Honoring the Heroine: Flora, Fauna and Merryweather

Or the three reasons why I consider Sleeping Beauty not just as one of Disney’s most feminist movies, but one of the more feminist movies in general. Just think about it. Not only does the movie have more female than male characters, the female characters also have the most important roles in the narrative. In a lot of ways the movie is not about Maleficent vs. King Stephan, it is about Maleficent vs. the three fairies. They are the one who soften her curse, they are the ones who come up with a plan to hide Aurora, they are the ones who give up their magic for nearly 16 years to protect her, they are the ones who sneak into Maleficent’s stronghold, who free the prince and help him to be victorious with their spells. They are the most proactive characters in the movie. And on top of it they are old, they are never set in any sexual context and despite their constant bickering their tight friendship is at no point in danger. I honestly can’t come up with any movie with a similar set up (most of them already fail at the “mostly female characters” mark, and that includes all of the other Disney Princess movies).

Each of the three fairies have their own distinctive personality, though they can be broken down to “Id, ego and superego”. Merryweather is Id, always prone to act based on her instincts. She is also the heaviest of the three (note that she immediately creates some cookies to go with her tea), and always the first to fly off the handle. Fauna is superego, always calm and the voice of reason. And Flora is ego, the one who makes all the decisions. And naturally she always wrestles with “Id”. I always loved how she reminds Merryweather that they can’t do certain spells because their magic is designed to bring happiness, and Merryweather counters that it would bring happiness to her (obviously it worked, because she is able to turn a raven into stone by the end of the movie).

Banner-Three-Fairies

I admit though, I always found it a little bit disappointing that the movie jumps immediately to the point at which they have to give Aurora up, thus closing the circle of self-sacrifice which is present in the movie. The King and the Queen love their daughter enough that they rather miss out her childhood than see her die. The Fairies love their Briar Rose enough that they spend 16 years without magic, knowing that after all the time they spend raising her, they will be forced to let her go back to claim her true heritage. In both cases the love for Aurora is bigger than selfish desires. And while it isn’t really necessary to elaborate further on this, and I actually like that the emotions connected to the two events of giving up a child are very understated, I would have loved to see at least one more scene in which the fairies and Aurora talk (truly talk) about the decision to bring her back in the castle. I also think that one could make a whole movie about the fairies trying to adjust to human life.

Which brings me to Disney’s recent adaptation “Maleficent” (and here comes a small rant): I hate this movie. In the right hands it could have filled some of the gabs of the original movie. Instead it undermines everything what Sleeping Beauty is about and everything Maleficent is supposed to be. She is the Misstress of All Evil, one of the most powerful of the Disney Villains. Redeeming her is taking away the very reason why this character is so popular.

But I do like Wicked, which does more or less the same to the Wicked Witch of the West. So why do love one variant of rewrite and dislike the other one? It might be because I have no nostalgic connection whatsoever to the Wizard of Oz. I know it is a beloved classic in America and some other countries, but Germany is not one of them. But I think the real reason is twofold.

One is the nature of the source. The Wizard of Oz is a story which often plays with the difference between perception and reality. The Lion thinks he is a coward, but in reality he often acts brave even before he is “cured”. The Scarecrow believes to be stupid, but the only thing really stupid is this believe. The Tin Man wants a heart, but he already has one. Dorothy is searching for a way home, but is wearing the solution on her feet the whole time. The Wizard of Oz is also not what he seems to be. In this setting the idea that there is more to the Wicked Witch is just the logical next step, and the musical takes great care to take the perception theme further, by saying that people are perceived by other people in a certain way, and this perception influences how they see themselves.

Sleeping Beauty on the other hand is in its core about the fight of “good” (represented by the fairies) against “evil” (represented by Maleficent), and the final message is simply that while evil might seem to be more powerful because it has no restrictions, good will always prevail in the end. It’s a movie which is all about symbolism, and if you ignore this aspect, the result can’t be something true to the source text.

The second reason is that while Wicked rewrites Elphalpha, the other characters stay more or less the same. Dorothy is not even present in the story aside from a very short moment, and while Glynda is portrayed as less perfect, she is still a likable character. The musical doesn’t tear her down in order to elevate Elphalpha.

But that is what “Maleficent” does. In order to make Maleficent look good, the movie craps (sorry, but that’s the only fitting word for it) all over the characters, and the ones who get it the worst aside from King Stephan, are definitely the fairies. Three of the greatest female characters Disney every created, and they are portrayed as irresponsible Idiots, who don’t even consider that if something obviously magical happens around them it might be a sign that Maleficent already found them (never mind that hiding Aurora is pretty much pointless when the magical roles in this version dictate that the curse will come true, no matter if Maleficent takes actions to ensure it or not). It is downright offensive.

Not to say that the fairies in the original movies are perfect. I mean, they had one important job, but then they decided to leave Aurora alone in the worst possible moment, and on top of it, they cover up their mistake by putting everyone else to sleep, too. But they also go into Maleficent’s stronghold in order to fix their mistake, despite knowing that they are not powerful enough to defeat her in a direct confrontation. Maleficent is always what people remember most about the movie, because she provides the flashiest moments and set the standard for all the Disney Villains which came after her. But the actual heart if the movie are the three fairies, the unsung heroines of one of the greatest battle Disney ever put on screen.

Quote: “Pink!” – “Blue!” – “Pink!” – “Blue!”

I already wrote a recommendation for “Sleeping Beauty” last week, so a few additional words concerning “Maleficent” – not a rant, but an assessment of the quality of the movie if you see it disconnected from “Sleeping Beauty”. It’s mediocre at best, and that’s a kind judgement. It relies way too much on the use of the narrator, the characters are flat, and the convoluted story makes not a lick of sense. It has some nice visuals, but nothing you wouldn’t get to see in other movies of this kind. Angelina Jolie’s performance has been praised, but I think she is neither better nor worse than in her other movies. You can trust that she will always deliver a solid performance, the only reason this one stands out is because she the other actors are either not particularly good, or have nothing to work with, and because the camera-work constantly highlights Angelina Jolie striking various impressive poses. So in short, the movie offers nothing you can’t get in a better movie. What I do recommend, though, is the soundtrack. I already pointed it out in my article about the Disney composers that it is yet another example of James Newton Howard providing top-notch music for a doomed project.

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27 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: Flora, Fauna and Merryweather

  1. I just learned what the Id, Ego, and Superego is in Philosophy class, and I agree with you about establishing the fairies as each of the three things. They are great characters, and what I like about it is that they do not need to rub it all in our faces that they are feminist (which some of the modern films need to learn from), and strong female characters.

    Something tells me that I am not going to watch Maleficent for a VERY long time. It would have been nice if we saw the fairies raise Aurora, even in a montage (never mind, this film was made before montages really became popular), but to see more of them as characters, and given more dimensions to them. Otherwise, they are pretty cool characters.

    Great article post.

    • I don’t think that the makers of Sleeping Beauty even noticed. They just created some characters they enjoyed.
      I can honestly say that I have been never as offended by a movie as I was by “Maleficent”. I don’t get how that…thing….could be that successful. I don’t get how anyone could give it a good review.

  2. Oh, so you have seen Maleficent, after all. Excellent article, I particularly like the part where you link each of the fairies to an aspect of the “id, ego and superego” construct. And I love the banner, because the pictures you chose represent their personalities so well. A minor nitpick: I’m pretty sure it is actually Fauna, and not Flora, who reminds Merryweather of the limitations of their magic (which fits in even more with the id-supergo concept, I suppose).

    • Actually, both do it…first Flora says “our wands can’t do anything like this” (I am paraphrasing, I prefer the German dubbing of the movie, so I can’t really quote the English text that well) and then Fauna adds “it can only bring things which bring joy”.

      Yeah, I had to watch Maleficent for this. I prefer I hadn’t had to, but I had to see it for myself to really be able to comment on it.

      • Ah, sorry for my mistake then. Speaking of the fairies, have you taken a look at Sofia the First? (they play a role in the show)

      • You are right, but it is an enjoyable show. I didn’t check it out at first, because it is Disney Junior material, after all, but I was pleasantly surprised when I did. It is somewhat childish, but rather thoughtful and I didn’t feel like my intelligence was being insulted. A lot of people above the targeted audience like it, and I have to say it’s not hard to see why. I’m not sure if you’d like it, though… But it is worth a look, imo.

      • If you’re not particulary impressed by the movie pilot, I’d also recommend at least giving the first episode a try. Because while the pilot is a perfect start with some clever references to Disney Princess movies, the first episode is a bit more thoughtful, since it discusses gender roles and the princess stereotype in a fairly simple way.

        The biggest downside of the show for me was the CGI animation… It lacked texture and life, but I suppose that’s because it’s a TV series. It still has some pretty moments where it slightly resembles hand-drawn animation, though.

      • As a general rule, traditional animation is more forgiving towards a lower budged than CGI. Which is why I usually avoid CGI TV series. They rarely have the budget necessary to make it look good.

  3. Glad you finally saw Maleficent and I’m with you. Horrible live-action film based on a wonderful animated film, and I despised how they turned the fairies into useless characters (I also think a failed attempt to make them the comedic relief). But I love your write-up on them here and I love them in the movie. 🙂 I especially like how they help Phillip save Aurora. He does his own fighting too, but he wouldn’t even have a sword if it wasn’t for the fairies, lol!

    • Oh, Phillip is absolutely badass! The guy even climbs the mountain with only one hand! But without the fairies, he wouldn’t have a chance against Maleficent.

  4. Hello! I followed you here from the Unshaved Mouse and am very glad I did.
    I think you are right about the difference between Wicked and Maleficent, although I think there is also an element whereby the retelling the story thing actually feels a bit obvious.
    I haven’t seen Maleficent because she was my nightmare fuel and I’m now weirdly nostalgic about that and don’t want her defanged. I still feel a little uncomfortable looking at cartoon Maleficent but live Maleficent is not scary at all 😦
    I will definitely check out the music though!

  5. Your thoughts on the faeries is very interesting. I had always discounted them as pleasant Disney sidekicks but you are right. Thanks for making me rethink it.
    As far as the comparison to Wicked there is a major difference. Wicked doesn’t actually change any of the events of Wizard of Oz. Elpheba is still a murderer and the wicked witch to most of the people. In fact, it makes sense why her and Glinda seem to have a back and forth relationship at the beginning of the movie.
    Wicked is a prequel. Maleficent is a remake. It changes all the characters of the original and the events of the original. They aren’t trying to tell you how Maleficent became bad. They are making her good, the hero in fact. That’s an entirely different thing than Wicked does.
    I hated it too so with you 100%. I haven’t liked any of the revised fairytale updates in films including Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Oz the Great and Powerful, Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland. They are all quite dreadful (although at least Mirror Mirror doesn’t take itself too seriously).
    I guess I’m just to attached to the originals for the live action updates. Oh well, at least I can enjoy the originals and let others enjoy these new versions.
    Maybe part of the reason Wizard of Oz isn’t as popular in Europe is it is an allegory of American politics. It’s definitely in my short list of movie masterpieces but to each their own.

    • I don’t mind them less when they are just new takes on the fairy tale. Maleficent offends me, because it is a rewrite of the actual Disney movie (and not even a good one).
      Yeah, Wicked doesn’t actually change the events of The Wizard of Oz, at least not notably (some aspects are a little bit of a stretch, like the backstory of the scarecrow, but nothing which outright contradicts the movie version at least). That’s an important point too. But I think I could have overlooked a few minor changes for the sake of the story. It’s the tearing down of the existing characters which makes the big difference to me.

      • Yeah I cant think of a modern retelling movie I’ve liked so I guess just not my genre but I agree a prequel or sequel is better than a remake/rewrite like Maleficent. We’ll see how I like Into the Woods because I think that has the most potential with the great Sondheim music.

      • Well, there are a few modern retellings of fairy tales in general I like…especially Cinderella 87 is a really good one. But the redone Disney movies, I really could do without so far. The trailer for Cinderella looks good though. For the first time one of those projects is giving me a good feeling.

      • I think Cinderella is a little safer because it is a story that has been retold a lot. I guess I’m a little more forgiving on that one but if the mice are like Alivin and the Chipmunks I will be livid. I don’t know why they don’t use the music for these new versions? That is such a strength.

        I did a series of reviews of Cinderella versions on my youtube channel you might enjoy when you get a moment http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7wz447AgL4yacznPUN2r_A6WdEXPtuxj
        They are all great and so different. Slipper and the Rose is a particular hidden gem.

    • I think Mirror, Mirror was like a pantomime version. I’ve seen Snow White as a panto and it felt similar, in the treatment of the Wicked Queen and the Prince. The filming feels quite stagy in places too.

      • Honestly I can’t remember. I didn’t hate Mirror Mirror as much as Huntsman or some of the other remakes. It was harmless but nothing inspired.

  6. As I have never seen “Sleeping Beauty” from begining to end, I had next to no bias when I saw “Maleficent”. But I thought Angelina Jolie was terrific in her role, and while the whole “a woman is bad because a man has wronged her” is on its way to become a cliché, I did like her character. But yeah, everything else about that movie felt wrong. Aurora and Philip were just bland, I have no idea why Aurora never got to meet her mother, and it only felt weird that Philip wasn’t the one to give Aurora the kiss of true love. And yeah, the fairies were terrible. But as my familiarity with “Sleeping Beauty” doesn’t reach beyond online reviews and some clips on YouTube, I can’t totally hate “Maleficent” like others do.

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