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).
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.