Maleficent (film) – to sleep, to dream! – viewed 2014 with academics of The Monash Fairy Tale Salon

Disorientation stalks my impressions of Stromberg’s film Maleficent. Not simply because Sleeping Beauty lost her beauty sleep; it’s the stance on time that bugs me. Removing one hundred years from a spell has consequences. A lot can happen in a century. Apparently the risk of a dress falling out of vogue is unpalatable for contemporary audiences. Frump of last season’s style might be appeased by retro trends that allow grandma’s hat to escape oblivion by skipping a generation – but a century? Zounds!

Before elaborating on sacredness of faery time, I’ll acknowledge the film’s saving graces: powerful acting, dazzling costumes, ethereal settings and soundtrack panning that yanked my glance sideways more than once. Yet is this all we need from a film – or fairytale? Disney, thanks for celebrating this subject, but have you forgotten the most important part of this one: a rather long slumber? Sure, it doesn’t fit the protestant work ethic of forensic scientists in American sitcoms like CSI; or fame’s doctrine that decrees one should always be touring; or business jargon “moving forward”; or the cult of grey nomads ripping up Australian beaches in vans; but we fairies like our sleep. I take umbrage at our priorities being misconstrued. Why do you assume we all value a century of dreaming less than a chance to awaken in a dress that’s hip, free of dust or perspiration? Why attend films about fairytales hailing from bygone ages or far-flung continents, if not to transcend vapidity? Every era has limitations – I appreciate the advances of our own – yet one thing fairytales provide abundantly is time. Paradoxically, through timelessness. As dervishes and storytellers know, once upon a time is once and for all time, when there was no time and all times were one time; liberation from an Orwellian Nightmare of Now. It’s appalling enough that technocracy’s edicts promise efficiency while surreptitiously robbing us of time for all we hold dear. To paraphrase Banquo’s warning in Macbeth, the “instruments of darkness” win us with trifles, only to betray us in “deepest consequence”. So it is with technology’s double-edged sword. Michael Ende explored, in Momo, theft of time as a threat akin to insidious Nothingness in his fantasy The Neverending Story, reminiscent of receding borders of Fey in Dunsany’s neglected novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Cutting fairytale dreamtime is a betrayal. As Prospero observed, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (Shakespeare, Act IV, scene 1, The Tempest). In dreaming we prosper. There might have been practical reasons for adolescent princesses to be hidden, disguised, protected, locked away – rendering curses a mixed blessing – nevertheless I’m more worried about the assault on time, in a super-speed zone where mavens no longer cultivate imagination. They just visit gyms and zap special effects from fingernails.

Plot twists were appealing, even if I agree with Bloom’s distinction between inevitability and predictability. There is a moment in some art when we sense sublimity, as in Emily Dickinson’s alabaster chambers, or the life in Michelangelo’s marble: form emerges while coming into itself as if it had always been so. Conversely, predictability clings to cliches, memes or platitudes, like… oh, let me see, how about this: the best way to make a fairy evil is… um, deny her a chance to have your baby? Notwithstanding Jolie’s inspiring performance – from vocal dynamics to agility and facial expression – I found the undertone of redemption sickly and condemnatory. “Malevolent hag!” (So I imagine the reprimand.) “You lost the reproductive race. Redeem yourself! Prove your worth by rescuing someone else’s child as it starves or drops off a cliff. Overcome torments, iron nets, chains. Suffer enough and you might fly again.” (Nevermind that ancient elementals had other transport. It was Elizabethans who put wings on fairies.) Meanwhile why not mock nursery nannies who’ve been equally fruitless? They’ll bumble around a kitchen, fluffing flour. Granted, this is Disney’s adaptation of its own adaptation, but can we alleviate silliness by repeating it? In Kipling’s novel Puck of Pook’s Hill, the ageless green sprite bemoaned shrinkage of fairies to saccharine buzz-flies, far removed from storm-riders on fairy steeds that once picked their way among lightning flashes in the waves. Jolie’s portrayal of Maleficent revived that wildness, but maternal yearning and remorse diluted that energy. While a childfree witch ended up doing all the babysitting, what was Aurora’s biological mum up to? I hope she had a good nap.

For other Australian perspectives or presentations of global fairy tale heritage:

Monash Fairy Tale Salon:

Storytelling Victoria (formerly Storytelling Guild):

Australian Fairy Tale Society: