Disney’s “Maleficent” is sympathetic...but wrong
Nothing makes a fairy tale better than a good villain. Forget heroes. Heroes are boring. They always have been. Princes, princesses, kings, and queens are always bland, banal people with insipid goals representing the status quo.
It is always the villain that introduces the conflict and moves the story along. The best villains are the ones we hate to see lose. Television and film has moved more and more towards the anti-hero, sort of an amalgamation of the two, a character good in the center with an evil and devilish shell. From Tony Soprano to Walter White (both of whom could be argued to be more villain than hero), some of the most innovative figures in popular culture have wicked tendencies.
This represents the shift towards realism and complexity, where black and white worlds no longer exist. However, not every story needs to be retold through this lens. In fact, doing so sometimes does a disservice to the original. There is beauty in simplicity. Nowhere is this more evident than Disney’s newest abomination, “Maleficent.” In their hamfisted attempt at creating a sense of depth in what should be the simplest story imaginable, they have ruined the most sinister Disney villain this side of the Horned King.
For whatever reason, Disney decided that the evil, dark sorceress from the 1959 film “Sleeping Beauty” needed to be a sympathetic character. Of all of the classic Disney animations, “Sleeping Beauty” is likely the best. It has everything a good fairy tale needs: a legendary kingdom, magical characters, a capable hero and a great evil.
The Maleficent of the original film doesn’t need a betrayal or a broken heart to weave mayhem. A simple slight in custom is enough for a deadly curse on an infant. She doesn’t need to be the protector of the forest—she needs an army of trolls to do her bidding. She is evil, simple and pure. Giving her a back story and forcing her into a protagonist role makes the decisions made by her character nonsensical. Part of this is due to Disney’s apparent need to change the very nature of the curse from the original film. In “Sleeping Beauty,” Maleficent doesn’t curse Princess Aurora to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep on her 16th birthday, she curses her to prick her finger and die. She sentences a child not even a month old to death because Aurora’s parents didn’t invite her to a party. It’s only the fairies that manage to soften the curse to sleep. That’s a special kind of evil; it’s cruel and dark and perfect.
The Maleficent of 2014 doesn’t do this. The Maleficent we are introduced to is from the outset a good and noble creature, one that is merely misunderstood, a powerful protector of the magical realm she inhabits. This new Maleficent doesn’t sentence the child to die—she sentences the child to fall into a “sleep like death.” This is an important distinction. The curse in this film is weaker because the character herself is weaker. She is no longer a decisive evil; she’s a reactionary victim that would be much more likely to take out her anger on the king personally. Her decision to curse the child is inconsistent with the character the film takes such care to create.
The villain role in this film falls to King Stefen himself, retreading tired fantasy tropes of the evils of men and their ambition, as if a fairy tale creature is incapable of jealousy. King Stefen is another victim of poor characterization. He makes decisions only because the plot requires it. There is no one in this film that is a fully realized person. The film spends an unnecessary amount of time following Princess Aurora around while doing nothing to make her interesting. She was never supposed to be an interesting character; in her case, a lack of characterization is a boon to the story.
She is and should remain the object of the prince’s affection. The most exciting part of the original film is the confrontation between the Prince and Maleficent (who spectacularly turns into a dragon). But the prince is barely acknowledged in the film and Maleficent isn’t given the opportunity to breathe fire.
The overwhelming problem with “Maleficent” is the willful misunderstanding of the character. All they needed to do was keep the character evil. Remember, this is a creature that threatened to destroy the prince with “all the powers of Hell.” Angelina Jolie is more than capable of portraying that. I understand that Disney has to play to their audience of impressionable children, but if they can’t create a film that maintains the blackhearted nature of the title character, they should have left the property alone.