Maleficent: A Movie Review

Maleficient

We are in the midst of a cultural shift, a time of awakening to the power of women. As a part of this shift, we need to retell our fairy tales—all the stories that have stripped women of power, defined “real men” as dominant abusers, and upheld patriarchy at all costs. We cannot simply replace the old tales with new ones, for the ancient stories are a part of us, buried deep within our psyches. They have been handed down through oral tradition for centuries. In the updating, we need not replace one form of dominance with another: no, the point is reclamation, a shift toward physical and spiritual wholeness. The movie Maleficent, in its retelling of Sleeping Beauty, has broken new, vital ground in this shift. It is an absolutely thrilling movie to watch as a woman, for it returns to us what has long been lost.

Maleficent is the story of patriarchy—how and why it was established, what it cost women, and how we can regain what we’ve lost. The wicked witch (here, a powerful fairy with vast wings) who cast a spell over Aurora did so not because she was inherently evil, but because Stephan, a human boy whom she loves, becomes a man who cuts off her wings, presenting them as bounty to his king and assuring his position as successor.

The tale speaks the language of symbolism and archetype:

  • Maleficent’s Wings: Oh, these wings. These splendid wings. They are Ariel’s voice, and her legs. They are Cinderella’s hopes for an independent life. They are Snow White’s beauty, Eve’s communion with the source of knowledge. These wings are fully a part of Maleficent: they make both the child and the woman. The loss of them, early in the movie, is so viscerally tragic that I cried, not just for Maleficent, but for us all.
  • The Mother: Although Maleficent is not Aurora’s mother, she comes to love her as though she is—watching over her, at first merely to ensure her survival for the fated day, and then in earnest. Maleficent loves Aurora so much that she tries to revoke her own curse, and cannot. She loves her so much that she enters Stephan’s castle to save her, risking her own life. She loves her so much that, when she kisses her to say goodbye (after a prince who has met Aurora once fails to revive her with his own kiss), she awakens the sleeping princess. This movie knows: there is no love like mother love. And it is what we need to heal.
  • The Dragon: As King Stephan has Maleficent cornered in the castle, burning her with the iron he knows is her weakness, she transforms her servant (who began life as a crow) into a dragon. I’d forgotten the dragon—not just the one in the story, but the archetypal dragon, which, along with the serpent, was the symbol of feminine power during the centuries of goddess worship. The vanquishing of the dragon, in all our tales, is the vanquishing of woman. Of course Maleficent must call a dragon into being—to bring it back from the land of the vanquished, her own power to protect herself.
  • Reclamation: As the dragon fights for Maleficent’s life and frees her, her wings—which Stephan has kept framed in a room upstairs—come to life, fly to her, and reattach. In my experience, there has been no more powerful moment in all of storytelling, on screen or on the page: the wings reattach. Because they belong to her. What was stolen is now reclaimed. Holy holy holy. That is some powerful stuff.

In the final scenes of the battle, Maleficent does not visit revenge upon Stephan—she shows him mercy.  He, however, cannot let her go, and falls to his own doom. This is the one part of the movie I wanted something more from—I wanted to see the boy Stephan inside the eyes of the man. I wanted redemption for him as well as for her.

The movie does recognize that partnership is necessary for wholeness, as represented in Aurora’s union with her prince. But he is a stock character (much like the princesses in most tales), and does not possess the power that Stephan did, even as a child. Though this part of the movie was not as I would have written it, I was glad to see some recognition of the need for union in power rather than dominion.

I will watch this movie for years to come. Angelina Jolie’s performance is phenomenal—she makes the film. This story teaches us a lesson we need to hear again and again: female reclamation is not only possible, it is the path to healing.

 

11 thoughts on “Maleficent: A Movie Review

  1. Nikanoru says:

    I’m actually rather trepiditious about responding to this because of the hate and backlash I’ll get for having a differing opinion and I’m not agreeing 100%. I shouldn’t be, but I’m still going to get hate and backlash for what I’m about to say. I’ve actually been sitting here for about an hour editing and debating whether I post this at all because of the instant and absolute hatred I will garner over my opinion.

    I’m not saying this is in any way a bad way to interpret the movie, but this seems like a major stretch and that you’re reading waaaaay too much into it. She’s a strong female lead and I’m so very happy for that, but I find it hard to believe all of that is intentional and not just interpreted. The only thing I would change is “Maleficent can be *interpreted* as a story about patriarchy”. You can very easily interpret these symbolisms into just about anything. This feels less a movie review and more just how much you can attribute feminism to it. It’s overwhelming how much this is about feminism. It definitely overpowers why I originally looked up a review of why I looked up a review of Maleficent: Because I wanted to see if people thought it was good or not. Period.

    If you’re somehow still reading and I haven’t alienated myself with the author of this article or the fanbase, I really liked your mention that you wanted redemption for Stephen as well. I liked the novelization of The Color Purple over the movie for just that reason. It showed that while as humans we’re all capable of being monsters, we can be more.

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    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      First, thanks for commenting even though you were hesitant to do so. This is a safe space where I encourage respectful discussion, and I don’t expect all readers to agree with me.

      Secondly, while I do have some posts that are written for readers who are first encountering feminism or who aren’t fully comfortable with it (check out The F Word: Feminism, I’m a Feminist, and…, and A Feminist Glossary), this one is, indeed, immersed in a feminist perspective. I felt so strongly about the movie that I just plain gushed about it—I believe this movie, like Brave and Frozen, is an important one for girls and women. As I often tell my son, my championing of female power in no way diminishes my belief that men, too, deserve power, esteem, and love—but we live in a society, and are saturated by media, that confers less power on women.

      In terms of interpretation, I agree that texts (movies, books) can indeed be interpreted in multiple ways—as long as the viewer or reader can provide evidence of her or his argument. I could provide that evidence here, from books about myths and fables, from other blog posts, etc.—but instead, I’d like to encourage you to see the film and reach your own conclusions. It is indeed entertaining, but screenwriters, like all writers, tell stories not just to entertain, but to speak about human nature and experience. As you watch the film, ask yourself questions about why the story is told as it is—why, for example, does the prince’s kiss not awaken the princess, and why is a mother’s love so important here? Why does Maleficent show Stephan mercy? Questions like this can lead you to a deeper understanding of the film, and to interpretations that you can support with the text.

      I hope you do see it and enjoy it!

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      • Nikanoru says:

        That’s a first. Thank you for that civil response. I was hesitant to respond because every time I have responded to anything feminist I’m almost always violently attacked and called a misogynist. Even when I’m saying very innocuous things like I just said. I’m very immersed and I’m very comfortable with feminism already. I am a feminist myself and I believe firmly in gender equality. I’m also a military veteran and a victim of female abuse and whenever I say silly things like “if you’re too extreme you’ll make more enemies than friends and nobody will ever listen to you even if you’re right” I tend to incur endless and immediate wrath. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your response. It’s exceedingly rare when I’m not simply attacked.

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      • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

        I’m so sorry you’ve had that experience, ESPECIALLY as a victim of female abuse! I admire your willingness to claim feminism in public, feminist spaces despite your experiences. The healing we need is so vital, in so many ways–and much of it is in the feminist community itself. My journey in feminism has been through this blog, and I discovered early on that there wasn’t much patience within the discourse community for those who weren’t already well-versed–I began to learn, and one thing I learned is that the discourse community runs so deep at this point that the depth is contributing to the gap between “mainstream” society and the messages of feminism. Add to that the tensions within it, and we have quite a mix. We must face all of it, along with the societal issues around patriarchy (one of which is female violence–have you read bell hooks?), to move forward.

        Thanks for responding as you did–it is good for others to see and realize that sticking with the conversations is a necessary part of the work.

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      • Nikanoru says:

        Again, thank you. So very much. For being the type of feminist that you are. I have no words for how appreciative I am for your existence. I’ve been saying the same thing and I’ve been hounded relentlessly for it and have even lost friends. We’re constantly moving forward and while it’s slow progress it’s still progress. My daughters won’t have to live in a world where non-hetero marriage is illegal and women are treated as second class citizens. I’m proud of how far we’ve come and the path that we’re on as a species.

        Far too many feminists are viewing patriarchy as a cancer that simply needs to be eliminated and can’t see the fact that the patriarchal are themselves victims of literally millennia of conditioning. Males have literally evolved to think this way. It’s not just simply a mindset that we have to quash. And the extremists think violence of action is going to provide forward momentum that’s anything but damaging to the movement.

        I actually don’t know when or where I decided to be a feminist. I think I’ve always been one but just didn’t realize the label for the mindset I was fighting for. I remember a character in a video game. Her name is Katt from a Super Nintendo game called Breath of Fire 2. She’s actually a rather dim-witted and sexy character. She’s very lithe and cute and is an anthropomorphic cat lady that doesn’t wear pants. I see her as one of my more prominent influences in feminism because she was strong. She’s a warrior and she’s not attaching herself to the hero because she needs his protection or falling in love with him. He saves her life and she decides to help him because of it. She’s not a princess and their relationship stays platonic. She’s never a prize to win at the end of the level.

        On relatively the same subject I like where they’ve taken characters like Princess Peach. It shows just how quickly we’re capable of improving and evolving. Sure there’s a big problem still, but the vast majority of it is more people who go with the flow and are unaware of the problem instead of people who are actively and consciously misogynistic. Peach was a prize at the end of the level only 30 years ago. Since then she’s exploded onto the same level as Mario even as far back as Super Mario Bros 2 with her first game as a playable character. Now she has her own games. Decidedly very… “pink” and dainty, but people are still listening and making changes.

        Most males when properly educated will recognize what they’re doing and have a “Eureka” moment and take steps to not necessarily change immediately but at the very least be mindful of the changes that need to be made. When eccentric and sometimes violent displays are made the average males will suddenly become anti-feminist because they’ll see the movement as a whole as near psychotic.

        I think a big problem is that a lot of people are viewing the patriarchy as some kind of tangible Illuminati-type group of males that secretly make decisions behind the curtain. I personally view it as more of a deeply rooted patriarchal mindset. Mindsets don’t change quickly and especially not with violence or over saturation. They change with vigilance and persistence. Educating those that you can who are receptive. And we can never forget that there will always be those who fight change, holdouts who think that somehow patriarchal behavior is correct or better, or just plain trolls. The best thing with them is to walk past them and allow time and evolution to do it’s job. Fighting them only validates them.

        I came for the review and I commented to give criticism (which I was trying very hard to not be scathing with as I know I tend to be abrasive), but I’m really appreciating the conversation that we’ve been having. It’s very nice to know that somebody else thinks the same way about how we should be moving forward.

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      • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

        Thank you for your kind words—they mean a great deal to me. It is encouragement like yours, along with my knowledge of the pain that patriarchy causes us all, that keeps me going.

        I LOVE so much of what you have said here, and I agree wholeheartedly! And your analysis of the positive changes we have made, the unconscious and deeply rooted nature of patriarchy in us all, and the necessary path forward is absolutely spot-on. If you’d like, I’d love to continue our conversation offline: you can connect with me on Twitter (@LizHallMagill) or Facebook.

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  2. diahannreyes says:

    Finally saw the movie. I loved it. If Disney keeps this up, first Frozen and now this, the company is going to get me back as a fan. I was especially moved to see Malefecent own her mistake- a “villain” allowed to be a human being who isn’t just good or evil, bad gal/good gal. And then then the two female characters healing each other and supporting each other in their power. Lots to chew on. I may post something about this as well. I enjoyed the review and all the layers you unpacked in terms of what was going on in the subtext.

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