Spoilers for ‘Maleficent’, ‘Frozen’ and ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful’
Disney is starting to make a habit of making it big on fairy tale revisions, and female-centric ones at that. Their new take on Maleficent took the box office by storm on its opening weekend, inviting comparisons to the juggernaut that was Frozen last year. Once again, a more feminist take on a traditional fairy tale story worked wonders for Disney — at least at the box office – as Angelina Jolie’s more sympathetic Maleficent won over opening weekend audiences.
However, the new Maleficent was less reminiscent of her 1959 animated version than she was of Disney’s last new take on a legendary female villain – the Wicked Witch of the West. Oz: The Great and Powerful was more about the origins of the Wizard of Oz than the green nemesis of Oz, yet the Witch and Maleficent both got similar motivations to go to the dark side. And despite the attempts to make Maleficent a feminist retelling, it may have instead exposed a not so feminist pattern in Disney for reimagining female villains – one more similar to Fatal Attraction than old family classics.
In their new incarnations, being with the wrong man is the fatal turn that turns these villainess’s bad. Despite how scummy and undeserving the future Wizard of Oz and Maleficent’s evil King are, being rejected and wronged by them still makes the Witch and Maleficent into villains. In that regard, it is the more family friendly version of the adult cautionary tale told by Fatal Attraction and all its knockoffs – break the wrong woman’s heart and watch her turn into a psychopath for it.
Having such a turn to evil defined by a man, and one who never seemed to be worth all that trouble to begin with, is a debatable kind of feminist message at best. As the LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson wrote, these may not be truly “revisionist fairy tales” with the message that “the sheer power of being rejected by one dude is enough to make any girl nuts.” Given that the ‘Wizard’ the Witch goes crazy over is played by a lazy James Franco, and Maleficent turns evil over heartbreak caused by Sharlto Copley’s latest bizzaro villain, it seems even more fantastical.
The Broadway smash hit Wicked is cited as an inspiration for these new takes on magical female villains. However, comparing the Wicked Witch’s origins in Oz to those in Wicked only makes Oz look much worse by comparison. While Wicked‘s Elphaba was a true rebel, whose journey was as much about discovering friendship and empowerment as romantic love, Oz‘s Theodora is merely painted as a naïve, lovesick fool. And while Elphaba was embodied by Idina Menzel singing her first legendary song about letting go of the past, Mila Kunis could only rant and cackle until her voice cracked as Theodora.
Casting isn’t a problem for Maleficent, with Jolie getting the vast majority of credit for the film’s early success – even by those who hated it. However, a common complaint among critics is that Jolie isn’t allowed to be wicked enough. In the attempts to make Maleficent more sympathetic and feminist – whether they work or not – there were costly side effects. As a cost of the speed bumps in the new backstory, it sidelines Maleficent’s power and complexity, to say nothing of Jolie herself.
In boiling these powerful, fearsome yet darkly lovable villainess’s into women merely wronged by rotten men, Disney took a kind of creative shortcut. Instead of putting more effort into reimagining these famed characters – or at least making their fatal turns less man-centric at the very core — Oz and Maleficent do a disservice to their true legacies.
Such a shortcut to sympathy can also be seen on TV, in a far darker but almost as lazy trend. The new go-to method for making dark, semi-villainous female characters sympathetic nowadays is to have them raped, like in Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, House of Cards and Scandal. Some of these takes have worked better than others, yet the basic theme of making these women more sympathetic by the worst methods possible is becoming a troubling crutch – as if that’s the only way for them to earn sympathy. Such methods are rarely considered necessary to soften male antiheroes, yet female anti heroines often receive a crushing double standard.
In a way, that trend is used in Maleficent, of all things, as virtually everyone has cited the betrayal of Maleficent – in which her wings are cut off by her supposed beloved while she is drugged — as a metaphor for date rape and even genital mutilation. Such parallels are pretty dark for even a post modern Disney movie, although these are issues Jolie has fought against in her humanitarian work as well.
Yet that kind of narrative shortcut may be what makes Maleficent different from Oz, and is its best defense. By having the evil king cut off Maleficent’s wings and take away her power, it can be argued that the loss of such good power – not just the loss of love – is what really drives Maleficent to the dark side of power. In that regard, fighting against such a patriarchal tyrant and society carries a more stinging feminist message, as Awards Daily blogger Sasha Stone believes it helps girls see “a woman is important beyond the man who rescues her.”
The movie ultimately comes down to the complicated bond between Maleficent and Princess Aurora, much like Frozen came down to the complicated bond between sisters Anna and Elsa. And like in Frozen, acts of familial love between women is what finally saves the day. By that definition, Maleficent and Frozen indeed break the old Disney mold, even if the mean to get to that end are sometimes debatable.
At the least, Maleficent is quite different from Oz at the end, although it would have to be since Maleficent is much more of a main character than the Wicked Witch. But even though there are more layers to Maleficent’s dark origins than the Witch, the fact they both start out bad because they naively fell for the wrong man is a regrettable pattern for Disney.
Even Frozen’s Anna triggers most of that movie’s chaos because she naively falls for the wrong man, although that was at least used for satire as well. The Disney owned TV series Once Upon A Time also had their Evil Queen start down a dark road because her first love was murdered, due to a mistake by a young Snow White. Now a wrench in her new relationship put her in danger of turning evil again at the end of the most recent season – ironically, before Elsa herself popped up too.
Disney has a complicated relationship with fairy tales and princesses in general. Since the early 90’s, the studio has tried to make their princesses and leading females more interesting than the one-note damsels of the past, but it has been a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ process at times. The simplistic, often less than feminist origins of two of the most iconic female villains of all time qualify as a “two steps back” example – especially in the midst of Disney’s “one step forward” with Frozen.
The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent were chilling and still likable enough without being put on the level of Alex Forrest, at least in the setup. Although Wicked is more of an inspiration for these new origins than Fatal Attraction, Oz took all the wrong lessons from it when it came to the Witch, while Maleficent got it half right only after a troubling start. If Disney doesn’t learn the right lessons from Frozen down the line as well – whether from future remakes, new fairy tales or inevitable Frozen sequels – it will be yet another missed opportunity to go in a new direction.
When there are more adventures at Disney that are like Frozen and Wicked, then the studio will seem more evolved. But as long as they – and Hollywood in general – keep using the same old narrative shortcut of powerful women’s origins actually being shaped by men, evil or not, then there’s still a long way to go for narrative equality.