What originally piqued my interest in Maleficent was seeing the poster in the foyer of Masterton Regent Cinema, which seemed to recapture some of the magic from Disney’s golden age. Indeed, the theatre itself still retains some of the picture palace grandeur of the same period. Plus it made instant sense for Angelina Jolie to play the part of the malevolent Maleficent.
I won’t give the plot away beyond saying that it involves conflict between the fairy and human kingdoms, recounts the “back story” to the events that took place in the 1959 animated version of Sleeping Beauty, and bends the denouement to suit a different moral message. Amongst its greatest pleasures, which can only be known by seeing Maleficent on the big screen, is how it draws on the past to create its magical realm.
Fairies have been part of European lore for hundreds if not thousands of years, a journey from genuine belief in the existence of fairie creatures to a purely imaginary world (for most people) today. In centuries past audiences used to listen to story tellers, and used their own imagination to picture fairies.
However, strange creatures have been the subject of the visual arts of European culture for many hundreds of years. They abound in Romanesque and Gothic sculpture, along with painters like Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450 – 1516).
Indeed, the evil queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is said to be based on the sculpture of Uta von Ballenstedt in Naumburg Cathedral by the thirteenth century Master of Naumburg.
While the illustration of the rabbit in Alice In Wonderland by John Tenniel is said to be based on the sculpture of a hare in Saint Mary’s Church, Beverley, England.
However, it is not till the nineteenth century and in particular the explosion of brilliant British art that fairies as we picture them more or less today start to appear in paintings and books.
To this day the great British fairie painters such as Richard Dadd (1817 – 1886 – The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke pictured) have copyright on our idea of what fairies should look like.
It should also be noted that many of these artists drew heavily on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for their subject matter as in the instance the Quarrel of Titania and Oberon by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.
There are literally millions upon millions of contemporary paintings, illustrations, and statues of fairies produced by New Age artists but rarely do these ever have the charm or capture the imagination as the nineteenth century ones do.
While visual artists provided the fairie imagery, the primary stories are European folk tales collected or written by the likes of French author Charles Perrault (1628 – 16 May 1703) and German academics, linguists, cultural researchers, lexicographers and authors Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859).
But to arrive at its final form, Maleficent had to be filtered through one more major cultural and artistic movement and that is the high art of Hollywood movie making circa 1930 to 1950. Although the original animated Sleeping Beauty was made comparatively late in 1959, Maleficent feels like it has drawn from the deepest well of the 1940s.
Jolie, who brilliantly plays the part of Maleficent, has all the retro star power of the greatest actresses of that age like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. There is one moment in the film where life and art become one with a very subtle but powerful reference to Jolie’s double mastectomy.
Director Robert Stromberg and cinematographer Dean Semler capture the gothic mood of these old films, especially through the close ups which bathe Jolie’s face in light and shadow. Most great films of old always had at least one special “moment” that became their signature and in Maleficent this is where Aurora draws Maleficent from the shadows where she is hiding.
Whereas Quentin Tarantino name checks classic cinematic moments, his films tend to end up as a pastiche of intellectual Post-Modern irony. Maleficent director Robert Stromberg never forgets that his film’s aim is to emotionally engage the viewer.
And Maleficent proves that many of Hollywood’s old school techniques can still be successfully employed to this purpose. The film is an emotional roller coaster as were all great Disney films of the past. This is Maleficent’s story, and it is her journey that we are meant to experience viscerally, her emotional revelations that we are meant to comprehend as meaningful to our own lives.
The film is sumptuously beautiful but beauty without meaning is ultimately unfulfilling. The meaning in Maleficent comes from the intelligent and relevant story line, clever dialogue, and most importantly of all, a powerful moral message.
Maleficent can be read as a commentary on the relationship between the sexes, as embodied in the fairies (feminine) and humans (masculine). The feminine is both weak and strong, while the masculine is strong but also weak. Environmentally, it can be interpreted as the masculine attempt to dominate nature, while the feminine strives to protect it.
As in all good fairy tales, some sort of resolution of this conflict is required and the answer is – as always – provided by love. Shakespeare understood that love is the wild card in any deck. It can turn order into chaos and bring order from chaos. But Maleficent chooses to free love from the traditional notion of girl meets boy. It is instead a free spirit that expresses itself in whoever’s heart it lives in. When the conflict does resolve itself the ending is a happy one, as it could only ever be in any great Disney film.