I’m not surprised that witches rarely get to speak their own truths in popular culture. It seems when they do, they don’t have anything positive to say about men in power.
Following on from Wicked comes the movie Maleficent. Based on fairytales and the Disney Film Sleeping Beauty, the film is Maleficent’s version of what really happened in Sleeping Beauty.
There are so many ways of approaching and analysing this film. One easy way is to discuss it in three parts:
The Early Years
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Retold
It’s a classic narrative structure – beginning, middle and end. But what happens in these sections is not necessarily classic, nor expected.
The first part sets the scene. There are two worlds that live side by side. The Fairy World, called The Moors, which is magical, rich, peaceful and free of rulers. Over the river is the Human World, which is not magical, has rich and poor people, is warlike and ruled by a tyrannical King.
Stefan, a poor, young human boy, goes to The Moors to steal some of their precious jewels. He is caught and meets the young Maleficent who is a winged and horned fairy. The two, who are both orphans, form a friendship that, over the years, turns to love. Or does it? On her 16th birthday Maleficent is given a gift of “true love’s kiss” by Stefan. However, he then goes back to the human world and pursues a life of politics and no longer visits Maleficent. Maleficent is heartbroken but grows up to become The Moors’ strongest and most powerful fairy. Scenes of her soaring through the sky on her majestic wings, towering above the land like an archangel, emphasise her power and majesty. Consequently, although they don’t really have rulers, she becomes a leader and defender of the Moors.
When the human King decides he wants to conquer The Moors and take all their wealth, he is met in battle by Maleficent. The King and his warriors are quickly overpowered by Maleficent, her magical powers and her tree army. Back in his castle the defeated, mortally wounded and humiliated King offers the throne to the man who can kill Maleficent and bring him her head. Standing by his bed is Stefan – what will he do?
Well what he does ushers in the main part of the movie – the reworked Sleeping Beauty. But before we get to Disney, we have to watch something quite traumatic and quite extraordinary. And now sadly I have to issue the inevitable SPOILER ALERT. The rest of the discussion will give away nearly everything in the film so if you don’t want to know what happens, watch the movie and then come back here 🙂
Stephan returns to Maleficent to warn her about the King. It is as though the years of separation have never been. Or that’s what Maleficent thinks. Stefan says he will stay now and offers her a drink. Those of a suspicious mind like me suspect that the minute she drinks that drink she is doomed. Sadly, we are right. Maleficent is drugged and falls asleep. Stefan grabs his knife and gets ready to kill her. But he can’t. Instead he cuts off her wings and takes them with him. When Maleficent awakes and finds out what has been done to her she screams and that scream resonates through the cinema, down our spines and into our souls. It is this scene that has been most discussed since the movie’s release, but what has actually happened?
Many have questioned why there is such a scene in a film that will be seen by children. Some reviewers point to its allegorical link to date rape. Others have drawn links to the mutilation of female bodies. Some braver reviewers, following on the theme of female mutilation, have mentioned the actor Angelina Jolie’s recent double mastectomy and drawn links there. What do I think? All of the above. But twelve years of feminist psychoanalytic film theory can’t stop me from thinking of Freud, and with Freud comes Oedipus and castration. Although the mutilation scene in Maleficent is almost text book Freud, there is no way I will go into a discussion of oedipal/castration theory – I still sometimes wake in the middle of the night, terrified I’ll have to read Jacques Lacan again! But it is an interesting way of exploring the film, if you’re into that stuff 🙂
Stefan believes that by taking Maleficent’s wings, not only has he won his place as next in line to the throne, but that he has disarmed and nullified a powerful threat. But rather than disempowering Maleficent, all he has done is take away a form of mobility from her. Granted it is a magnificent and spectacular form, but that is all it is. She still has all her magical powers and thus remains powerful. Maleficent uses a crow, Diaval, to be her wings and bewitches him into human form when she needs information. When Diaval brings Maleficent the news that King Stefan is having a christening for his daughter Aurora, we move straight into a new version of Disney.
Maleficent arrives, uninvited to the christening. She may lack wings but her all black outfit and magnificent horns exude power. Horns were an ancient symbol of power before christianity turned them into a symbol of evil and the devil. Ironically, some of the women at the christening are wearing those medieval hats that make them look like they have horns, but they don’t. The women in the human world are powerless. The only powerful woman in the room is Maleficent. She has two real horns – double the power! And she wields that power!
Maleficent curses the baby Aurora to prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and fall into a permanent sleep on her 16th birthday. Stefan pleads with Maleficent to undo the curse. She says she likes to see him beg and makes him get down on his knees. He does. The camera pans around the room to show the disapproving faces of his subjects. He then begs her. Maleficent relents. She will allow the curse to be broken but only by “true love’s kiss”; a vicious dig at Stefan’s birthday gift to her all those years ago. She leaves and chaos ensues.
King Stefan demands the destruction of all the spinning wheels in the kingdom and sends Aurora off to live with three pixies. It’s never explained why these three pixies from The Moors are there and why they obey the impotent King Stefan. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are completely inept at their job. If left to their guidance and care, baby Aurora will never make it to her 16th birthday.
This is where the film takes a major turn. To make sure her curse will come to fruition, Maleficent, in secret and from the sidelines, steps in and helps raise the baby Aurora. During the years that follow she forms a close bond with the girl and realises that she doesn’t want her to be cursed. She tries to revoke the curse but her own words – “no power on earth can undo this” – come back to haunt her. She fails and Aurora will go on to fulfill her cursed destiny. But we all know that Aurora will be woken by “true love’s kiss”. Or will she?
As she approaches her 16th birthday, in quick succession Aurora meets a young prince, finds out the truth about Maleficent and her curse, discovers that it is her father who betrayed Maleficent and took her wings and returns to the castle in time to prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a cursed sleep. Maleficent brings the young Prince Phillip to the castle to undo the curse. He kisses the sleeping Aurora. Does she wake? Well no. Both Stefan and Maleficent believe that there is no such thing as true love – their own relationship proves that. So what happens? Aurora is awoken by “true love’s kiss” but it is Maleficent’s kiss that wakes her. After waking up, Aurora decides to live with Maleficent in The Moors and the two try to leave the castle. But one last fight remains.
The final battle between King Stefan and Maleficent is brutal. Stefan has remembered from his time in The Moors that the fairies can be burned by iron. He traps Maleficent in an iron net and prepares to kill her. Weakened and trapped she puts up a good fight but she is overwhelmed. Meanwhile upstairs, Aurora finds Maleficent’s wings in a glass case. She breaks the case and the wings find Maleficent and attach themselves to her. She is made whole again and given a means of escape. Stefan realises his daughter has helped Maleficent and he grabs Maleficent’s leg as she escapes through the window. They continue their fight. Maleficent bests him but rather than kill him she suggests they just let it go. Stefan can’t and makes a final attack which sees him plummet to his death.
We now enter the very short finale – the happy ending. Maleficent and Aurora are in The Moors. The place is beautiful and light, for it became a cold, dark place after Maleficent lost her wings. Aurora, whose name means Dawn, has brought light back to The Moors and restored Maleficent’s broken heart. Maleficent holds a gold crown in her hands and proclaims Aurora Queen of both the Moors and the human world. The two worlds are finally united. Prince Phillip watches from the sidelines. He and Aurora will possibly get married but the power structure in that relationship is vastly different to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Phillip did not awaken Aurora and is therefore not her saviour. Phillip is also a Prince whereas Aurora is now a Queen, of not one realm but two. In Maleficent, the power in both realms has been given by and taken by a woman. It would seem that in this world true power comes from women and to women.
Although the happy ending is the shortest part of the film it packs the biggest punch. From the moment Maleficent awakens Aurora, the bond between mothers and daughters and the power of female friendships takes on new meaning. In Maleficent, true love is that between a surrogate mother and her child. Maleficent, rather than fear or resent the younger Princess, as so many fairy tale step-mothers and witches do, happily passes on her position of power to the next generation. Aurora is also given one last source of power. The narrator informs us that it is she, Aurora, and not Maleficent, who has told us this tale. And that is a powerful voice to have – the voice of narration. By working together, Maleficent and Aurora achieve mighty things. Maleficent gets back her stolen wings, her broken heart is healed and her realm restored to its former glory and Aurora becomes a Queen of two realms.
Maleficent would have us believe that it is not men who wield personal, political or magical power but women. If this is what they have to say, is it any wonder powerful, magical women have been kept silent for so long?