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.

Disney’s Maleficent: Review

Disney-Maleficent-Posterby Aaron Einhorn
Generally speaking, I like a nuanced villain. I like a villain who has a reason behind the evil acts that they do. Give me Magneto over the Red Skull any day. Because let’s face it, outside of thirteen year-old boys, no one really thinks of themselves as Evil. We’re all the hero of our own stories, after all, even if it may require a lot of self-justification on our parts.

So, for that reason, I tend to really like alternate-POV stories. I like to understand what makes a villain tick. The story of Erik Lensher is a fascinating one – but one that makes the actions of Magneto no less reprehensible. Loki has reasons for what he does in Thor, which is why Tom Hiddleston now has legions of fans – but no one would argue that Loki was right in doing what he did. Understanding is not the same thing as condoning, after all.

I’m even usually ok with those alternate tales where we find out that the character we thought was the villain is, in fact, the hero. Or might be, depending on which version of the story you want to believe. You cannot simultaneously accept both Wicked and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but you can certainly simultaneously enjoy both.

So, I did my absolute best to go into Maleficent with an open mind and willing suspension of disbelief. Would Angelina be able to deliver as a live-action rendition of one of the most iconic of the Disney villains?

Maleficent within the wall of thorns.

Maleficent within the wall of thorns.

Synopsis

Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take dramatic actions that will change both worlds forever.

The film stars Angelina Jolie as Maleifcent, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville.

Before losing her wings, Maleficent is the protector of the moors.

Before losing her wings, Maleficent is the protector of the moors.

The Feature

The film starts with a young Maleficent, the orphaned fairy who is the protector of the moors – a fairy kingdom which has an uneasy relationship with their human neighbors. Enter the similarly orphaned Stefan, who enters the moors as a thief, but who strikes up a friendship – and ultimately, more than a friendship, with the fairy. As time passes and the years move on, Stefan’s ambition takes him away from his first love, and into the service of the king – a king whose dying wish is to destroy the fae on his borders and reclaim the moors as a part of his kingdom. Stefan’s ambition ultimately wins out on his loyalty to his lover, and as the old king dies, Stefan takes his place as the new King – while a betrayed Maleficent turns cold and bitter.

Incidentally, anyone who witnesses the moment where Jolie plays out Maleficent’s reaction to the betrayal and doesn’t feel their heart break, has no soul. It’s a masterful scene, and puts you completely on Maleficent’s side for the remainder of the film – if you weren’t there already.

This leads us to the scene from Sleeping Beauty that we all know and love, although Maleficent plays with a few details – and this is easily one of the best scenes in the entire film.

From there, the story follows the one we know, with the difference being that Maleficent is not hunting for the missing princess, but in fact watches her grow from infant to child to young woman, and although Aurora never knows the truth about her “fairy godmother,” the relationship between Aurora and Maleficent is fascinating to watch.

The film’s climax plays out not entirely dissimilar to the one from the animated classic, but different enough that you’ll never see it coming, with saviors found in unexpected places, and villains found in others.

Aurora (Elle Fanning) drawn to the spinning wheel like a moth to the flame.

Aurora (Elle Fanning) drawn to the spinning wheel like a moth to the flame.

The Visuals

Maleficent is stunning to look at. Whether the camera is looking at the sweeping views of the moors, zooming over a fierce battle between human and fae, closing in on the ruins of a spinning wheel, or focusing on the exquisite Ms. Jolie, the lens practically makes love to its subject.

The CGI is quite well handled, and the green-screening is easy to ignore, with the inconsistencies easily hand-waved by the fact that the entire film is, in fact, a fairy tale.

Special mention has to go to Rick Baker’s makeup effects on Angelina Jolie to transform her into Maleficent. The makeup is subtle, but deeply effective. There are prosthetics on her cheekbones and chin to change the shape of her face, and contact lenses to give her inhuman eyes, but you have to look really hard to notice. She may no longer be the green-skinned version of the character we know from the animated feature, but while she is unmistakably Angelina Jolie, she is also, without a question, an inhuman fairy creature.

"Listen well..."

“Listen well…”

The Music

To the disappointment of some, I’m sure, Maleficent is not a Disney musical. I know fans of either Sleeping Beauty, or the closest theatrical equivalent, Wicked will no doubt be dismayed, but ultimately this is probably for the best. Maleficent doesn’t need that level of being removed from reality that the “heightened reality” of being a musical would bring with it. That said, the score by James Newton Howard is strong and effective, and Lana Del Rey’s rendition of “Once Upon a Dream” (which plays over the closing credits) is absolutely haunting. Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me.

The Good

There are a lot of really good elements to the film, it’s hard to make a short list. To begin with, the film is almost entirely focused on Jolie’s Maleficent, and this is not a bad thing – because she is at her best in this role. Every now and then an actor goes on screen and you think “This is the role you were born to play.” It happened with Chris Reeve when he donned the red and blue tights of Superman, it happened when Robert Downey Jr. took the role of Tony Stark, and it is evident here with Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, green skin be damned. The CGI is solid, and most of the other acting is excellent. Sam Riley, who plays Diaval is surprisingly good, although his resemblance to a younger Orlando Bloom is oddly distracting. And as already noted above, this is visually a beautiful film, with a strong soundtrack.

The Bad

In Sleeping Beauty, Flora, Fauna and Merriweather are arguably the protagonists of the film. Aurora is beautiful, but she doesn’t actually do much, and without the aid of the faeries, Prince Philip would never have done anything other than be captured and then grow old in a cell. Our three fairies in Maleficent, Flittle, Thistletwit and Knotgrass, are silly, useless creatures who manage to do nothing effective throughout the course of the film. (They don’t even manage to be the reason the curse is mitigated from “death” to a “sleep like death” where she can be awoken by True Love’s Kiss.) Similarly, despite the fact that Sleeping Beauty’s Prince Philip does nothing without the aid of the fairies, in this film, he’s not much more than a glorified cameo.

The Ugly

Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan is not just a foil to Maleficent – he’s an entirely one-dimensional villain of Shakespearean temperament – willing to do anything for ambition, driven mad by the consequences, and completely uninteresting. He’s ambitious, and vengeful, and dull. And you know, Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora was one of the few Disney princesses who had a father figure we could admire – why not destroy that?

King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) plots his revenge against Maleficent.

King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) plots his revenge against Maleficent.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, my feelings on Maleficent are that is a well-made film, beautifully shot (or composed, since so much of it is CGI against green screen), and for the most part, wonderfully acted.

And I was completely dissatisfied with the movie. Why? Well, because this is my vision of who Maleficent is.

My vision of Maleficent is one of a villain – and not just a villain but a villain who enjoys her villainy. She is evil, and she delights in being evil. And Maleficent gives us a very different character who happens to share a name.

I came into the screening hoping for a movie that would give us her backstory and make us feel sympathy for the famed villain. I was hoping we would see a reason for Maleficent to be the evil character we know her to be, but I was also hoping that she would still be a villain. And at the end of the day, Maleficent casts the dark fairy as the hero. She’s a flawed hero, to be sure, because what she does to Aurora is unprovoked and fairly horrible considering that Aurora is innocent of Stefan’s crimes – but the rest of the film makes it clear that the horrible things she does are only out of misguided vengeance.

It’s a great movie, but it’s not the one I was hoping to see. But having now seen it, and having deemed it to not be too scary for our daughters, we’re going to see it again. And I can admire it for what it is. But I’ll never be able to reconcile my feelings about this version of the character with the villain I love to hate in Sleeping Beauty and when I visit Disney World and watch Fantasmic.

But if you don’t have the irrational attachment to keeping Maleficent a villain the way that I do, I think you’ll be able to love Maleficent.

(Disclaimer: I was provided free tickets for the preview screening, however I received no other compensation. All opinions are mine and mine alone.)

Maleficent – Trailer From Equestria

by Aaron Einhorn
So, I’m a brony. I don’t hide this. But this should amuse any of my My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or any fans of Disney.

Check out this parody of the trailer for Disney’s Maleficent, done using Discord and Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony.