An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 25, 2014

Stromberg, dir: Maleficent

Maleficent. Dir. Robert Stromberg. Disney, released May 30, 2014, in theaters. 135 mins.

Reviewed by: Elan Justice Pavlinich (

Visually enchanting, comically elegant, and mildly violent, Maleficent is a feminist film that places women harmoniously in nature, against the impotent hubris of the patriarchy. Maleficent is Robert Stromberg’s directorial debut, and though it is written by Linda Woolverton, Charles Perrault, who published “Le belle au bois dormant” as part of his 1697 Histoires ou contes du temps passé, is credited too. Of course, the Disney Animated Classic Sleeping Beauty follows Perrault’s tale, but it is this 1959 cartoon that provides the visual foundation upon which much of Angelina Jolie’s characterization of the dark fairy is based.

Indicating an acquaintance with this textual history, the narrator begins the tale with the compelling challenge that she will “tell an old story anew and see how well you know it.” Now, audiences are aware that Maleficent is a modern adaptation of a familiar story from the villain’s point of view, and though it lacks the majesty of a typical Disney fairy tale introduction, right away the audience is presented with the problem of textual authority. Who is in charge here? Perrault? Sleeping Beauty? Or the contemporary cinema that is presently staking its claim to an oral tradition that challenges our cultural memory of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale?

The cross-cultural multitemporal setting is at once familiar and ambiguous, referring the audience to a time long ago that eludes any coherent spatiotemporal location. The tale implies an early medieval temporal setting based on the contrast between the fairy realm and the kingdom of humans, yet the architecture and costume design suggests postconquest Britain, which is evinced by the Anglo-Norman influence on the castle and costumes out of medieval romance that indicate a dominant French presence in an English court.[1]

Young Maleficent, played by Isobelle Molloy, first appears as a happy fairy in earth tones, at peace with nature and a healer who promotes wellness in the Moors, a land which is inhabited by all mythical creatures, in contrast to the architectural vista of the unnamed kingdom of humans. Maleficent meets Stefan, a boy who had been warned never to venture into the monstrous territory of the Moors. During this encounter we learn that fairies cannot touch iron without being burned, and so Stefan tosses his iron ring so that he can be closer to Maleficent. Their love, however, cannot withstand Stefan’s ambition as he is drawn to power in the kingdom of humans. His people fear the Moors, and their ruler, King Henry, promises that the one who slays Maleficent will advance to the throne. Relying on his intimacy with the powerful fairy, Stefan lures her into a meeting, drugs her, cuts off her wings, and delivers them to King Henry to signify that she has been vanquished. Based on these deceits Stefan becomes king, and his firstborn is Aurora.

On the day of Aurora’s christening the kingdom gathers to bestow gifts upon the child. Maleficent intrudes upon the festivities dressed in black, and Angelina Jolie delivers the iconic curse with magnificent wickedness, proclaiming amidst roiling green smoke that the princess will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep before her sixteenth birthday, and that she may only be revived by true love’s kiss. As a precaution, King Stefan rids the kingdom of all spinning wheels and sends Aurora to be raised in the countryside by three inept fairies, to return to her home only after her sixteenth birthday.

Over the course of Aurora’s youth, it is the vigilant Maleficent who protects her from the shadows, who are determined to see her curse fulfilled. To the audience familiar with medieval romance, while Maleficent appears to be monomaniacal, her curse serves as the seed for her personal epiphany concerning love’s triumph over hatred. Nearly sixteen years later, Aurora, now played by Elle Fanning, is made aware of her guardian, and a bond is cultivated between the two.

Still, the curse takes hold and Aurora is compelled to return to her kingdom. The curse conveys her through hidden passages and a company of women who are washing white sheets until she finds the room of discarded and dismembered spinning wheels. She pricks her finger, falls asleep, and the quest for her true love is begun. The logical remedy is a kiss from the dashing Prince Phillip, who anticlimactically fails to awaken her. It is Maleficent, Aurora’s fairy godmother, whose kiss restores the princess.

Her father however, King Stefan, has fallen prey to his own paranoia and sets a trap to murder the fairy once and for all. While Maleficent struggles to save herself, Aurora discovers her godmother’s wings locked away in another secret chamber. She frees the flapping members, which seek out the body to which they belong, and upon union Maleficent is restored to her full power so that she can defend herself. She does not vanquish King Stefan, however; rather it is his megalomania that leads him to his own death.

In the end, Maleficent finds happiness and is returned to harmony in the Moors, and Aurora is named queen of both realms. All creatures, human and mythical, are happy to uphold her as the rightful ruler.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Maleficent is a recycled story with very little substance and an ill-refined plot that conflicts too much with its predecessor, Sleeping Beauty.[2] This myopic assessment does not consider Maleficent’s elegant simplicity. The temporal aspects of the fairy tale have been collapsed. Now, instead of an entire kingdom slumbering for years, Maleficent presents Aurora, alone, sleeping for hours. Minimal character development and sparse dialogue indicate a refined narrative that relies on visual expression and the audience’s presuppositions. It is this very elegance that bespeaks a quiet complexity; one that is fully appreciated by considering Maleficent within the textual history of the Sleeping Beauty narrative and by recognition of the visual argument that promotes feminine empowerment. The fairy tale tradition has maintained gender dichotomies through such narratives, like the foundational Disney Animated Classic Sleeping Beauty, that foster tropes and archetypes, subconsciously enforcing notions of feminine weakness and servitude or monstrous corruption that requires rescue and order by means of masculine power and control. Maleficent is not only self-conscious of its relation to a literary history of androcentric narratives; it extricates itself by announcing its own textual authority as a representation of feminine empowerment in contrast to the impotence of masculine claims to power.

The first glimpse of this stunning cultural critique occurs in the teaser trailer for Maleficent. In accordance with other Disney previews that immediately signify their connection to the iconic studio, the teaser trailer opens on the Disney kingdom at twilight, but then the shot suddenly veers off in the exact opposite direction to show the peaks of a wild and untamed other, the Moors.[3] Upon first viewing it would seem that the preview is announcing that audiences will be taken into the dark mirror-realm that opposes the perfection of the Disney kingdom, but in fact, as we learn the politics of Maleficent’s diegesis, the Disney kingdom is self-consciously equated with patriarchy. The Disney kingdom is opposite Maleficent’s Moors, precisely in the same place as King Stefan’s castle, an industrialized realm of masculine authority built on treachery, where women serve to beget heirs or they work underground to keep the kingdom clean. Signifying the Disney kingdom in place of Stefan’s castle in the preview suggests a Disney film that defies the Disney tradition. Maleficent, following on the heels of Frozen (perhaps too closely), also promotes a practical notion of true love; one that relinquishes the old fairy tale tradition that commodifies women and bolsters masculine authority. The Maleficent teaser trailer makes fascinating use of space, for if we, the audience, are accustomed to the spectacle of the Disney kingdom, it would suggest that the Disney kingdom as patriarchy is constructed in such a way that it is constantly vigilant of its other, and that our point of reference is the feminist kingdom, whence we gaze.

The teaser trailer also plays on the audience’s androcentric expectations, in that Maleficent is publicized as a wicked witch, rather than betrayed fairy. Audiences are drawn to the character because she is portrayed as monstrous, yet Maleficent constructs a visual argument that privileges women rather than reducing them to sexualized or horrific spectacles. Once again, the teaser trailer is dark, with Maleficent shrouded in shadows as Aurora asks her to show herself and to not be afraid. Delivering a response that releases shivers, the mysterious figure says to Aurora that upon seeing her, “you’ll be afraid,” as she steps forward to reveal Maleficent in the flesh to audiences for the first time.[4] The promotional material for Maleficent conveys what Barbara Creed defines as the monstrous-feminine, in that it “emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity.”[5] Not only does cultural memory identify her as evil, but also Maleficent is still being depicted as the archenemy in the Disney videogame series Kingdom Hearts, and ‘Maleficent’ derives from the Latin maleficus, referring to an enchanter with the connotation of evil. While it would be naïve to limit Angelina Jolie’s Hollywood persona to a sex symbol alone, one cannot neglect her physical appearance and previous roles, which contribute to the cultural memory of her identity and the talents she brings to the Maleficent character. Jolie’s sexuality coupled with the dark nature of the previews, which boast blatant adjectives such as ‘wicked,’ insinuate a monstrous-feminine persona.

Conversely, Maleficent defies notions of monstrosity through a series of reversals that culminate in her sentimental epiphany and the union of the feminine Moors and the masculine kingdom under the harmonious rule of the beloved Aurora. In spite of the marketing techniques, the film undermines Maleficent’s monstrosity, using it instead for comical effect; her character development defies the horror genre the promotions promise to audiences, while maintaining the lessons advanced by feminist scholars like Creed: 
            The representation of the monstrous-feminine in patriarchal signifying practices
            has a number of consequences for psychoanalytically based theories of sexual
            difference. On the one hand, those images which define woman as monstrous in
            relation to her reproductive functions work to reinforce the phallocentric notion
            that female sexuality is abject. On the other hand, the notion of the monstrous-
            feminine challenges the view that femininity, by definition, constitutes passivity.
            Furthermore, the phantasy of the castrating mother undermines Freud’s theories
            that woman terrifies because she is castrated and that it is the father who alone
            represents the agent of castration within the family.[6]
Stefan, the embodiment of patriarchal values, is both fearful of castration and the castrator (of both Maleficent and himself). Female sexuality is represented as abject through the various dichotomies that are built upon a substratum of sexual difference, and yet the image of feminine sexuality permeates the film, not as monstrous, but a sensual source of strength. Maleficent is anything but passive; her role throughout the film exposes the impotence of the patriarchy by asserting her own authority over male characters, and her ultimate victory reclaims the women, such as Aurora’s mother and the washerwomen, who are silenced under baseless masculine power.

Femininity is conveyed through a series of images that assert not only autonomy, but also authority, in spite of the phallocentric regime. Maleficent’s lips constantly contrast with the color scheme of the film’s mise-en-scène; even the opening sequences of her childhood the earth tones of the Moors, her costume, and complexion clash in order to emphasize her lips. Her femininity commands attention. In fact, much of Maleficent’s appearance is vaguely vaginal, including her bright blood-red lips that seem to rupture the otherwise color-coordinated visual aspects, as well as the large and looming wings that are stolen from her by an untrue lover, and the horns that adorn her head, featuring tripartite curvatures that are reminiscent of labia. Maleficent’s appearance vividly portrays the feminine cross described by Luce Irigaray: 
            Two sets of lips that, moreover, cross over each other like the arms of the cross,
            the prototype of the crossroads between. The mouth lips and the genital lips do
            not point in the same direction. In some way they point in the direction opposite
            from the one you would expect, with the “lower” ones forming the vertical.[7]
There is no explicit reference to her sexuality—this is, after all, a Disney film—but her femininity is boldly emblazoned, dominating every mise-en-scène, to emphasize the power of her femininity in opposition to the patriarchal forces that seek to squelch her autonomy. In fact, some critics have recognized that the scene in which Stefan drugs Maleficent, cuts off her wings, and leaves her alone in the dark, suggests rape.[8] Her wings, commodified and cloistered by the patriarchy, are rendered tokens of Stefan’s masculinity. They are perverted to signify his patriarchal authority; an authority that exists only by relating itself to, and by the subjugation of an other.

Ultimately, the impotence of the patriarchy is revealed, and (unsettlingly) every masculine character is made subject to feminine forces. First, King Henry believes the land of the Moors to be a place of evil, and so he sends his troops to conquer it and to slay its protector, Maleficent. King Henry dies a pitiful death in his luxurious bed soon after his attempt at conquest. King Stefan is deprived of enjoying the company of his own daughter, Aurora, and even his wife, whom he neglects on her deathbed. Finally, after having been defeated by Maleficent and left to live out his life and maintain his throne, in a fit of anger he attempts once more to destroy her and accidentally hurls himself from a tower of the castle. Fittingly, the patriarch dies due the dangerous heights of the patriarchal structure, and the wide-angle shot of his armor-clad corpse with canted legs against the flagstones, looking small and vulnerable, visually conveys the emptiness of masculine avarice.

While King Henry and Stefan are motivated by greed, other masculine characters, who are not morally corrupt, are nevertheless rendered submissive to feminine power, namely Diaval and Prince Phillip. Diaval was once a raven, trapped by peasants and pitied by Maleficent; he was transformed into a man, and thus a servant to the mistress to whom he owes his life. Although he acts as advisor to Maleficent, he lacks control over his own body, because she alters his appearance to suit her needs, even violating his will by transforming him into a wolf in order to terrify soldiers. And Prince Phillip, the courtly lover, is also proven impotent by the narrative. Ultimately, his kiss fails to awaken the sleeping beauty, constituting the film’s reexamination of true love’s kiss. But the image of Prince Phillip under Maleficent’s sway, is suggestive of his own lack of power, and perhaps a hint at his true sexuality. Consider that, in order to manipulate people, Maleficent renders them unconscious and lifts them into the air by means of magic; so Aurora, levitated by Maleficent, rolls backwards gently, and floats supine as if slumbering. Prince Phillip, however, assumes a less dignified posture upon levitating. Instead of appearing to be at peace, his face is cast downward and his hind is slightly more elevated than his back, suggesting a masculine posture of submission. He is entirely unconscious as Maleficent traverses the thorny iron barricade that keeps them from accessing Aurora, and it is the three fairies, Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple), who deliver him to the cursed princess. Women in Maleficent defy danger; feminine forces facilitate masculine powers.

In the end, Aurora is crowned the queen who unites the natural and mythical realm with the kingdom of humans under one rule. But this is not the story “we” know. In spite of the triumph of feminine authority, contemporary audiences are currently living within the patriarchy and we are aware of the controversial effects that humans have on the environment. The magic of the Moors that appears to be synonymous with nature and feminine energy, ultimately, have not triumphed. Regardless of whether Queen Aurora and Maleficent lived happily ever after, we know that eventually these powers have succumbed to the patriarchy. The irreconcilable conclusion of Maleficent to its Sleeping Beauty predecessor raises our consciousness of the textual history of this particular fairy tale. Maleficent does not need to conform to the androcentric narrative upon which it is based, because the tension between Maleficent and the literary and cultural tradition whence it is derived incites the audience to wonder how patriarchal authority ever came to dominate the narrative. Of course, the newest generation of Disney audiences may not recognize themes of rape and contentions of the gender binary, but the Disney fairy tales are evolving to promote autonomy and practical notions of love, because a good fairy tale ought to grow up with its audience.

Elan Justice Pavlinich
University of South Florida

[1] Ardis Butterfield, “National Histories” Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in
Literary History. Ed. Brian Cummings and James Simpson (New York: Oxford UP, 2010), pp. 33-55.
[2] Keith Staskiewicz, "Maleficent," Entertainment Weekly, June 12, 2014, accessed July 7, 2014,
[3] "Maleficent Teaser Trailer," Maleficent: Official Website, accessed July 7, 2014,
[4] Ibid.
[5] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 3.
[6] Ibid., p. 151.
[7] Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993) p. 18.
[8] Hayley Krischer, "The Maleficent Rape Scene That We Need to Talk About,” The Huffington Post, June 6, 2014, accessed July 7, 2014,