Despite snitty reviews and a marketing campaign that seems to have consisted entirely of just Angelina Jolie’s enhanced cheekbones, it’s been very encouraging to see Maleficent do so well at the box office. This is mainly because it’s a decent film – a strange, revisionist look at one of Disney’s most memorable villains – but also because it shows (following the likes of Frozen) that the corporate monolith of the House of Mouse is taking baby steps towards quasi-feminist ideas and more female-driven movies. If even Disney can get in on the act of building more stories around women, then hopefully other parts of the industry will follow suit – and although it’s hard to imagine any female actor other than Jolie proving to be such a reliable box office draw, that will change rapidly if progress like this continues.

Essentially an attempt to provide a sympathetic backstory to the antagonist of the 1959 animated adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, this seems to be a kind of acknowledgement by Disney that the traditional narratives they spoon-fed children for so long are just embarrassingly out of date now, and a stronger treatment of female characters is more or less essential (and as the box office records Frozen has set have proved, it’s a financial as well as ethical imperative now). Placing human relationships and personal happiness as goals rather than finding your one true love and getting married and having kids is a profoundly healthier thing for children to grow up thinking about. There’s also an anti-royalist theme to the film, which seems to support its ideas of individuality and equality.

On a less subtextual level, Maleficent is interesting in other ways – notions of good and evil are deliberately side-stepped, not just with the lead, in the interest of portraying characters as more three-dimensional rather than cartoonish stereotypes. Jolie does some really admirable work here, carrying the film with not much dialogue and mainly just that extraordinary face of hers, made even more unique here with some excellent makeup effects. There are some less well-judged performances elsewhere, and the film itself tries its hand at humour a little too clumsily at times, but the sumptuous visuals and highly encouraging move towards a more progressive kind of fairy tale should be applauded.

Clumsy, imperfect but highly encouraging attempts at feminism8
Disney continuing to drag the fairy tale into the modern era9
The ethos of characters being more than just "good" or "evil"8
Slightly jarring tone and misjudged attempts at comedy4
Makeup, special effects and overall visual style8
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
7Overall Score

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