Maleficent: Good But Misunderstood?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

“I know you, I’ve walked with you once upon a dream.”

You may know Sleeping Beauty.  But you don’t know the whole story if you haven’t seen Disney’s new movie Maleficent, in theaters now.

“The Sleeping Beauty” is an age-old folktale that has been retold for hundreds of years.  Originally published by writer Charles Perrault in 1697, it told the story of a young princess who was cast under a sleeping curse by a fairy who held ill will because she was not invited to the castle coronation.  

Perrault’s version concluded with an offset moral, which he hoped that readers would glean from his fairy story.

Many a girl has waited long

For a husband brave or strong;

But I’m sure I never met

Any sort of woman yet

Who could wait a hundred years,

Free from fretting, free from fears…

Though philosophers may prate

How much wiser 'tis to wait

The original Sleeping Beauty was a story that was intended to teach the virtue of purity.  Waiting for love was worth it in the end, even though this poor princess had to wait for a hundred years.  Her patience was rewarded – even if she was waiting under a spell.

While the original princess is left anonymous in the text, her daughter is named “L’Aurore”, which is French for Aurora, meaning dawn.  The story was adapted again by the Brothers Grimm in "Little Briar Rose."  Disney combined these two names from the classic fairytale tellings to produce the only Disney princess with three names: Sleeping Beauty, Aurora and Briar Rose.  

The Disney version is a classic animated fairytale that is symbolic of a 1950s romance.   Aurora is tall, willowy, beautiful and has the charms of a gentle housewife.  Throughout the movie, she is fairly quiet, but has a lovely singing voice and she falls in love with the dashing Prince Philip almost as soon as they meet “once upon a dream”.

In this movie, we see one of the most villainous Disney characters in history, Maleficent, whose own backstory was recently illustrated in the new live action movie starring Angelina Jolie.  While I actually appreciated some of the liberties taken by Disney for this new production, I think it is important to look at this movie in context with the original Sleeping Beauty animated film.  Then, we must ask ourselves the question left for viewers at the end of the movie Maleficent.  Is it possible to be both a hero and a villain?  And was she really both?

First of all, the new Maleficent movie is not a prequel.  It is a retelling.

I was under the impression that Maleficent would be a prequel because of the movie tagline: Evil has a beginning.  And so, I went into the film expecting something akin to Wicked.  You think you know Maleficent?  Wrong!  She’s green, good, but misunderstood.  Actually, forget that.  She’s not green like you grew up thinking.  We don’t want to cover Angelina in green paint, so we’ll just overlook that part.

I thought that Maleficent was going to be like Elphaba, a poor soul who turned wicked because of lost love.  I actually expected and hoped that Maleficent would be like Wicked in that it is still consistent with The Wizard Of Oz.  The two can exist together and tell the same story, though they may lead to different endings and may have unconventional ways of getting there.

That, however, is not the case.

The new Maleficent is a completely different, stand alone re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty.  And while both are fine as individual movies, I’m concerned that Disney has created a film that is no longer consistent with one of their classic fairytales, a story that many young children still cling to as the true tale of one of their favorite princesses.

Let’s take a moment and examine just some of the differences between the original Sleeping Beauty movie and Maleficent.

Sleeping Beauty: Aurora doesn’t know who Maleficent is.  She is raised in the woods by her three little fairy friends.

Maleficent: Aurora thinks that the horned figure lurking in the shadows is her fairy godmother and Maleficent becomes like a mother to her.  In fact, Maleficent is practically the one who raises her, sending food and teaching her things since the fairies are incompetent.

Sleeping Beauty: The three fairies are named Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.

Maleficent:  Nope.  Thistletwit, Flittle and Knotgrass.  What?

Sleeping Beauty: Maleficent is the most wicked, evil, hard-hearted villain in the book.  I doubt that Walt would have been a fan of his most nefarious villainess turning good.  Also, her name comes from the Latin word "malus" meaning bad or wicked.  From the beginning, she was intended to be the villain.  The best example is her terrible monologue that she delivers while Prince Philip is jailed in her castle.  Her plan is to make him suffer, knowing that he can never reach Aurora.

Maleficent:  The fairy doesn’t jail Philip, nonetheless torment him with her evil plot.  Instead, she feels guilty for her curse, so she tries to revoke it.

Sleeping Beauty: Aurora’s father and mother love her very much and wait patiently for her return after living for sixteen years in the woods.

Maleficent: We lied.  Her father is actually the villain and her mother dies.  Poor Aurora.  (Well, at least she has the fairy who cursed her.)

Sleeping Beauty: Prince Philip is the hero.  Yay for true love, even though they barely know each other!

Maleficent: Surprise!  The character whose name just happens to be the title of the movie actually saves the day at the end.  We should have seen it coming.  It is her sorrowful, apologetic kiss on the forehead that awakens Aurora, because only Maleficent truly loved the princess.

Sleeping Beauty: Maleficent turns into a dragon (like, seriously cool) and tries to kill Philip.

Maleficent: She turns her raven friend into a dragon, but not to kill Philip because no one cares about Philip.  He’s just there to look cute and smile.

Sleeping Beauty:  Maleficent is stabbed by a sword after fighting Philip and dies because she’s evil.

Maleficent: Everything you thought you knew was wrong.  King Stefan dies and Maleficent lives happily ever after with Princess Aurora.

And the list goes on and on.

I could critique the plot of Maleficent, but it actually wouldn’t bother me that much if it was a movie that wasn’t related to any other Disney film.  But that’s not true.  Young girls who go to the Disney parks to meet (the real) Princess Aurora are now going to be confused.  We’ve given them two different stories that don’t go together at all.  This new movie has completely rewritten one of Disney’s most classic films.

At least in Wicked, where we see Elphaba turn into Wicked Witch of the West, we meet the same characters, though they may be portrayed differently than we expected.  However, there is a sense of consistency and the same events still happen (like when Dorothy poured water on Elphaba and everyone thought she died — but, of course, no one mourns the wicked.)  Disney missed the opportunity to have a similar prequel that leads up to the events of Sleeping Beauty, or that even blends into the plot.  Yet in my opinion, they made the mistake of completely disregarding the original and changing far too many things.

The most important point from the movie plot I want to discuss now is the continual theme of villainy.

What makes a villain?  And is it possible for a character to be both a hero and a villain?

My thoughts: Yes, it’s possible, but very difficult to portray in story form.  And in the movie Maleficent, she was really only one of the two.  She was the hero.

First, what makes someone a villain?  From a writing perspective, there are four central elements that usually define a villain. 1. Antagonist - the villain must be the main character at conflict with the hero.  2. Prevention - villain must try to keep the hero from reaching their goal. 3. Central character - they should ideally be the second most central character in the story, second to the hero.  4. Wickedness - quite simply, the villain should be bad.  Not necessarily evil, but bad.

A character is not a villain if the audience is on his side.  And in Maleficent, we were always on her side.  The story was set up to show Maleficent as an innocent young fairy who was betrayed by the man she loved.  Because of this betrayal, she sought revenge and cursed his daughter.

We are meant to feel sorry for her, to feel empathy.   She didn’t try to prevent Philip from saving Aurora — in fact, she herself saved the princess.  She was the main character, set up as the protagonist, the hero.  And she was not wicked.  She was simply resentful and bitter.  And she felt bad later, so it was all resolved in the end.  She lived happily ever after with the very person she had once intended to kill through a sleeping curse.

Instead, the antagonist is really King Stefan.  He’s the one who cut off her wings, turned his back on her trust and tried to kill her and sent his daughter away for his own good.  He became consumed by vengeance.

In the new movie, Maleficent was never the villain.  She was a confused hero who really occupied a place of neutrality through much of the movie.

One of the best and only examples I’ve seen of blending a hero and villain is from ABC’s Once Upon A Time.  Regina is the Evil Queen and she has moments of both morality and wickedness.  We both love and hate her.  I can never quite decide if she is good, but I am definitely not always on her side.

I’ll leave it up to you what to think about Maleficent.  I have mixed feelings.  If you’re a diehard Disney fan like me, you may not approve of all the liberties they took on Walt Disney’s beloved fairytale.  However, they also tried to challenge many literary assumptions involving good and evil.

So what do you think?  Can a character be both a hero and a villain?

And if so, what was Maleficent?  Was she really both?

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