When Disney announced a live-action retelling of their 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty, nobody was sure what to make of it. Instead of focusing on the slumbering princess, the story centered on the villain who caused all the drama: Maleficent.

Once upon a time, fairy tales were straightforward affairs that featured fantastical creatures in moral plays to entertain and educate children. There was little nuance in the players in this folklore — a character was either good or evil. Over time, these stories evolved for modern tastes, guaranteeing a “happily ever after” by the final page.

Much of that evolution can be attributed to Walt Disney and their animated films. Disney removed the darker elements from timeless tales for decades to appeal to children and adults. But eventually, endurance gave way to change, and the perspective shifted from black-and-white concepts into something more introspective.

Maleficent flew into theaters on May 30, 2014, showcasing Angelina Jolie as the vengeful winged fairy. The movie soared to huge box office heights for the House of Mouse, offering a feminist message that transformed the sinister character into a complex one. Ten years later, this empowering tale continues to bewitch viewers seeking a new definition of “happily ever after.”

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

What’s Maleficent about?

If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a fair warning: spoilers ahead.

In a kingdom divided between magic and mortals, a young fairy named Maleficent encounters a human named Stefan as he attempts to steal a stone from the enchanted forest. The two fall in love as time passes, but Stefan eventually stops visiting.

Years later, as adults, Maleficent is the protector of her realm while Stefan serves the ailing king, who makes a deathbed promise to crown whoever dispatches the winged guardian of the Moors. Blinded by ambition, Stefan returns to Maleficent, drugging her to pull a dagger on her unconscious body. Unable to finish the task, Stefan instead brutally removes her wings to present to the king, ensuring his ascension to ruler of the land.

Maleficent steels her heart and plots revenge, picking the announcement of King Stefan’s newborn baby for the day she strikes. Meeting the child, she curses little Aurora to an eternal slumber on her 16th birthday, awakened only by true love’s kiss — an impossible task since Maleficent believes it doesn’t exist.

The king hides Aurora deep in the woods to prevent the curse from taking effect, but Maleficent discovers the location with ease. Surprising herself, the horned fairy spends years covertly protecting her until teenage Aurora reveals she knows about her secret guardian.

Maleficent and Aurora’s bond strengthens, while the king continues his lust for power, shadowed only by his obsession with Maleficent. Stefan strategizes a full-scale invasion of the Moors to end things once and for all as Maleficent tries to stop Aurora’s curse, setting off an exciting chain of events with an unexpected outcome.

An Old Story Anew

One year before Maleficent‘s release, another Disney blockbuster stormed the box office. Frozen was a game changer for the animation studio, spinning a predictable story on its head and challenging the kid’s movie status quo. Prince Charming was no saint, and love at first sight might be a thing of fairy tales more than reality because, as Elsa and Anna learned, looks can be deceiving.

Maleficent capitalized on the lessons Frozen left behind by changing the narrative to the perspective of someone heralded as one of the evilest baddies on Disney’s roster. There aren’t many characters in cartoon history that could achieve this controversial turnaround. Imagine if Scar suddenly unionized the lions and hyenas to force change on Mufasa, or Jafar trying to bring democracy to an outdated monarchy!

The challenge of Maleficent was finding a way to not completely shatter canon since Aurora still needs to be cursed, and there must be a reason for that to happen.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

No Truer Love

After tainting her drink, Stefan violates Maleficent in every way imaginable that can be shown in a PG movie, but the metaphor is crystal clear.

It’s not just the phantom pain of her missing wings that drives Maleficent. The physical scars will heal, but the mental agony remains. Jolie’s character is relatable to anyone who’s been through a terrible trauma, especially at the hands of a trusted person. Maleficent’s world comes to a grim standstill. However, Stefan’s life is better than ever.

“The core of Maleficent is abuse, and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people,” Jolie explained in an interview with BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour in 2014. “The question was asked, ‘What could make a woman become so dark? To lose all sense of her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness?'”

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

That’s why Maleficent isn’t merely a revenge story; it’s redemption. Initially wanting to torment the little princess in place of her abuser, Maleficent exhibits personal growth as she bonds with Aurora. She strives to make sure what happened to her won’t happen to this heir to the throne.

Maleficent has a righteous rage that’s justified but discovers something beyond it. Meanwhile, Stefan wallows within his iron stronghold, obsessing about the one thing he can’t control — a resilient woman.

It’s that resiliency that leads Maleficent to save herself and, in turn, Aurora. The fairy breaks the trauma cycle and revives the cursed princess, finding true love exists beyond naïve young romance. She confronted her past mistakes and overcame them, learning to love herself so she could love others.

It’s a powerful message that still hits no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie.

Despite her foreboding name, Maleficent was simply misunderstood. Her path to darkness was paved by the man she trusted, who was rewarded for the irredeemable hurt that Maleficent had to live with. While younger viewers might not understand all of the psychological effects of what Jolie’s character endures or grasp the metaphors of the film, there is still an object lesson of resilience against injustice.

It stealthily sneaks in a feminist theme that rings true for women, and the happy ending is understanding someone’s abuse doesn’t define who you are. “Happily ever after” is possible for everyone, no matter if you’re a hero, a villain, or a little bit of both.

Maleficent is available on Starz, Amazon, and other on-demand platforms.

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