So I admit it: I am a guy. That admission carries a lot of baggage these days, the vast majority of it well earned. And while I consider myself an enlightened guy, I’m still a guy. As such, in the past I have able to enjoy my Disney movies as the virtual center of the universe: lauded, honored, charming -- a prince. But not any more. Disney has discovered girl power. And my reaction to that discovery is: it’s about time!
‘Maleficent’, the very much hyped star vehicle for Angelina Jolie’s awesome cheekbones and amazing lips turns out to be NOTHING like the trailers and previews that have assaulted us in the theaters and on television for several months now. Were you to watch those trailers, you would think that ‘Maleficent’ was the story of evil personified; of a witch who uses her power to destroy everything in her path, including the innocent young princess who, in Disney’s animated past was previously known as Sleeping Beauty. In fact, the film is the story of a good woman of peaceful intent who is turned into a monster by the emotional rejection and physical defilement of the man she loves in pursuit of his own ego and ambition; and of the redemption that she earns thanks to the purity and goodness of the young girl she has chosen to punish that man. Watch the trailers and you conclude that women are the root of evil; watch the film and you learn the opposite.
We could get all analytical and psychological here, and start to dissect the idea that Disney is discovering that it’s audience of young girls is far more powerful – and lucrative – than its audience of young boys. For example, have you BEEN to Disneyworld and seen the hordes of girls streaming out of the Bibbity Bobbity Boutique? Or have you read about the outrageous prices that people are willing to pay for a ‘real’ Elsa costume from ‘Frozen’. And no one has ever suggested that Disney is not VERY GOOD at marketing. But I think that there may be something a bit more productive behind this shift to powerful, positive female role models: Disney is finally catching up with the times. And that’s a good thing.
‘Maleficent’ tells the Sleeping Beauty story from the point-of-view of the historically evil protagonist, the eponymous witch. But Maleficent is not a witch – she is just a very powerful fairie who has risen, by dint of her powers, to lead an egalitarian and peaceful kingdom of forest creatures of all kinds. And when she falls in love with a human from the neighboring realm, there is potential for real and long-lasting rapprochement between the two different worlds. But male ego and ambition rise up and the human lover becomes a monster in pursuit of power and glory. He drugs Maleficent during one of their trysts and hacks off her wings – the primary source of her power. This raises him to the throne; but it also turns Maleficent into a power-mad dictator who is bent on destroying her former lover by cursing his only daughter to perpetual sleep as soon as she reaches age 16. But the innocence, goodness and purity of the girl begin to make Maleficent see the potential for good in the world. Ultimately, the young girl turns on her evil father, restores Maleficent to her powers, and brings balance to the world. As I say – it’s tough to be a guy in this movie, whether king, knight or serf.
Not only is it tough to be a guy in the context of the story, but also the actors don’t fare very well either. This is a film in which the women far outshine the men at every level. Of course, Angelina Jolie is the star – and she deserves to be. With a glare that could freeze ice and cheekbones that could then cut it, Angie is perfect for this role. She does a superb job of evolving from joyful and carefree youth as a fairie, to stormy, raging womanhood bent on destroying the men who put her in this position. It really is a shame that the advertisements and trailers focus so completely on the dark Maleficent. The light version is much more appealing and would sell many more tickets. But the revelation in the film is Elle Fanning as Aurora. It’s got to be hard to play a role so consistently positive and cheery, particularly in the face of all the bad stuff going on, much of it precipitated by her own father. But she is a consistent source of light among the darkness, and the catalyst for a positive resolution to the story. She easily stands up to the starpower of Jolie, and creates a very nice balance in the film. Comic relief is also provided, for the most part, by the three fairy godmothers who are assigned to care for Aurora. The trio plays beautifully off of each other.
I realize that my fellow reviews/bloggers have not been particularly kind to ‘Maleficent’, tending to focus primarily on the excellent work of Angelina Jolie, and discounting the story and the rest of the cast. I am much more positive. I think that the story is one of powerful women acting powerfully – for good and not so good – and that is empowering to young girls. I also think that it is a cautionary tale for young boys about the cost of ego and ambition. And, finally, I think that there are a number of plot and character points that would keep even the most sophisticated viewers debating long into the evening. All of that makes for a good movie in my book. I give ‘Maleficent’ a strong recommendation whatever your age or gender.
My discovery this week is a bit a repeat for those of you who read my commentary on Monday. To summarize my thesis from that commentary, I believe that ‘Game of Thrones’ has some of the most powerful and eloquent writing to be found on television today – writing that I find to be almost Shakespearean in its commentary on the human condition, consideration of our behaviors good and bad, and analysis of our motives and intentions. There are many literate film fans who would quickly dismiss GoT as a fantasy based blood and guts video game brought to the television screen. If so, they are missing an opportunity to experience outstanding writing delivered by outstanding actors. And if you were to dismiss Richard III, Coriolanus or Titus Andronicus for their blood and guts, you would certainly be missing some of Shakespeare’s most eloquent moments. Come down off your high horse, as my father would periodically admonish, and give GoT a try. Just don’t START with the fight between the Mountain and the Viper.