleficent slowly and shyly opens back up to her first and truest love, Stefan is like, "Hey girl, are you thirsty? Do you want some of this delicious juice?" and hands her a bottle. Maleficent takes a sip and falls asleep.
When she wakes up in the morning, her huge beautiful majestic wings have been sawed off and stolen.
Let me repeat. In Maleficent, a PG-rated Disney movie, a man ROOFIES A FAIRY AND VIOLENTLY TAKES HER "WINGS" WHILE SHE'S UNCONSCIOUS.
But don't worry. Later on she finds fulfillment through motherhood.*
I won't tell you the rest of the story, because yes yes yes, I know that if ye e'er ingeste a spoilere ye shall surelye dye. So I'll just skip to the very end, when the lights came up and my friend said, "I hated that movie more than any other movie I've ever seen."
I was surprised. I think of myself as having a pretty consistently perceptive and sensitive Good Feminist™ barometer, and—the groaningly cheap and clumsy rape allegory aside (as far as you can set such a thing aside)—I'd enjoyed Maleficent mostly without pause. I really did enjoy it. The dialogue is blessedly free of mummified 2009 pop culture references, Angelina Jolie's screen presence is like if a magnet had sex with a magnet and pooped out a baby magnet with a smaller magnet on top (magnet hat), and the lush fantasy landscapes hit all my dorked-out aesthetic buttons. There were a couple red flags, but I'm a feminist who lives in the world and regularly consumes pop culture. I'm used to red flags.
In the crowded elevator after the movie, my friend pretty much nailed why I'd unconsciously given so much of the movie a pass:
Her (again, CROWDED ELEVATOR): "I think you just like fairies more than I do. Aren't there fairies in those dragon books you like to read?"
Me: "CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS IN THE CAR, PLEASE?"
Maleficent is a fairy tale. And okay, I guess I "like fairies" (I really prefer wizards and lady knights, if we're going to split hairs, but FINE). Fairy tales are one of those corners of media that I, as a feminist who was raised on fantasy books and who finds a lot of visceral comfort in the genre, often make uncomfortable, disappointing compromises for. Compromises accompanied by shouty feminist thinkpieces, but compromises nonetheless.
Yes, the gender dynamics are shit. No, the world's children don't particularly need another Aryan princess fantasy or antiquated Eurocentric morality tale. Yes, it's a movie (for children!) in which TWICE women are deliberately rendered unconscious and then physically violated, once "for her own good." No, I didn't feel particularly comfortable with that. Yes, Angelina Jolie was FUCKING FANTASTIC. No, that doesn't make the long, grueling scenes in which large groups of men beat the shit out of her (for standing up to her abuser, essentially) any easier to watch. Yes, I liked the movie. I did. No, that doesn't make it any less worthy of critical thought.
The more my friend and I talked about it, the more problems came to the surface. Did the final battle have to be so brutal and soooooooo long? Did the meet-cute have to be so shallow? Did Maleficent have to be punished so profoundly for succumbing to her completely justified rage? Did the supporting female characters have to be so useless? It's a fantasy movie. It's a constructed world. You could have built any world you wanted to—why choose one ruled by the same regressive, white-washed midcentury morality as every other "modern" fairy tale? Aren't thou bored?
Jolie's Maleficent is, at times, a genuinely powerful character—vulnerable, bereft, hilarious, tender, her cold fury exploding into heat and shrinking back again. She deserves better than to drown in moldy feminine tropes—the sullied innocent, the abandoned lover lost without her man, the evil ex-girlfriend, the overreacting harpy, the broken woman redeemed by motherhood—even if she navigates them with grace. All women deserve better.
*It's really more of a Big Brothers Big Sisters program, but you know.