Sometimes, the most entertainment from watching a film comes from watching the audience.
Opening weekend for Maleficient was huge for my area of Taiwan. How do I know? Well, most people will buy tickets ahead of time online, which always includes being able to pick your seat, by row and seat number. When my friend and I tried to use a specially-priced ticket, we couldn’t use the online system accordingly, but we could use it to gauge how popular each screening time would be. And that’s how we found out how nearly every screening was close to selling out that weekend.
Well, why not still try for it? One just has to psyche himself up to be prepared for more people-watching!
Case in point, during the big scene when the Prince would kiss the Princess– the whole set-up for the fairy tale, after all– many of audience was on the edge of their seats. Literally. Most of the audience were young women, and one lady in particular was poised with both palms together, outstretched fingers in excitement and nearly applauding as the Prince bent down to kiss Aurora.
And then the kiss didn’t work.
The audience overall let out a collective, and kind of frustrated, half-sigh/half-chuckle as they settled back into their seats. In their minds, they were telling the filmmakers “OK, you got us. Good one,” while also feeling “Oh. I wished that would have worked.” Some neighbors even commisserated, in whispered Chinese.
Then Maleficient came forward, and kissed Aurora, causing her to wake.
Which reminds me, I have one question, despite the tangent to my story — did Maleficient know that her kiss would work? On the face of it, perhaps she didn’t, at least not consciously. After all, she did tote Prince Andrew through the forest and castle to force them to kiss instead. But what if she *did* know, or at least suspect? This is an extremely vulnerable moment for the character and the true emotional climax of the film. If she didn’t know/suspect, then really there is no agency for the main character, and it’s only a “surprise” reveal that love does exist. In other words, in that case, “Love,” even in an abstract sense, becomes the deus ex machina that before a true prince would have enacted in order to wake the girl.
Instead, it’s more interesting to consider that Maleficient suspects this to be true. At this point, she is not only saving the girl she feels motherly toward, but it’s also that she must release control/faith in her own power and acknowledge the power of something greater than herself. In a way, it’s a humbling of a character who has never been humble before– not even as a child. She must now *choose* to be vulnerable, to be a “part” of the curse that she placed years before, which in a way is a kind of sacrifice. This mixture of “will it work/will it not” is true dramatic tension for the character.
That said, in either case (knowing/not knowing), the film is more about redefining what love might be, using the context of a fairy tale. This much is obvious, right? Whereas a fairy tale makes certain assumptions about love, the filmmakers deliberately invert the tale in order to make a different thematic statement. And not merely “oh, look at different ways ‘true love’ can be between others.” That’s just “where” love is, not “what” it can be.
If a prince would have kissed Aurora to wake her, there would be no sacrifice, no humbling, no risk. If Maleificient were to kiss Aurora, this truly does say something about love. Thus, according to this movie, love is something that must develop over time, by spending time with another, by allowing yourself to be changed just as much as you wish to safeguard the other person. To humble yourself. And to risk that, even if you do all these things, it still might not work and you do it anyway.
With all that being said, there are just some audiences that want a traditional fairy tale. When the Prince failed, the audience deflated. When Maleficient succeeded, the audience laughed.
They laughed because, story-wise, at that point it was “obvious” but the characters still had to play out their dramatic tension. They laughed to tell the filmmakers “Oh, fine. Redefine love for us. Sure.” Or even to say “Oh, that’s not supposed to happen” and a few probably “Wait. Are they girls in love with each other?” All of that is pretty superficial. What I really think the laughter was about? I think they all laughed in spite of themselves. Because they all KNEW that love is more complicated than what a Disney fairy tale will show us. But that didn’t mean they wanted to stop seeing that kind of story.
They watched the rest of the film, and no one was angry but me that Maleficent didn’t turn into the dragon and the raven did instead, and they all clapped dutifully when all the characters took their final positions for the sweeping camera move at the end.
Then the lights came on, and we all left the theater and went back out into the real world, where we’d find all the complicated questions of love that were still there were we left them, somewhere still waiting outside.