Given the protagonist, the Maleficent films very understandably tread a darker path than most Disney fare. The first film is an origin story of one of their most iconic villains as well as a thinly veiled rape/revenge allegory. Really. When I first saw the trailer, I equated it as most did with Wicked, by way of Disney, and originally skipped the first film in theaters. But after word of mouth began to spread about just how dark this film actually was, I tracked it down on Blu-ray, and it was a revelation just how bleak it was, far surpassing films like The Black Hole and The Black Caldron in the Disney canon.
The first film of course is a twist on Sleeping Beauty, with that story the minor plot thread to Maleficent’s (Angelina Jolie) own. In this iteration Maleficent is actually a powerful dark fae, or fairy, that that rules the Moors, a magical forest realm not too far from the human kingdom. When local human king Henry tries to conquer her home and is mortally wounded by Maleficent, he places a bounty on her head, so that whoever kills her will be the dying king’s successor. Stephan, a very ambitious human who has a mildly romantic relationship with Maleficent and has known her since he was a boy, drugs her and cuts her wings off to offer them as proof he killed the sorceress, to claim the throne. Since Maleficent is a fae, flight is important, and this significant trauma very understandably sends her over the edge and down the dark path we see in Sleeping Beauty.
The other thing that sets version this apart is Maleficent’s relationship with the cursed daughter of Stephan, Aurora (Elle Fanning). Cursed at her christening, after Stephan had ascended to the throne, the Fae’s curse says that at 16 she will go into a deep sleep, that could only be broken by the kiss of true love. Sent to live with three pixies in the forest, Maleficent watches over the child, protecting and eventually developing a touching maternal bond with the young girl who helps the sorceress heal her faith in humanity. By the end of the film Aurora chooses her more magical adoptive family, and the film ends with her being crowned as Queen of the Moors, bridging the gap between the real and the magical.
Digging a bit deeper, cutting off of Maleficent’s wings is a very powerful metaphor as we see the toll it takes on her and attempting to recover after Stephan’s betrayal. Since flight in most fantasy filmmaking languages is usually a metaphor for sex, or intimacy (watch anything by Studio Ghibli with this in mind), and how she is literally drugged while in his embrace, it’s a not very subtle what’s going on here. I also think the way Aurora almost functions like their illegitimate child here just adds so many more layers to this story that easily soars above the other live action remakes that Disney has released so far.
The second film, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which hit home video on Blu-ray, picks up five years after the events of the first film, with Aurora (Elle Fanning) still reigning the Moors assisted by Maleficent as protector and advisor. As the film begins, Prince Phillip, now played by Harris Dickinson, is proposing marriage to the young queen, and when she accepts it sets into motion another dark chapter of this Disney series. While Aurora has faith in the goodness of humanity, Maleficent fears this could backfire on the idealistic young woman and send her down the same path she traveled in the previous film. Mistress of Evil this time offers up a strong female antagonist in the form of Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who also has an eye on claiming the Moors for her own. Michelle Pfeiffer here is a fierce force to be reckoned with and not in a cartoonish way; there’s a grim method to her madness and calculating logic that gives Jolie a real adversary worthy of Maleficent.
Now, while Frozen 2 dipped its toes into these dark waters, Mistress of Evil goes headfirst into straight colonialism and genocide, as we discover Queen Ingrith’s plan. Not simply content with ruling the Moors and the magical creatures who inhabit it, who could potentially rise up, she engineers an insidious plan to simply exterminate all of the inhabitants, leaving the land unoccupied for the taking. Like the first film, it’s bleak and not an easy watch, and not very subtle with its point and how it hammers it home, but these films don’t normally take the easy way out. While all this is going on, the film also manages to peer into Maleficent’s origins a bit more as well discover she isn’t the only dark fae out there, even further spotlighting the horrors of humanity in this series.
Because Maleficent: Mistress of Evil doesn’t even try restrain itself, it hits surprisingly hard with a pretty intense and emotional third act. I mean the film is still rated PG, but if you can read between the lines, it’s dealing with some very sophisticated and complex themes in a remarkably family friendly way. When I caught this in theaters this film devastated me, as Aurora and Maleficent attempt to defend their people, who just happen to be imaginary magical creatures, which is how they are able to get away with this. But while it was intense, I don’t think you can tell a story like this and not go as far as they did, raising the stakes pretty high; unlike Frozen 2, not everyone is magically reset at the end.
The reason these films work as well as they do, simply put, is solid performances. I mean you have Jolie who is not only an Oscar winner and an amazing actor, but a humanitarian as well, which no doubt has had an influence on these scripts and production. There’s also obviously some star power here with the combo of Jolie and Fanning behind how far Disney is willing push these things as well, with a female-led cast that empowers as well as educates with these very woke narratives built on the skeletons of these princess fairytales. Both films even employed first time directors, (Robert Stromberg/Joachim Rønninga) with a script penned by Linda Woolverton who wrote such Disney classics as the ORIGINAL The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast and contributed to Mulan and Aladdin.
While the Blu-ray hitting shelves of Mistress of Evil looks gorgeous, it’s a bit sparse on the extras front, simply comprised of EPK material. Even with that said, I can’t recommend these films enough. If you haven’t seen them, and you read this blog, you should probably check them out. The Maleficent films are filled with a dark and subversive wonder made to inspire the kids that don’t quite fit in. That makes a lot sense given Jolie chose the role because as a young girl, she too identified with the villain instead of the princess — I mean, who would you choose?