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Thoughts on Disney’s Maleficent

Disney's MaleficentThis is another post I started months ago (at least in my mind) and am finally getting around to finishing.

I probably wouldn’t have seen this movie had not family members insisted that Teresa and I needed to see it, offering free babysitting services so we could do so. As anyone with kids knows, one does not turn down such opportunities lightly.

If you read my review on Disney’s Frozen, you’ll understand my reticence to see this film. My patience for stories about misunderstood witches who are really good when an ignorant society as branded them as evil, has grown ever thinner. It seems that such stories have become an emerging genre in themselves. I mean, first we learn that the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t actually wicked. Then we learn that the Snow Queen isn’t actually wicked. And now we learn that Maleficent, the very queen of the night, isn’t wicked either? Are there no moreĀ wicked witches in this world?

The opening sequence was delightful. What’s not to like about a beautiful fairy girl in a beauty fairy world? I will tell you, though, that such high fantasy always gives me cognitive dissonance. That is, I like what I’m seeing, but my rational mind immediately exploits the impossibilities, which kills my suspension of disbelief. For example, I have no problem with fairy girls with ram horns. But when there’s only one fairy girl in the entire fairy world, I wonder, “Where are her parents? How does she brush her teeth? What does she use for toilet paper? Where did she learn English? Who does her immaculate makeup each morning? And why would the giants and dwarves submit themselves to her whims?”

I could look past all this, because the story had the tone of a fairy tale, and as far as I’m concerned, fairy tale logic, in its simplistic beauty, transcends actual logic. But the thing about fairy tales is that they’re just that: tales. Without the tools of cinema or theatre, fairy tales allow a storyteller to easily connect with an audience by compressing the complexities of life into digestible themes of good and evil, kings and peasants, love and hate. On the other hand, when you have the luxury of showing your stories, unless done very stylistically, the fairy tale convention can be at odds with the realness brought by the actors. Thus I thought the film was developing nicely until suddenly the narrator said something like, “Stefan told her it was true love … but it was not.”

I mean, I could see the characters with my own eyes. I could hear their voices. I could make my own judgements. It really bothered me when the narrator told me that what I was seeing was not what I thought I was seeing. From this point on, IMHO, the film shifted gear toward the didactic agenda I was dreading.

There’s nothing uncool about the theme of “judge not that ye be not judged.” In fact I’m quite fond of that theme, which, perhaps, is why I fell in love with Wicked when it first came out. The thought of discovering the untold back story of a misunderstood person is exciting. Paradigm shifts are fun. But after the film, Teresa made a keen observation. She said something like, “It’s ironic that the filmmakers press this theme about not judging the person you formerly thought was the villain. But in order to advance this theme, they think they have to create a new villain.”

She said it well. What was up with the villainous King Stefan? I mean, if the filmmakers were creating this story from scratch, it would be a different matter, but because this was a retelling of a classic fairy tale, one can’t just take a completely benign character and make him pure evil while taking a completely evil character and making her benign, without implying a certain point. At first you would think the point is that “no one’s purely evil, so don’t judge until you know the full story.” But that wasn’t the case with this film. As far as I could tell, the point was only that “Maleficent wasn’t pure evil, whereas King Stefan was.” So what are we supposed to learn?

In short, the filmmakers simply reinvented melodrama. But unlike Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, where you can root for the good guys and boo for the bad guys, this new-age melodrama insists on being just stilted enough to be nearly void of philosophical content while still ambiguous enough to confuse one’s emotions.

As if the unwarranted villainization of King Stefan wasn’t enough to preach the theme that “your traditional concept of ethics and values are backwards,” we discover that the “good” fairies that take Sleeping Beauty under their wings are ignorant, dopey, and pathetic. We discover that every “evil” action Maleficent takes is only half-hearted and traceable to justified feelings of betrayal, and that, when she comes to her sensibilities, she has every intention of undoing her mischief. In short, we learn that good is actually evil, and evil is actually good … or that no one’s actually good, while some people are definitely evil.

What bothered me were the list of contemptible things Maleficent did that the audience was expected to dismiss. For example, there was a scene where some of King Stefan’s knights discovered the location of Maleficent. With the raising of her eyebrows, she proceeds to fling these guys into the air, play with them in sadistic ways, conk their heads together, then hurl them huge distances that, in real life, would almost certainly be lethal. These guys were just doing their jobs. They probably had wives and kids. How many daddies won’t be coming home tonight, because Maleficent thought it would be funny to conk their heads together and throw them a few hundred yards?

When Maleficent herself enlists on the adventure to sneak into the castle, knock out more guards, and rescue the princess, for me at least, the film reached the point of absurdity. The prince, of course, has no useful function in the rescuing of the princess. That would be sexist. Next, Disney’s new anti-cliches about love at first sight and kisses of true love no longer working like they used to … are becoming cliche. Though in fairness, I did think the kissing scene was clever enough and almost beautiful … in a deranged kind of way.

Lest I’m coming across as cynical, I really did enjoy the movie for the most part. Overall, it was fun, and I guess that’s good enough. I say overall, because, as with just about every melodrama, I hated the action scenes in the third act. So stilted. So devoid of meaningful ideas. So unreal. So boring. Yes, action puts me to sleep. I’m weird like that.

At the end of it all, while I don’t really have a problem with switching things up for the sake of a good story, in the case of this film and its associated fairy tale, there are unavoidable implications in doing so. When the closing credits began to roll, I found myself feeling utterly confused, almost amazed. The song for the closing credits (a downright creepy remix of “Once Upon A Dream”) was a perfect closure to it all. Love, we learn, is no longer innocent. People can no longer just fall in love and get married. It’s all infinitely complicated and mysterious. If you walk out of this theater feeling wholesome and inspired, then we have failed to burn our message into your cranium. Life … is … bizarre!

Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, in all of its clear-cut melodrama, brings tears to my eyes. A good knight stands up against an evil dragon. It’s simple. And yet it speaks to my soul. It makes me want to be a better person. This modern retelling, on the other hand, which seems so indicative of modern culture — I’ve said it before, but I don’t know how else to say it — confused me.

One thought on “Thoughts on Disney’s Maleficent

  1. Although I agree with many of your observations, your closing thoughts are telling of the attitude that Disney are trying to undo.

    For years Disney (among others) have taught children of the world that true love between and man and a woman is how the world works. That good and evil are clear cut and good will always triumph. These are all messages that many of us eventually learn are not as straightforward as they’ve been sold to us, however there are also many who take unfortunate paths in life based on these overly preached premises, which then turn out to be far from expected.

    I feel that it could slow down the progressiveness of the more modern takes on fairy tales, if nostalgia and a longing for how it was when we were kids is over sentimentalised.

    The most recent Disney offerings of ‘Frozen’ and ‘Maleficent’ may have strayed somewhat from the original stories, but they paint a slightly more true picture of the world where there is no knight in shining armour and everyone is more equal and able to fight their own battles or work as a team. These messages will ingrain a much more realistic ethos in today’s children, who will be more open to the many grey areas of the world, rather than the black and white upbringing that previous generations have been exposed to.

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