Mining fairytales for copywritable stories has been Disney’s schtick since is started making films with Snow White. The premiss is simple: a young girl finds herself confronted by some supernatural older woman and can only be saved by a heterosexual relationship. Indeed, the ‘relationship’ doesn’t have to be anything terribly significant: kissing a comatose woman seems to pass as true love in these films.
There was nothing complicated about the story. You didn’t scratch your head wondering why the old woman was evil. Water is wet. Bacon is tasty. Evil is evil.
If anything, the ‘evil’ stemmed from some moral flaw, and the moral flaw was always gendered. Why is the old woman evil? Because she’s vain. Why is the old man evil? Because he is ambitious. The only exception to this that springs to mind is Sword in the Stone, where Mim was evil for shits and giggles.
But that sort of black-and-white storytelling isn’t enough for today’s generation of hip young edgy young post- and deconstructed movie goers. They need evil characters to have a reason why they’re evil.
Unfortunately, when it comes to giving female villains a backstory, we invariably get the same explanation:
She was dumped and never got over it.
Maleficient is a film in the same ‘my ex-girlfriend is a totally crazy bitch’ genre as Oz: The Great and Powerful. Maleficent — despite her name — is the nicest and loveliest fairy in the communist utopia of magical beings, but she falls in love with a boy from the nearby feudal hellhole populated only by humans. Could this be true love? No. The boy dumps the girl and pursues a life in politics, leaving Maleficent to pine for him.
Following a skirmish between the two realms, the king of the terrible feudal hellhole states that he will anoint whomever kills Maleficent as his heir. Thus the boy returns to Maleficent, betrays her, and steals her wings. Earth-bound, Maleficent seeks revenge, keeping with the fairytale. The boy — now king — has a daughter, she curses the daughter to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep, but she can only be woken by true love’s kiss.
While trying to avoid the traditional problem of the story — seriously, a guy just kisses the princess while she’s asleep and this is okay? — the film runs headlong into another problem: now the message of the film is ‘powerful women are emotional wrecks’.
You can’t imagine a male villain receiving this treatment. There will never be a Silence of the Lambs prequel where Hannibal was dumped by Clarice’s mother, thus turning to cannibalism. Scar was never dumped by Sarabi when they were cubs. Judas didn’t have a secret fling with Mary Magdalene, only for her to reject him in favour of the Christ, resulting in his inevitable betrayal of his beloved’s new beloved. These plotlines never happen, because audiences know that men aren’t that emotionally crippled. Women on the other hand — especially powerful women — must be damaged and that damage must relate to their lack of luck with men.
The result is an awkwardly clunky film where the elements of the fairytale are hung off the premiss that Maleficent lacks conflict resolution skills. She sees a raven being clubbed to death by a farmer, so she turns the raven into a man. Why? Because she needed a raven minion, just like in the animated film. Any ordinary, fully functioning person would defend the bird instead of mutilating it, but that wouldn’t fit the plot.
And Maleficent curses the girl to be pricked by a spinning wheel because there happened to be one in the the throne room.
Ultimately, this is an unsatisfying film. It tries to give a human element to the wicked witch of Sleeping Beauty, but instead it shows that we still can’t depict women choosing dark paths for any reason other than ‘I miss my ex-boyfriend’.