On Frozen (2013) and Maleficent (2014)

“Innocence is most fortunate if it finds the same protection as crime.” – La Rochefoucauld

Both of these revisionist fairy tales take familiar female villains, the Snow Queen and the wicked fairy from Sleeping Beauty, and depict them as sympathetic, if not mostly positive, characters. The motive behind such depictions is to update stories that have misogynistic overtones for contemporary society by reworking them in such a way as to affirm the value of equality between the sexes. But both films suffer from some major flaws, which have to do in part with the need to portray their respective protagonists in a positive light. In Frozen, Elsa and her younger sister Anna are not as fully realized as they ought to be – we get little sense of the characters beyond the difference that Elsa is the cautious older sibling and Anna is the more freewheeling and spontaneous type. Indeed, Elsa’s power over ice and snow comes across as oddly self-contained – there is no attempt to link her gifts to other aspirations and anxieties that she might have. When she belts out her anthem, there’s no indication that she’s letting anything else go besides her powers. If Elsa at last becomes her authentic self while isolated in her ice castle, what is it about her solitude that she finds fulfilling? We’re not given any clue whether “let it go” is supposed to mean “lean in” or “drop out.” I suppose the important thing is that regardless of whether one lets it all hang out or stuffs it all back in, it’s all fine as long as it’s the result of one’s personal choice. But then the affirmation of choice as pure possibility is contradicted by the ending of the film, which is actually quite successful in capturing the spirit of the fairy tales by depicting one sister’s courageous sacrifice to save the life of her sibling.

The archetypal power of fairy tales arises in large measure from their plainly implausible yet stubbornly hopeful endings, which they present with irrefutable conviction as the iron laws of existence itself. The story must end with a resurrection or with a miraculous transformation, and as such is the well of hope and wishful thinking alike for most individuals since the time of childhood. Maleficent is at its most absorbing when it focuses on the experience of this miraculous change, and to its credit the film locates it in the heart of its protagonist, the fairy who causes Sleeping Beauty (called Princess Aurora in the film) to fall into a deep slumber the day after her sixteenth birthday. The film does not start off on the most promising note – Maleficent is a fairy living contentedly in an anarchistic woodland paradise where all the living beings live in harmony and presumably receive their life energy from a giant tree. The narrator moreover tells us that the humans living near the woods were “greedy” and “jealous,” setting up the conflict in which Maleficent will be betrayed by her only human friend, Stefan, out of his ambition to win the hand of the princess and the king’s only child.

On the day of Aurora’s christening, Maleficent arrives to lay a curse on the infant, which the film shows us is an entirely understandable response, if not a morally justifiable one, to her shabby treatment at the hands of the scheming upstart. But the film then takes an unexpected detour in which Maleficent ends up watching over the life of the girl as she grows into her teen years. The first time she appears to Aurora after she has grown, the girl recognizes her as her fairy godmother, and thanks her for keeping her safe during her girlhood. Angelina Jolie, her already strong cheekbones honed to razor sharpness, relates convincingly the emotional turmoil Maleficent undergoes, as she finds her maternal instincts to be far stronger than the grievance and resentment she feels toward her mortal enemy, the girl’s biological father. Jolie does an excellent job evoking the wounded passion and deep affection roiling beneath the surface of a wicked witch’s icy hauteur.

But Maleficent, like Frozen, presents a princess character who is left sadly under-developed. Elle Fanning is given far too little to do in her role as ingénue, though her performance suggests that her character could be as interesting as Maleficent herself. Aurora is a girl who moves between two worlds, a condition which should make for interesting conflicts as it would for an engaging, well-earned resolution. I think both Maleficent and Frozen share a missing element, which is that of education. One of the odd moments in Frozen is when Elsa, for the sake of keeping her sister Anna safe, is exiled to her room. But what does she do all those years she is absent from the life of the court? It would have made more sense for the narrative had her parents engaged some kind of tutor, perhaps a magician of some sort, to teach Elsa how to control her powers. Alternatively, it might have been interesting if she was shown spending those years in study, preparing herself for the responsibility that would come after her ascent to the throne. Similarly, in Maleficent, Aurora is not shown readying herself for her destined future as the queen of two realms. It would have much improved the film had Maleficent taught her magic, or given her some insights into the mysteries of the human character.

But why do both films avoid such scenes of instruction which are par for the course in fantasy narratives about the male hero coming of age? Why couldn’t the film have made Maleficent a little more like Obi-wan-kenobi – it certainly would have strengthened the ties between her and the girl and made it more plausible that the latter would become the ruler of both the enchanted forest and the human kingdom. There is also a missed opportunity in Frozen to show how Elsa’s talent, and her control over that talent, could be a source of both fulfillment and pain. Could the therapeutic nature of our culture be the culprit, in which these young women, because they are already princesses, need to be depicted as not lacking in anything? They are already wonderful, so is there no need to them to change or learn something painful on the way to becoming an adult? What kind of social fantasy does the image of such stasis underpin? A high self-esteem may correlate to social immobility, after all.

On a final note, the true villain of Maleficent, Aurora’s upstart father, is shown to be wicked because he is ambitious. But the film doesn’t reveal what makes him ambitious, nor does it give us any insight into what made him go from kind and decent to treacherous and megalomaniacal. It’s as though the mere fact of being ambitious were enough to make one evil. In a world where wealth is being increasingly concentrated in the top 1%, isn’t it a good idea to work out a more profound understanding of what it is that drives ambitious people?




One response

  1. I’m seriously so stoked to see this movie! Thanks for the post. I think I’m going to go buy a ticket tonight. If you’re into zombies or apocalyptic stuff, check out: http://www.theapocalypsebites.com. Thanks for sharing! Cheers.

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