In recent times, popular movies on fairy tales have been increasingly showcasing, in keeping with contemporary cultural trends, “women-friendly” narratives, resulting in what are known as “anti-fairy tales”. While this originally referred to stories having tragic endings, it has come to include stories that reject fairy tale clichés. Frozen (2013) is a good example of this: It had elements of a romantic story, but the focus was on the sisterly bond of the two protagonists. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which released in October, tries to fit into this genre of female-centric (anti) fairy tales, and it succeeds. Almost.
The movie goes against the grain of traditional family-centric stories and portrays “found families”, a trope often used in fiction, referring to abandoned individuals coming together and forging a bond, essentially creating a family of their own. The lead character, Maleficent, undergoes a journey of self-discovery when she is jilted by the family she found at the end of the previous movie, Maleficent (2014). She finds the Faes, a clan of powerful fairies, and embraces their community as her own, while keeping her slightly ragtag group — consisting of a crow, a human and an all-powerful Fae, together. Maleficent is a more liberated character, a luxury not offered to the deuteragonist, the princess Aurora.
While Aurora does contribute to the plot, her motivation to do so stems almost entirely from her wedding plans — her own “happily ever after”, a plot infatuation that started back in the 1550s. Disney’s fairy tales are particularly susceptible to this cliché. Ariel is celebrated in The Little Mermaid (1989) for giving up her entire identity just so that she can fall in love and get married. Cinderella (2015) is a story that suffers from a similar problem: Once Cinderella marries her Prince Charming, years of abuse are simply washed away for the remainder of the movie. According to Ruth Bottigheimer, a professor at Stony Brook University, the original Cinderella is a rather raw, realistic version. “And then,” she says in a Huffington Post article, “Disney comes and takes away some of the ugliness of the stories and introduces a lot of signature elements… But then the story ends at the wedding… That’s supposed to be the moment that defines the rest of her life.” This description almost fits the ending of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.
When the wedding of Aurora and the prince is discovered to be a trap, all festivities abruptly grind to a halt, and a fight ensues. Hundreds of Faes are slaughtered. But, nothing impacts the ending. All is forgiven, and the focus returns to the wedding, which resumes the moment the war ends. The characters seem to forget the horrific battle they survived. Instead, the only thing deemed worthy of showing is the happy ending, which, in typical Disney fairy tale fashion, has to be a wedding for the princess.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil tackles themes like xenophobia and genocide. It portrays Maleficent’s freedom — and her ability to assert her identity — in a progressive manner. The movie also looks to revolutionise the idea of the female dream, which has traditionally been limited to finding a Prince Charming. It enables Maleficent, a darker, wilder character that doesn’t want a Prince Charming to design her own destiny. However, all such positives are negated by the movie’s decision to revert to “traditional” fairy tale tactics when it comes to the character of Aurora. This contradiction reflects the confusion the movie seems to offer — is it the tale of a fierce character for whom the world is her oyster, or is it just another fairy tale?
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 11, 2019 under the title ‘Happily Never After’. The writer is a student in SP college, Pune