Hell yeah! Not only was I perfectly transported to a magical world of princesses, spells and feisty fairies, Disney’s Maleficent delivered in hearts in redefining archetypal female characters. I found myself leaving the theatre with an inner monologue on loop: I am woman, hear me roar! I am woman, hear me ROAR!
Nearly 6 weeks ago, Linda Woolverton had me similarly spellbound in a seminar on scriptwriting at Newport Beach Film Festival. She kept repeating, “I’m a feminist”, and after explaining the inspirational story of how she quit her day job (a receptionist at a Hollywood studio), decided to be a writer, and slowly but surely crawled her way to the top of the Disney kingdom, I was ready to become a Woolverton disciple. Woolverton is the writer behind such Disney box office extravaganza’s as Beauty and The Beast, The Lion King and Alice in Wonderland. Maleficent is her latest and greatest, and she and director Robert Stromberg turned on a glorious fan fare that will no doubt see Mufasa and the Red Queen gagging for spin offs.
The very provocation of shifting the perspective of the age-old Sleeping Beauty and telling the tale through the experience of the all-time Disney baddy, Maleficent, is genius. I grew up on the 1959 Disney classic and so was repeatedly stirred by fairy dust as nostalgic references to the cartoon resonated. Maleficent’s unwelcome appearance at baby Aurora’s birth celebration where she casts the infamous curse was particularly fab-nostalgia! However, aside from these camp-ish throw-backs, Woolverton pretty well turns the fairy on it’s tail and asks us to reimagine the fable as we know it. In Maleficent we learn about the history of the divide between the kingdoms and good and bad, about Maleficent’s decline into darkness, the reason she was driven to cast the irreversible spell, and the idea of “true love” takes on a whole new meaning.
Post modern art has never been kind to Disney. Broadly, Mickey Mouse is the poster boy of Western capitalism and greed. I remember being part of a wacky university Performance Art piece where we performed a deconstruction of a deconstructed Heiner Muller deconstruction-something and ran around stage wearing Mickey ears. In Llyn Foulkes One Man Band (a documentary currently in selected theaters in the US), artist Foulkes taunts a Mickey doll and bemoans the omnipresence of Disney in our society and it’s fateful impact on children. “Everyone’s brainwashed by Disney!” he huffs.
Furthermore, traditionally, female Disney characters have been more than questionable in the eyes of the liberal minded. Rosie cheeks, pink lips and petite waistlines, the pretty princess and the good for nothing damsel in distress have ignited feminists and women’s studies students across the globe.
“I’m a feminist”, Woolverton said again. She explained that over the years her mission has been to “trick” the studio execs and subtly “sneak” feminist messages into archaic narratives. Woolverton explained the resistance she faced when attempting to liberate Belle in Beauty and The Beast. Subtly, she won: In Woolverton’s version, Belle is not only beautiful, she reads and can swing a sword!
No doubt Maleficent is Woolverton’s greatest accomplishment in unthreading some of these tired stigmas and reinventing the wheel. Maleficent is ultimately a familial love story between two women. Refreshingly, both of these women are badass in their own right: Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is an independent, fairy warrior who can outwit and torture an army of men; Elle Fanning’s Aurora is a buoyant, free spirited explorer and carrier of “light”. Without giving the ending away to those who haven’t seen it, in Maleficent we learn that it is women who bring about world peace. And while Woolverton, Stromberg and Jolie do a marvelous job of getting an audience to empathize with a female villain (the quintessential mythical “bitch”), the real contribution in this movie is the acknowledgement of the duality in women. Woolverton imagined more dimensions in this archetype and ingested her with a motivation, with vulnerability, pain, hope, envy, love and finally sacrifice. She also attests through the narration that her heroine is both “hero” and “villain” thus possessing light and dark — like us all.