Archives for June 2014

Re-Focusing the Disney Villains

by Aaron Einhorn
It turns out that not twelve hours after writing this I was back in the theatre with Christina and the girls, watching Maleficent a second time. I am happy to say that, on a second viewing, I enjoyed the film a good deal more. Knowing that what I was going to see was a “She’s the misunderstood hero,” film, instead of watching Maleficent’s Start of Darkness made it a far easier film to enjoy the second time around, and everything I found charming the first time around was that much better without the baggage of expecting to see Maleficent actually be a villain.

That said, I still felt like, ultimately, Disney made a misstep with the film – because while Maleficent is a fun movie – and quite possibly a very good one – it is also one that more or less destroys Maleficent ‘s reputation as a villain. And while I applaud the trend seen in both Frozen and Maleficent to show female characters who actually have agency in their films, instead of being objects to be rescued or at best aides to the Hero (and bonus points for putting actual magical power into the hands of the protagonist, instead of keeping magic as something to be doled out by the wise and often inhuman mentor) – I still feel that ultimately, Maleficent has more worth as a brand as Villain than Hero.

Consider, if you will, the role of Maleficent in the Villain line. Look at the sample merchandise from the line, and see how prominent the Mistress of All Evil is – she is normally front and center, overshadowed only by Chernobog (who is given odd prominence considering how small his role in Disney mythology is. The only movie he’s a villain in is Fantasia, and there only for one segment. He doesn’t even have any lines.)

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Disney Vinylmation Figures – the Villains line has Maleficent front and center

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Maleficent is right there in the on-page logo of the Villains section of Disney’s online store.

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Maleficent in the “Dream Along With Mickey” show.

That doesn’t even begin to touch upon her role as a villain within the parks. Maleficent is the chief villain during the Dream Along With Mickey show in front of Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, her dragon form is one of the main attractions in the Festival of Fantasy parade, and she is the climactic moment in Fantasmic! in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios.

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The Dragon form in the Festival of Fantasy parade.

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The climax of “Fantasmic!”

Additionally, for the readers in Disney fandom, Maleficent was chief among the Overtakers (Disney villains trying to take over the parks) in Ridley Pearson’s first four Kingdom Keepers novels.

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Maleficent’s malicious gaze threatens the heroic kids.

Heck, when Disney’s House of Mouse did their House of Villains movie, Maleficent even gets to sing the line that should have been the Evil Queen’s. (Check the video below at the 1:00 mark)

Is it worth diluting all of this just to add a female character (who will never be a part of the Princess line) with magical powers for fans? Even if Maleficent is a huge hit, little girls are not going to be casting aside their Anna and Elsa dresses to don the dark fairy’s black dress and horns (and, in fact, Disney doesn’t offer a child-sized version of the dress at this time, although adults can purchase Maleficent’s gown – when it’s back in stock.)

And that’s when it hit me. Maybe it is intentional.

Maleficent is, when it comes down to it, a relatively late addition to the Villains line. Snow White (1937) gave us the Evil Queen, who was relatively ignored until she leapt back to prominence thanks to Lana Parilla’s delightfully wicked performance on Once Upon a Time. Chernobog originates in 1940’s Fantasia. Lady Tremaine, Anastasia and Drizella (yes, they have names) come from 1950’s Cinderella – and Maleficent doesn’t appear for another nine years after that.

That’s right, of the “Classic” members of the Villains line, Maleficent is the second-to-last addition, only followed by Cruella di Ville.

Consider that earlier villains have fared much better on Once Upon a Time than their more recent additions. Ursula only actually appears once – her other appearance was actually the Evil Queen masquerading as the Sea Witch. Maleficent appears a few times, played by Kristin Bauer van Straten ( True Blood), but she consistently plays second fiddle to the power of Regina or the main characters. But Regina, the Evil Queen? She’s practically the star of the show. And Captain Hook (whose on-screen relationship with Disney began in 1953) has become a show mainstay, and the romantic interest for our lead.

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Who’s the fairest of them all? Well, there is certainly an argument for it to be this version of Regina…

Meanwhile, despite Maleficent’s prominence in the early Kingdom Keepers novels, by Books Five and Six, she’s barely present and she doesn’t appear at all in the final volume – while the Evil Queen, Chernobog and Tia Dalma all gets lots of attention.

Notice that it is the Queen's eyes we see now, not Maleficent's.

Notice that it is the Queen’s eyes we see now, not Maleficent’s.

Could it be possible that someone in the Disney hierarchy has decided to move the focus away from Maleficent, for whatever reason?

Could the Flanderization of Maleficent be, in IT-Geek speak, be not a bug, but a feature?

In any case, we can be certain that long before the Green Light was given on Maleficent, someone at Disney made a long and hard calculation on the decision to transform one of the most pre-eminent members of the Villains line into a hero. Perhaps it’s a desire to cash in on the popularity that Wicked gave to the Wicked Witch. Maybe it’s the decision to shift the focus of the Villains line to other characters. Or maybe they have something else entirely in mind. But I can’t believe that they made Maleficent into a hero accidentally. And being the Disney fan that I am, I’ll confess to being very curious to see how this plays out.