Maleficent (2014) began in earnest the current wave of Disney, live-action reboots that have plagued the Silver Screen. Maleficent was a reimagining of the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty, which itself was a retelling of French author Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant. This newest story recasts the original villain Maleficent (played by Angelina Jolie) as a poorly-misunderstood hero who turns out to be the one who breaks princess Aurora’s infamous curse.
Since Angelina Jolie swaggered through the court of King Stefan in the 2014 film, the world has been “treated” to nine other reboots (e.g., Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and more). Maleficent 2: Mistress Of Evil is one of the first sequels in this new phase of Disneyfied fairy tales, and it’s not good. This lackluster sequel tries to be empowering, especially to its female audience, but ends up weaving a deeply oppressive tale.
Disney’s New Age Of #Feminism
The thing that made some #woke viewers love the first Maleficent was a feminist subtext running throughout the first film. Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent became villainous after king Stefan drugged her and then cut off her wings. Some feminist critics interpreted this action as a date-rape metaphor, and it got feminist viewers excited about the possibility that Disney would pivot towards a more progressive direction.
After all, the world had just fallen in love with princesses shrugging off traditional marriages in the animated films Frozen (2013) and Brave (2012), respectively. Maybe a new era of growth was on the horizon in these live-action reboots. As Jill Pantozzi wrote in The Mary Sue about the first film:
“…things don’t always have to stick to the usual mold in order to be successful (financially and entertainment-wise). So for that, I thank [Maleficent] screenwriter Linda Woolverton.”
It would be disingenuous to claim that Disney hasn’t engaged in any progressive discourse in its latest movies. Emma Watson’s Belle in the newest Beauty in The Beast has been recast as an inventor. Naomi Scott’s Jasmine in Aladdin gets to sing a stellar power ballad about not being silenced. The movie The Lion King has made the evil hyena Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) far more severe and exciting. The reboots generally try to create liberal tweaks that make them more palatable to their audience’s changing sensibilities.
These tweaks do not change the overall structure of these films, however. Belle is still held as a prisoner in a castle by an arguably abusive man. Jasmine gets captured immediately after singing her power ballad. The pride lands in the Lion King continue to maintain a rigid hierarchy that demonizes all hyenas as evil.
These movies make allusions to female progress by inserting smarter, more competent female characters, but they do not challenge the oppressive power structures that bind those women (and others) in the first place. Inventor Belle does not upset the status quo with her smarts. She marries a prince. When Jasmine changes the law so that she doesn’t need a man to rule, the first she does with this newfound power is to allow herself to marry the commoner Aladdin.
“Is this what the feminism looks like?” asks the Disney boardroom of mostly male executives as they plan out ten more movies that end in marriages.
Disney has created the aesthetic of a progressive “woke” media company while maintaining the conservative outlook that has allowed it to dominate the American imagination for over a century. Everything looks like its changing, while nothing indeed does, and nowhere is this more clear than in Maleficient 2.
Maleficent is unique when compared to the other live-action reboots because its one of the few films where the plot structure is changed dramatically from the original. The shift in perspective from Aurora to Maleficent meant that the story had to be reworked considerably. Details such as princess Phillip breaking Aurora’s curse are axed entirely. We effectively get a new story with an elaborate mythos previously unseen in the Disney canon.
It’s also one of the sole stories written by a woman. Writer Linda Woolverton — who also wrote the original Beauty and The Beast — is the only lead female writer involved in the reboots thus far. White men have overwhelmingly written these movies.
Woolverton was tasked to write the Maleficent sequel as well, and she was in a unique position to tell something new. There is no Sleeping Beauty 2 that would have bound Woolverton to the past. She was constrained only to her imagination in the first movie, and from this, we get a unique opportunity on what kind of narrative template Disney values.
Maleficent 2 starts similarly to the first movie. From an offscreen narrator, we learn that the kingdom has not changed its outlook at all on Maleficent. They still blame her for cursing Aurora and have conveniently forgotten that she was the one who broke the princess’ curse.
The story kicks off when Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) proposes to Maleficent’s adopted daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning), and neither Maleficent nor his mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) is very happy about it. Maleficent is distrustful of the human population that has demonized her as a villain. She goes along with the wedding because she loves her daughter, and even hides her horns with a veil at her daughter’s request.
The chief tension in the film is between Maleficent, the protector of the magical Moors, and Ingrid, the fairy-hating Queen of a neighboring human kingdom. Ingrid wants to take over the Moors because she percieves the fairies as an existential threat to her nation. Maleficent distrusts the humans because they keep coming into the Moors and abducting her people.
In essence, Ingrid is an imperialist stoking nativist fear to expand her empire. She is building arms to go to war with the Moors and keeps this escalation a secret from both King John (Robert Lindsay) and Prince Phillip. Maleficent, on the other hand, is a protectionist trying to guard her people against invasion. There is a frustrating amount of bothsidesism that goes on in this film. Maleficent’s concerns are discounted as “irrational” by even the people in her closet circle.
There is one painful season early on in the film where Maleficent is reacting to the wedding news, and her crow consort Diaval (Sam Riley) tells her not to “overreact.” and to “stay calm.” We are meant to think these lines are funny, but Maleficent appears to be the only force in the Moors who treats the neighboring human empire seriously.
Ingrid ends up uses the wedding as a pretext to ambush all the fairy residents. Ingrid has secretly learned of a concoction that can kill fairies, and pumps the church of Aurora and Phillips planned wedding while the fairies are inside of it. Ingrid comes within reach of genociding the entire fey race. The plan doesn’t end up working because narrative necessity allows Maleficent to stop it, but this hail mary is not because the fairies have learned from their mistakes.
Once Ingrid is disposed of (i.e., Maleficent turns her into a goat), the wedding recommences on the palace lawn. The people rejoice.
All that was needed to dissuade centuries of mistrust between fairies and humans was getting rid of one bad woman.
Disney’s Magical Cure For War
The biggest thing we learn from the sequel is that there turns out to be other winged humans just like Maleficent called dark fey — though none of them have her magical powers. She is at one point rescued by another of her kind named Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and is taken back to her people’s homeland, which is a hidden cave that somehow hosts every biome on Earth.
We learn that the dark fey have been hunted nearly to extinction by humanity. Ingrid’s new military arms have these people worried that they are facing a threat that will lead to their permanent end. One dark fey, Borra (Ed Skrein), argues that they need to go to war using Maleficent’s magical powers. He thinks the dark fey need to eviscerate Ingrid’s forces before she can wipe them out for good.
Conall is against this plan. He believes a war against humanity is futile, and that what they need to do is integrate with them. He points to the marriage between Aurora and Phillip as an alternative. If the fey and humans can integrate, then the dark fey should be able to as well.
This b-plot is reminiscent of Disney’s Pocahontas, particularly to the song Savages, Savages where the colonizers and native Powhatan are both chanting about their desire to go to war with each other. The dark fey, with their magical drums circles and animalist traditions, are coded heavily as native, while Ingrid’s human Kingdom of Ulstead is an obvious European stand-in.
Like with Pohcantas, the problem with this bothsidesism is that Ulstead is the clear aggressor here. The dark fey are reacting to a long-standing historical trend of being hunted by humanity. They have every reason to believe that they will be wiped out, and are behaving quite rationally.
Disney’s depiction of peacemaking here is wrong. The film assumes that once you remove a few bad apples like Ingrid, then real reform can take place. There is no attempt to deconstruct how humanity has operated systemically, even though humanity is an aggressor that has been destroying magical realms all across the world. The anti-fairy specism of the citizenry is seen as an opinion dictated to them by power brokers, and not something they believe in.
Ingrid has been turned into a goat; therefore, discrimination is over.
This is not how bias works. The removal of Ingrid from power would not end discrimination against magical creatures any more than racism was wiped away with the dismantling of the Confederacy. Disney wants to tell a simplistic story about how peace is achieved when both sides choose it. The film would have us believe that once people like Prince Phillip and King John learn that their kingdom is hurting the oppressed, then they would come to their senses and stop.
This is painfully naive. The reality is that the oppressed never choose peace. Historically, they either win their freedom through force, or the colonizer gives up their claim for social or economic reasons.
As we have seen, this resistance to understanding power structures runs through all of Disney’s latest reboots, and it is harmful. When we tell children that problems can be solved through simple truth-telling and kindness, it creates a delusion that prevents them from understanding their own oppression.
As Maleficent said once to Aurora: “There is an evil in this world, hatred, and betrayal. And I cannot keep you from it.”
Our children are better served learning to fight this evil than pretending it doesn’t exist.