Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Many Faces of Evil

When I decided to watch Disney's new Maleficent with Angelina Jolie I was surprised that so many people were opposed to changing the story of Sleeping Beauty and focusing on a very different Maleficent. To add Angelina Jolie as Maleficent was tantamount to heresy. How dare Disney make Maleficent a heroine! It went against the grain. What was next, a sympathetic Lady Tremaine as Cinderella's stepmother? Horrors! Heresy!


I enjoyed Maleficent and was not too disturbed by Jolie's portrayal. She was sympathetic, but tended to try to mimic the original actress who voiced the animated version of Maleficent in Disney's Sleeping Beauty, Eleanor Audley, Audley also voiced Lady Tremaine. Her style was high class with a hint of British pronunciation at times, but definitely a deep, rich, malevolent voice where Jolie's is certainly not any of those things. Jolie has a mid-range voice and should have stuck to her own recognizable voice instead of the parody that ended up on the screen at times and distracted from her otherwise interesting performance.

Disney's change in tone and focus in taking Maleficent out of her previously strictly villainous portrayal is in line with the theme that runs throughout Once Upon A Time: villains are not born; they are made.  That theme informs all of the villainous characters in Disney's retool of the beloved fairy tales that get their twist from Kitsis and Horowitz's version of fairy tale life.

In their version of Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent, Kristen Bauer van Straten, is blonde and, although evil, has a strong sense of justice running through her character, if giving a thief a chance to return what he stole from her castle horde without immediately incinerating him can be termed justice. Van Straten's Maleficent in the end is no match for the Evil Queen, Regina, played by Lana Parilla, but that is another story. 

What Disney's remake of Sleeping Beauty does do is what has been done before by fan fiction writers and writers during the heyday of Paris's great salons, write their own versions of fairy tales. The same twist has happened before and will continue to happen as long as there are different writers with different views of stories, characters, and plots. How many Cinderella's have graced the screens (small and large) and will continue to find new ways of getting a young girl abused and misused by her blended family out of the ashes and into the arms of a prince to take her away from the drudgery that her life has become? Drew Barrymore portrayed a strong and intelligent Cinderella raised on the books of Plato and Thomas More to believe that the world could be a better place and then proceeds to take down the prince who has just stolen their only horse. She didn't know he was a prince, but she did not hesitate to drop him with an apple and get her horse back while chastising the prince for his theft. She continues to chastise him throughout their budding relationship as she challenges him to be a better man than he has been. Where was the outcry then? Could it be because Angelica Huston's portray of her evil stepmother was right on target and as dissipated, spoiled, and villainous as Cinderella's stepmothers have always been? Nothing was changed, not really. Cinderella was abused and she took her life -- and the prince -- in her own arms and marched boldly into the future while her stepmother and one of her stepsisters were served justice in the castle's laundry.

The original story of Cinderella has changed many times and were much bloodier and vicious. In order to prove they could wear Cinderella's glass slipper one stepsister cut off her heel and the other her great toe. Both were ratted out by the tree that grew over Cinderella's mother's grave, calling out to the blood on the slipper that shouldn't be there. The stepmother and stepsisters were dragged through the streets of the royal city in metal boxes, presumably to their deaths. Bloodier stories for bloodier times and quite unlike Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire. Where was the outcry then when the stepsisters were actually as abused as Cinderella in Amsterdam when the coin of the realm and the basis of fortunes came from the growing and sale of tulips?

It seems the outcry is because Maleficent is a monster made by anger, pain, and the need for revenge and not a monster born whole cloth out of the depths of Hell. Please, people, get a grip. I can tell you that sympathetic characters are better received than one-dimensional villains, except in fairy tales told to children without the discernment necessary to understand that evil wears many faces and does not spring out of the darkest abyss of Hell ready to wreak havoc and destroy happy endings.

Jolie didn't turn into a dragon as her predecessors have, and as Audley did in the 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty certainly did to face off against Prince Phillip, or as van Straten did when she was trapped beneath Storybrooke for 28 years in her dragon form. Jolie turned her crow/raven into a very convincing dragon and fought King Stefan and his troops on her own until Aurora set free the wings Stefan had severed from her back while she slept, having been drugged by a man she thought truly loved her. How many of us can say the same -- about the drugging, not having our wings severed?

The point is that Jolie's performance, flawed by her affectation and mimicry of Audley's Maleficent, was still the heart of a more nuanced and many-faceted fairy tale with a happy ending. Aurora became queen and very likely married Prince Phillip and Maleficent gave up her desire for vengeance at being wronged by the first man she loved to embrace forgiveness and breaking the curse she cast on baby Aurora. Maleficent, while not an Oscar worthy movie, is certainly a laudable addition to the fairy tale canon and a story that adds much to the fairy tale genre and villainous deeds. Bravo!

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