Fixing Maleficent’s narrative issue is simple: change the film’s primary antagonist from an exploitative king to a Machiavellian queen.
Warning: herein be spoilers for Maleficent.
I’ve already ranted a bit about Maleficent’s failure in a larger strategy to create female-centric blockbuster films. I am certainly willing to admit that the film’s proven my predictions wrong; even though its opening weekend draw of $69,431,298 doesn’t really compare to films of some male-centric counterparts like Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($95,023,721), Man of Steel ($116,619,362), or Iron Man 3 ($174,144,585), it’s on par with Oz: The Great and Powerful ($79,110,453), though not Alice in Wonderland ($116,101,023). And, it must be said, Maleficent’s financials are a far sight better than Elektra ($12,804,793) and Catwoman ($16,728,411). In other words, it’s done well enough that filmmakers might not flinch at making more movies like it.
Let’s not even bring The Hunger Games into this. As far as I’m concerned, it’s (sadly) an outlier.
However, being an English major and something of an idealist, I’m always of the opinion that, if a movie can be better, then it should be better. Not in the least because, if you’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a film, it should be amazing. The last thing an audience should be thinking when they walk into a movie theater is, “Well, I hope it doesn’t suck.” They should be thinking, “Wonder how they’ll outdo themselves this time!”
And, as you’ve no doubt noticed, Maleficent was a bit of a narrative mess. There were dramatic beats that either didn’t make sense (Why have Maleficent fall in love? What was the deal with that completely random battle?) or were completely ridiculous (Why was Maleficent responsible for protecting the Moors as a child? Where was the rest of the fairy society? Why did they include a coded allegory for rape in a children’s movie? Why did they need to turn Maleficent into an action hero? Why didn’t Maleficent ever proclaim herself “the mistress of all evil?”).
Yes, there were significant issues in the narrative.
The Fairy and the The Princess
One of my biggest pet peeves is when people point out problems without making suggestions about their solution. I always do my best not to do that, so here’s my suggestion for improving Maleficent:
Change the identity of the person who betrays her from an orphan boy turned malevolent king to a smart and complicated princess turned queen, and extend the film by 30-45 minutes to increase our time with the characters.
I know, I know, it sounds mildly crazy. After all, why would Disney go against the trend they themselves created by making the movie’s primary antagonist a Disney princess? But hear me out.
One of the biggest issues I had with Maleficent was that I never had the opportunity to see the environment that created her. I didn’t know what her childhood was like, other than the fact that she spent part of it being romanced by a human boy. I don’t know who raised her, or where, other than that it was in considerable isolation.
Well, what if instead, there was a treaty between the two kingdoms that allowed for the human kingdom’s princess to be friends with Maleficent. The princess (whom I’ll call Celeste) gets to play with Maleficent in the fairy kingdom, being exposed to the life and influences Maleficent herself was exposed to. In turn, Maleficent got to experience first-hand the society of men, playing with Celeste in the castle, going to human markets, interacting with regular people.
Most importantly of all, we’d get to see Maleficent and Celeste have conversations about what they’re expected to be when they grow up. Celeste would drone on and on about becoming a wife and mother, because that’s what would be expected of her. And in return, Maleficent would say, “Eh. I never really thought about having kids. And who needs boys when have each other? We’re friends, isn’t that enough?”
These two differing philosophies would play themselves out over the years, with Celeste growing up to become a very dutiful but savvy queen (played by Rosamund Pike, who is perfect for this role) who marries a very prideful and greedy prince (still named Stefan). Maleficent likewise inherits the right to rule the fairy kingdom from her parents. Her parents are mildly surprised that she doesn’t want to marry and procreate, but since they are immortal, it’s not that big of a deal.
Their respective duties cause Celeste and Maleficent to lose touch, but they still remain on good terms. They have diplomatic meetings every so often and there’s clearly still a great deal of affection between them.
Then Celeste’s parents die, and everything changes. Stefan reveals that he’s never understood why the human kingdom has never annexed the fairy kingdom. Celeste pushes back on this idea, saying that the peace between the two kingdoms has lasted for generations and is very well-balanced. Stefan will hear none of it, as the kingdom is overpopulated and needs to expand into the fairy territory to handle its excess population. They continue to argue, but the scene fades out before we know the outcome of the conversation.
Celeste convenes a nighttime meeting with Maleficent, under the guise of telling her of Stefan’s invasion plans. Celeste begs Maleficent consider allowing humans to live in the Moors, but Maleficent isn’t having it. She’s seen what the humans have done to their own natural resources, and isn’t letting them anywhere near her oasis.
Hearing this, Celeste apologizes (“Mal…I’m so sorry.”) and then backs away to reveal soldiers waiting to take Maleficent into custody. Maleficent swoons because she’s been drugged by a poisoned apple, and passes out.
Maleficent groggily awakens in chains in a dungeon. She hears voices, an argument between Stefan and Celeste. Stefan thought Celeste was going to kill Maleficent, Celeste argues that killing her was not necessary. Since they’ve already killed her parents, Celeste reasons that Maleficent is more useful as a captive than dead. The conversation then turns toward the human forces that are in the process of invading the Moors.
Maleficent comes fully around and discovers they’ve taken her wings. She tears herself out of her chains and confronts Celeste in the hallway.
Celeste defends herself, saying she was only doing what her husband (what her king) commanded her to do. Maleficent moves to strike her but Stefan steps in to defend Celeste. Maleficent fights him for a moment, then a comment he makes reminds her that there’s an army headed for the Moors. She magicks her way out of the castle to its roof. There, she sees the invasion force.
Furious, she summons magical powers she didn’t know she had and whisks herself over the army to the battlefield. They engage in all-out skirmish, with the human side soundly defeated. Watching the human forces leave, Maleficent then turns and raises the iconic wall of thorns around the Moors.
Years pass. Maleficent rules over the Moors and things are fine, but she is still in mourning over the loss of her parents and wings at the hands of this woman she thought was her friend. When she hears that Celeste has given birth to a princess of her very own, but that the birth was too much and it’s unlikely she’ll bear another child, Maleficent knows this moment is the culmination of everything Celeste ever wanted as a child. There’s a flashback montage of Celeste saying how much she wanted to get married and have kids and be a perfect queen.
And in that moment, after that brief montage, Maleficent knows exactly how to fuck that shit up.
The iconic curse scene occurs, with the correct order of things: Maleficent curses the child to die (“After 16 years, just long enough for you to know her but not long enough to allow her to rule.”), then drops the mic and goes back to the Moors.
For a while, we get to keep largely the same material from the movie: secret forces trying to get into the Moors to assassinate Maleficent, Maleficent watching over Aurora because the “good fairies” are incompetent, Maleficent being won over by a child even though she never really expressed an interest in children.
Oh, and at some point, Maleficent finds out that her curse can be rescinded by True Love’s Kiss, and she says, “Really? How…saccharine.” You’ll have to imagine the venom in her voice for yourself.
Also, I guess Aurora has to meet Prince Philip in the forest.
Then comes the movie’s climactic scene. One day, Maleficent comes to the cottage to visit with Aurora and Celeste is there. It turns out, while Maleficent has been visiting under the guise of being her fairy godmother, Celeste has been visiting under the guise of being her aunt.
The two women have it out on an epic level, with accusations being lobbed left and right.
“You killed my parents, took my wings and tried to invade my country!”
“You cursed the only child I would ever have!”
“I wanted you to feel my pain!”
“I only did it because Stefan told me to!”
“And you always do what your husband tells you to?!”
“I’m not you, I don’t have the freedom you have to be and do whatever I wanted! I had to make choices! I had to make sacrifices!”
“And you chose to do everything in your power to destroy me? You chose to sacrifice me for your husband’s ambition?”
“It’s complicated, Mal!”
“…why did they give her ‘beauty’ and ‘music’?”
“Ugh, I don’t know. She was already going to be beautiful, why didn’t they give her something useful? I’m afraid she’s frightfully dull.”
“Yeah, I didn’t want to say anything. But she’s pure of heart! That counts for something, right?”
Aurora is caught in the middle of all the truth bombs, and runs away to the castle with the fairies to get away from the two real maternal figures in her life. Maleficent leaves, and Celeste returns to the castle.
There, Aurora pricks her finger and falls into the deep sleep. The fairies place the rest of the kingdom into a sleep as well, sticking closer to the source material. Maleficent finds Philip and takes him to the castle, making him kiss the princess. It doesn’t work, and Maleficent gives up, but not before kissing Aurora herself. This awakens the princess and everyone in the kingdom.
Aurora and Maleficent descend the stairs together to discover Stefan and soldiers waiting for them. They fight, Maleficent gets her wings back in much the same way that she does in the real film, and Stefan dies.
Maleficent and Celeste figure out a way to patch things up, allowing human settlements in the Moors in exchange for some ecological training on how to keep the lands clean. Celeste decides she doesn’t need to marry again. Aurora and Philip live a simple, happy, uncomplicated life together. The end. It’s like how Cady and Regina managed to become friends at the end of Mean Girls.
I admit, it’s not a perfect story, but it gets at two things I think are extremely important for a story like Maleficent:
First, it gives Maleficent a much better mirror image. Aurora doesn’t work because she’s an uncomplicated blank canvas. Celeste works both because she represents the sacrifices Maleficent never has to make and because she wants the things Maleficent doesn’t: ambition, family, and a husband.
Second, it’s just so much more interesting to me to make this a movie that is truly about women in fairy tales. Instead of a rape allegory, we get a story about how friendship can go really, horrifyingly wrong, and how something as simple as being loved by a pure soul can fix that.
Disney’s already shown that they’re willing to play around with the conventions of the princess movie with films like Enchanted and Frozen. This version of Maleficent takes it to the next level, not only by focusing on a villain and giving her a happy ending, but also by showing us a complicated version of a Disney princess, one who thinks and feels and breathes and is a real person.
Plus Rosamund Pike would kill the role of Celeste. Just, absolutely nail it. Homegirl deserves more work.
*All box office numbers were taken from Box Office Mojo.