I think Disney has crossed a line with its new bout of feminism.
I know that’s controversial of me to say, but as a woman, I feel that I can state my reasons why. Before I proceed, let my preface my point by stating SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD.
If the title didn’t already state my emotions about the new film “Maleficent” starring Angelina Jolie as the Mistress of All Evil herself, consider this: The more I think about the film, the angrier I get. There were MANY things I liked, but all of them took place within the film’s first act. As we reached the climax, I was literally sitting in the IMAX theatre, vocalizing my disdain through repeated use of the word, “NOPE.”
I first heard rumors about this film back in 2007, and I had my concerns. Once arriving at the D23 Expo, however, and hearing from Ms. Jolie herself about the new film, my hopes and expectations were significantly improved. I understood that this was a “re-imagining,” much like 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” was, and was interested to see what steps they took. Angelina mentioned covertly, “I enjoyed working with Sharlto,” and I proceeded to freak out. There is only one “Sharlto,” and that is Mr. Sharlto Copley from “District 9” and “The A-Team” fame (NOTE: I did NOT like “District 9” either, but I thought Copley did an incredible job in his big-screen debut). My anticipation grew and grew until it ballooned. From the cast list on IMDb, I deduced that Maleficent and King Stefan, Aurora’s father who was to be played by Copley, would have a romantic interest, which I thought added complexity to the plot.
Fast forward to opening night: The film begins, it looks incredible in IMAX 3D, and the love affair between a young Stefan and Maleficent blossoms. Maleficent is described as being “good.” Stefan betrays her by gruesomely disfiguring her, (which was an incredibly moving scene and simultaneously devastatingly tragic on BOTH actors’ parts, by the way) for his own political gain, and becomes King. Maleficent grows in her power, and now has motive to curse the baby Aurora; a much stronger motivation than the original animated classic, in my opinion. Stefan entrusts the care of the baby Aurora to the Stooge-like reenvisioning of the Good Fairies for some reason, and we’ve arrived at my first problem with the film: Stefan cares about Aurora. He LOVES her. This is not apparent at all in the film, and it is in NO way Sharlto Copley’s fault.
I am VERY particular about onscreen relationships between fathers and daughters, because I consider them some of the most complex, yet concurrently simple relationships of utter devotion. One of my favorite examples of a strong father/daughter relationship is found in the 2013 film “Prisoners,” starring Hugh Jackman. His daughter isn’t in the movie but for two minutes, and you can still feel their love for each other. Yes, this re-imagining wants to portray Stefan as the villain, but let’s get one thing straight: Stefan wants to protect his daughter because he loves her. That’s why he gives her away to the fairies. That’s why he burns all of the spinning wheels. That’s why he pleads with Maleficent to lift the curse. Not for his own political gain! Because he created another human being, and would rather facilitate it so that he will miss her first words, first steps, every birthday, growing into womanhood, just so that she can still be safe. If that’s not pure love, I don’t know what IS. Instead, the filmmakers completely overshadow this inner turmoil and make Stefan a James Bond villain, as he slowly dwindles into madness. Aurora returns to the castle the day of her pre-determined death and flings her arms around her estranged father in utter joy, and Stefan’s response is, “You’re home a day early. Lock her away.” NOPE.
Meanwhile, Maleficent watches from afar as Aurora grows up, and even allows herself to grow emotionally and personally attached to the young girl. I had no problem with this. In fact, I was THRILLED when I watched Maleficent’s devastation after she tried and failed to lift the curse from Aurora only days before the prophecy was fulfilled. This is where I thought that instead of playing the madness card on Stefan, they should have played it on Maleficent. She is so emotionally wrecked that she is responsible for killing an innocent girl, daughter of her first love, and a young person she has nearly raised herself, that this should be the turning point. Maleficent dwindles into her madness and villainy. Instead? Maleficent facilitates Aurora’s meeting of Phillip. When his kiss fails, hers breaks the curse. Then she, with Aurora, fight off “THE EVIL STEFAN” hand in hand. NOPE.
We’ve reached the climax. Maleficent is captured, but in the most cliche way possible, turns her magic bird Diaval into the dragon. “Go go Gadget, Dragon?” NOPE. The dragon is MUCH smaller than the original dragon, and is quickly defeated. And, oh I dunno….IT’S NOT MALEFICENT. NOPE NOPE NOPE. Then, Maleficent gets her wings back, but what’s this? Where did her dress go? SHE’S NOW WEARING TIGHT LEATHER PANTS. NOPE. If she had the power to kill off someone, only to bring them back to life, turn a magic bird into random animals, build a thorn wall around the WORLD, AND change outfits in the blink of an EYE, WHY THE HELL CAN’T SHE TURN HERSELF INTO THE DRAGON?!?! That is why is Maleficent is the most notorious Disney Villain. She sentences an innocent child to death because she wasn’t invited to a party. In order to protect her dignity, she turns herself into a MASSIVE dragon to stop one man and his horse! She isn’t defeated by a rock or lightening or a crocodile, or sings about how great she is, she is bad to the bones evil. Yet in this version, she faces off against Stefan, but gives him a chance to walk away. NOPE. Since Stefan, the Mistress of All Evil–oh wait…that’s RIGHT. MALEFICENT IS THE MISTRESS OF ALL EVIL–tries to kill her again, she is left with no choice but to defend herself, which results in Stefan falling off his castle to his death. NOPE!!!!!!!! Maleficent and Aurora now live in harmony and peace together happily ever after.
NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE!
Linda Woolverton wrote the script, and if you don’t know, is the writing genius behind “Mulan,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Lion King.” That said, she completely got this retelling wrong! I get it: You don’t want to just retell the same story. I LOVED Maleficent’s backstory, something that the original film was completely devoid of. But Stefan is NOT the villain. Maleficent is NOT the hero! And you can’t just “make it all better” by saying in your final lines of narration, “This is the way it REALLY happened!” Is that so?
Linda Woolverton is responsible for another similar re-imagining. “Alice in Wonderland,” starring Johnny Depp. I quite liked the film when it came out, but upon closer examination, there are MANY things wrong with the film at it’s root. The 2010 “sequel-sorta,” left Wonderland as a world full of political turmoil and war disputes. Doesn’t sound very whimsical, does it? Maleficent is, as I’ve said, THE MISTRESS OF ALL EVIL. Ms. Woolverton- YOU CAN’T DO THIS. A re-imagining still has elements of the original within it. You’ve DESTROYED the originals! And you’ve some AMAZING works! You re-imagined “Hamlet” in “The Lion King,” and it worked remarkably well. Why confuse the plots?
And then it hit me: I know why this film played out this way. Disney has put it upon themselves to make up for decades of spineless female protagonists. Snow White, Aurora, Cinderella and Ariel all were main characters that had nothing to teach young women but “You are nothing without the love of a man.” Aurora, perhaps is the weakest woman ever portrayed in animated cinema! For being the title character, she has about fifteen minutes of screen time, two lines of spoken dialogue, and otherwise sings, dances, and SLEEPS. In recent years, Disney has tried again and again to apologize for those weaker characters via Mulan, Rapunzel, Tiana, Merida, (Yes, even the new Alice) and most recently, Elsa and Anna from “Frozen.” In fact, I feel like I’ve seen the same film twice! Anna’s love for Elsa breaks her own curse. Maleficent’s love for Aurora breaks her own curse. WE GET IT. We are strong, independent women who don’t need no man! STOP.
In fact, I would even venture to call “Maleficent” anti-male. Consider the three male characters in the film: Diaval, Maleficent’s lackey, Phillip, whose kiss doesn’t work and he ends up looking like a stalker, and Stefan, who is portrayed as the “big, bad man who is only out to break the hearts of sweet women for his own gain.” All men are NOT like these! We didn’t need to be shown these stereotypes! The audience is smarter! Could it be that “Maleficent” had no villain? That Stefan just made a fatal error and cannot live with himself for the hurt he has inflicted upon others? That Maleficent is guilt ridden about her role in Aurora’s demise and suffers a fate similar to Stefan’s? Could greed and revenge be the villains?
No. Of course not. If there is anything Disney has taught us, villains are real. There are only good and evil people in the world, and no in-between anywhere.
That said, I love Disney with a passion. But Disney filmmakers: I beg you, entreat you, PRAY you, PLEASE! You are getting the message wrong. You have given us PLENTY of strong female characters. And while I appreciated Maleficent’s added complexity and actually giving Aurora a personality in the slightest, this film is WRONG. The message you should be infusing and teaching your young audience is not that women are strong and men are manipulative. Nor is it that men are only capable of saving the day and women are only meant to be wooed by these heroes. The message you should be giving audiences, ESPECIALLY young children is that there isn’t always a villain to be vanquished. There are good people and bad people, and a little of both. Good doesn’t always win, but neither does bad. Villains can be literal OR abstract. Sometimes, human nature is villainy enough.
If there was one thing to be learned from “Maleficent”, it would be “Don’t go through life with Stefan’s ambition and Maleficent’s revenge.” Not what we were left with.
That said, “Maleficent” is not a bad film on its own, but consider this: Jude Law was kicked out of the role of Stefan. That’s right; an A-list actor was replaced by a South African bit-part character actor. If I went out the street and asked 100 people who Jude Law was, they could all tell me. Maybe ten could tell me that Sharlto Copley was in District 9. MAYBE TEN. Why did the filmmakers do this? Because Jude Law didn’t look like the animated Stefan from 1959. Sharlto DID. Angelina DID. Elle Fanning DID. They cast based on the actor’s abilities to embody the look from the 1959 film. If you wanted to keep the characters looking like the original, why would you then change the ENTIRETY of the plot? If you wanted something new, why try to embody ANYTHING from the original? Either go completely new, or hold some elements of truth. For those who can overlook the fact that this film has nothing to do with the original, it’s enjoyable. Thrilling, emotional, interesting, well executed…but with a HORRID message.
I’m sorry. This is not just me being a Disney purist. It’s fundamentally wrong. I apologize if my very harsh criticism has offended, but I seem to be amongst a minority in finding this film just wrong.