Just Another Wicked Witch?
by TAMARA KASSEM-TOUFIC
Monday 20th October 2014
The word Disney has become synonymous with beautiful princesses, evil villains, love at first sight and happily ever afters. But it seems that with the release of Frozen (2013) and Maleficent (2014), Disney have started to rethink things.
In her book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (1995), Marina Warner suggests that Disney films have influenced “a form where sinister and gruesome forces are magnified and prevail throughout – until the very last moment, where…right and goodness overcome them.” This succinctly summarises the basic storyline of most Disney films. The stories are designed so that all hope and happiness seems lost to evil and misery, until everything is resolved at the very end when the protagonist can finally be happy and goodness wins out over evil. The use of good and evil is a major characteristic of Disney fairy tales and there are almost always clear cut heroes and villains: Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) and Ursula (voiced by Pat Carroll) in The Little Mermaid (1989), Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) and Doctor Facilier (voiced by Keith David) in The Princess and the Frog (2009), and Aurora (voiced by Mary Costa) and Maleficent (voiced by Eleanor Audley) in Sleeping Beauty (1959). All of these characters fit explicitly into the categories of either “good” or “evil”, as has always been the staple for Disney.
Maleficent is no exception to this rule. There is a continuous struggle throughout the film between the fairy and human lands with the humans and fairies respectively representing evil and good. However, Disney’s new spin on the Sleeping Beauty story has changed this archetype drastically. Although there is still a beautiful princess who is entirely good, Aurora (Elle Fanning) is by no means the centre of the story, and in fact we do not even see her fully grown (or at least fully grown by Disney standards) until half way through the film. When she is on screen, however, it is clear that she is every bit a stereotypical Disney princess. Fanning’s Aurora is an extremely simple character, she has no real personality traits, apart from that she is very kind and upbeat, which is more or less how she is in Disney’s original version. In fact, Aurora is not really a character at all, but merely a tool used to develop the conflicted character of Maleficent (Angelina Jolie).
Maleficent – the representative of the fairy realm – is both good and evil. The film shows Maleficent’s internal struggle between these two forces, which is a rather new concept for Disney. In contrast to Aurora, Maleficent is a very interesting character with many different characteristics and motivations. She is an understanding and caring creature; and, as the most powerful fairy, she is an important protector of the fairy realm from a young age onwards. She wants to protect her fellow creatures and has no desire for war with the humans. However, when she is betrayed by Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a darkness is born inside her, spurring her to attack, rather than just defend. In this respect she is like no other Disney character as she is both hero and villain. She embodies the idea that everyone has the capacity for good deeds and for bad, which is a more realistic portrayal of a person, as opposed to someone being entirely good or entirely evil. This is a major departure from convention for Disney and makes for a far more interesting character.
As with Aurora, however, the film somewhat resorts to convention for the character of King Stefan, who is an external threat and the antagonist. Although we are familiar with the character of Maleficent as the evil villain, we are asked to sympathise with her in this retelling. She is presented as a loving, protective person that has been deeply wronged by the increasingly insane King Stefan. He is the reason that such hatred grew in Maleficent in the first place and he is the one that tries to keep on fighting, right until the bitter end, until, as Warner indicates, goodness ultimately wins out both within Maleficent and in the two realms. Yet Stefan did have a “good side” too, when he first met Maleficent demonstrated in the casting away of his iron ring that hurts her. However, he is corrupted by ambition, rather than by loss and grief as Maleficent is, which is a vital difference. As Maleficent’s evil is born from love, it is also conquered by love, whereas Stefan’s evil is born from selfish desire and because he betrays someone that loved him, not even his success at becoming king could vanquish the evil and instead he is swallowed up by it. He is also unrepentant at his crimes, never seeking forgiveness or trying to rectify his mistakes, instead he becomes increasingly deluded and obsessed with Maleficent, to the point where he forsakes his own wife and child. This differentiates him further from Maleficent, as she does try to revoke her curse when she realises what evil she has done. Therefore, she can find redemption whereas King Stefan cannot. This suggests that although Disney acknowledge that people can contain both good and evil, there must still be a physical, outright antagonist; someone for the heroes to fight against and destroy without being reprimanded.
Love is also not as straightforward in the case of Maleficent. Although the princess meets her prince and they experience what we are led to believe is true love, his kiss is insufficient to wake her from her everlasting sleep. This is a significant twist for Disney, whose films almost always rely on the princess’s “true love” prince to save them. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Snow White (voiced by Adriana Caselotti) is awakened from her lengthy slumber by the kiss of a prince (voiced by Harry Stockwell) whom she meets, although briefly, and falls in love with. In Cinderella (1950), Cinderella’s freedom from her stepmother’s enslavement only ensues once she meets the Prince and he whisks her off to marry him and live in his castle. Although Maleficent does centre on love, with true love as a continuous theme throughout, it breaks Disney conventions by not having heterosexual, marital love as the final redemption and the cure to all evil. Instead, it uses maternal, familial true love, something which is much more unconditional.
This is not the first time Disney has gone down this route, as it is also seen in the recent release of Frozen, one of the most commercially popular films from the past year. Instead of true love’s kiss curing Anna’s (voiced by Kristen Bell) frozen heart as might be expected, it is the act of Anna sacrificing herself to save her older sister Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) that is the cure. Although the moral of both Frozen and Maleficent is still that true love conquers all, it is very refreshing to see Disney finally embrace a new kind of love; one that does not require a man. Disney films almost always have a man come to the rescue, with the protagonist falling in love, and defeating the evil forces as a result. Disney’s departure from this is significant because the studio is seemingly starting to adapt to modern times and evolve. Disney films have been criticised for their sexist portrayal of women and their reliance on men to save them. It is encouraging to see strong and independent female characters that eschew gender conventions and can be the hero of their own tale.
Although both films do include heterosexual love, they also openly satirise the “Disneyfied” view of love in which the female protagonist will fall in love at first sight and immediately marry. We are led to believe that this is what happens between Anna and Hans (voiced by Santino Fontana) in Frozen when they sing the duet “Love is an Open Door” and immediately ask for Elsa’s blessing of their marriage. Elsa’s refusal to give consent is the first acknowledgment that it is not usual, or advisable for that matter, to marry someone you barely know. Later, Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff) is incredulous at the idea that Anna would “get engaged to someone [she] just met that day” and it becomes a point of comedy for the film. This is the first time Disney have acknowledged this strange convention; agreeing through Kristoff that it is preposterous to marry someone after just one meeting. Disney present a more realistic view of love, demonstrating that it is not immediate but must grow and strengthen over time.
Disney do appear to be making some changes to their own formula. Indeed it will be interesting to see how Disney handle the live-action retelling of Cinderella in 2015. No official trailers have yet been released so we can only speculate on the tone of the film, although the casting of Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother already suggests a dark departure from the warm, loving and plump character of the 1950s animation. One convention that Disney will surely never break, however, is the happily ever after. Maleficent and Frozen are no exception, with all tribulations overcome in the end. Maleficent, now restored to her former heroine persona, has defeated the evil within herself and can finally be happy again. Anna and the town of Arendelle are saved from Elsa’s powers at the end of Frozen when they realise that their sisterly love was the answer all along. It would surely not be a true Disney film if this was not the case. Disney is a brand and as such has certain defining characteristics. The happily ever after is the crux of Disney’s magic; if you want a happy, easy-going film when times are glum, a Disney film will offer you that comfort. Many of the old folk tales that Disney films are based on are often horrifyingly graphic and depressing, but even they almost always had happy endings. So it seems that although Disney will break away from a few of their conventions, the happily ever after is non negotiable.
Maleficent is released on DVD in the UK on Monday 20th October 2014.
Cinderella is scheduled for a March 2015 release date. Watch the teaser trailer here.