02 October 2014

"Maleficent" and Other Stories

Maleficent” surpassed $700 million globally,
the highest grossing film of Angelina Jolie's
career. Photo by Gage Skidmore,
Creative Commons
As the credits rolled, I wondered if Walt Disney would have liked “Maleficent.”

In “Saving Mr. Banks,” Tom Hanks' Walt Disney describes his eight-year-old self delivering papers for his father, the threats of punishment, the cold Missouri winters.

“I'm tired of remembering it that way,” he says.

He assures Emma Thompson's Pamela Travers that her Mr. Banks will be redeemed, and by extension that she can redeem the memory of her past as well.

It's a fictional conversation as Slate's Aisha Harris points out. But if Mr. Banks—and Disney and Travers—are redeemed by changing how we remember their stories, maybe the Maleficent of “Sleeping Beauty” can become something else as well.

And if the creators of “Saving Mr. Banks” have read Disney correctly, we also have clues to how a disgruntled fairy and an ogress-in-law in Charles Perrault's “LaBelle au bois dormant” became Maleficent in Disney's “Sleeping Beauty”...and how Perrault's moral, “Young blood must when young blood will!” became “But if I know you, I know what you'll do/You'll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dream.”

The new movie contrasts the green, egalitarian Moors where Maleficent lives with the mechanistic human kingdom next door.

It sees Maleficent neither as an absolute villain, invoking all the powers of hell nor as a victim of her traumas but as a great villain and a great hero. And unlike any previous versions of the story, none of the fairies possess superhuman foresight into the consequences of their actions.

Many will see female empowerment over against previous ideas of romance and gender roles. Or maybe our affinity for Maleficent reflects our pessimism about romantic love in an era when “it's complicated” has become a relationship status and 64.4percent of children live with two parents as opposed to 87.7 percent in 1960, the year after "Sleeping Beauty" came out.

As in “Frozen,” where sacrifice, not romance, saved Elsa and Anna, this story turns not on idealized purity of heart but on the shape love takes in the absence of purity.

Thus, perhaps much as “Sleeping Beauty” did half a century ago, “Maleficent” tells a story of hope, even though we're less optimistic about heroes and happily ever after than we used to be.

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