Maleficent: “retelling an old tale anew”

I wrote this review for the Philippine Online Chronicles.

When we got to the mall, the line to the ticket box was a long procession of adults and children excited for the last full show of the much-hyped Disney film Maleficent.

I rarely go to the cinema but I was goaded to see the film with Sheila and the rest of the family out of sheer curiosity. I wanted to see with my own eyes how Maleficent might differ from Disney’s earlier adaptation of Sleeping Beauty.

“Let us tell you an old tale anew and see how well you know it,” thus began Maleficent’s playful narrator as if anticipating my stance to the film.

The first scene, which opens the film by contrasting the fairy realm of the Moors and its harmony with nature to the insatiable greed and thirst for violence in the human kingdom, confirmed my suspicions. Maleficent is a “politically correct” inversion complete with clever and mischievous reversals, a darker companion to the hilariously farcical Shrek series.

This is postmodernist art at its best, incorporating psychological realism and alternative values into a familiar plot, thus inverting the relationship of the elements that were already latent in the original, countering the wishful thinking of the original Disney adaptation.

maleficentThe leading protagonist in the new film is the arch-villain of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty animation, giving rise to an anti-hero figure that subverts the notion of the traditional hero. Maleficent becomes the protector of nature from human destruction and the secret “fairy godmother” of Aurora.

The three fairies are bungling old maids who are jealous of Maleficent. The Prince charming is a useless prop that can’t save Aurora. How could his kiss come from true love when they barely saw each other?

And the King, benign figure of authority in the original, becomes a despot who becomes more and more consumed by power and paranoia as the narrative moves closer to its conclusion.

Why does Maleficent hate humankind? How did she come to be a dark and fearsome fairy? Why did she curse the King’s baby Aurora? What is the story behind her faithful crow?

The King’s act of betrayal and descent into self-destruction provides the key to Maleficent’s subsequent deeds. Her seemingly excessive acts of violence serve as forms of resistance to the King’s maniacal obsession with power.

And all this clearly could not have been pulled off if not for the superb acting of lead actress Angelina Jolie. She fits the role as if it was made for her.

If earlier Disney animations from Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty all showcase princesses who passively wait for their prince charming to come, the women protagonists in Maleficent are decisive characters that propel the story forward. This holds true not only for Maleficent but more significantly Aurora who tries to take her destiny into her own hands.

And yet at the same time the film cannot but compromise with the conventional expectations of the established order. It is not enough that Aurora decides to live in the magical realm of the Moors. She must marry the prince in a traditional romantic ending.

Clearly, there are still limits to the subversions allowed by Hollywood. This is still cinema as illusion and artifice, a fantasy that transports the viewer into the world of the screen.

Fantasy is an operation that must tap into the dominant values and ideas that make up the self-image of contemporary society in order to be successful. Thus we see Maleficent’s subversive edge recuperated into the escapist logic of the “they all lived happily ever after” variety.

Yet Maleficent’s playful inversions and its intersection with familiar scenes from the earlier Disney adaptation of Sleeping Beauty also provides an opening for the interrogation of received notions. It opens the possibility for a leap from the realm of fantasy to the reality outside of the screen.

Maleficent certainly is a step in the right direction for Disney.



  1. I agree! I particularly enjoyed how Maleficent was portrayed in the film. She was maternal in her love for Aurora but she was also tough, determined, resilient, and a complete badass. Shows how our mother figures can be warrior womxn too. :)

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