Why I Think I’ll Like Maleficent.
November 23, 2013 § 4 Comments
If you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog, you know that when it comes to fairy tale film adaptations, I am hard to impress. And when it comes to those made by the D-word, The Mouse, the corporation-we-must-not-name, I am skeptical at the very best. Fairy tales in film – well, it’s a long and complicated history. You could argue that the unstoppable popularity of 20th Century animated fairy tale films has kept these ancient stories alive in the public imagination. You could also argue (and I usually do) that the making of a fairy tale into a colorful, copyrighted commodity only serves to keep one version in the public imagination, and that more often than not, that one version is a very flat, very uninteresting version of that tale’s ancestors.
This isn’t a new argument – and because this argument has gained traction in recent years, we’ve actually seen film studios try to beef up their fairy tale adaptations, to make them darker and stranger. Examples: Snow White and the Huntsman, Red Riding Hood. Sometimes they succeed. Often, though, even these “darker” fairy tales are just as silly as the cartoons, a badly plotted action film wearing a sheen of recognizable names and familiar fairy dust to help sell it. They use grainier filters, but will often shy away from exploring the deeper levels of the fairy tales: the sexual awakenings, the illogical yet primal relationships between characters that make one evil and the other their prey.
There are very, very few fairy tale film adaptations that make me feel like the director and the writer wanted to explore something more, rather than simply repackaging a certain corporation’s vision into something sell-able for a new market.
So I was surprised by the recently released teaser trailer for Disney’s Maleficent, and how much I actually want to see the film. Like the Grinch hearing the Whos down in Who-ville singing, I cupped my ear. I didn’t feel the urge to immediately dismiss this. In fact, I was intrigued.
This trailer doesn’t start by showing us a glimpse of what Horrible Thing happened to make Maleficent the way she is – she’s already mysterious, and though I’m sure the film will cater to us by providing some easily understood backstory, I’m grateful that it’s not a part of this trailer. It’s not as important as the potent and poisonous link between the villainess and the ingenue that the trailer is focused on. And that link is portrayed not as the direct and understandable result of some happenstance, but as something primal, undeniable, and multi-layered.
In fairy tales, we see this repeated over and over and over again – the older woman and the young girl, linked in an illogical pattern of jealousy and triumph, ill will and pure-hearted goodness. Scholars like Karen Rowe and Gilbert and Gubar have spent whole chapters trying to explain the stepmother/stepdaughter, evil queen/princess dynamic, and how it’s anti-feminist, mysogynist, it’s a male fantasy or a way to “punish” creative women, etc. When we’re told in a fairy tale that the explanation of an evil woman’s behavior is her jealousy of a younger woman’s beauty, this is overly simple, not to mention a little insulting to women over a certain age. But there does ring some primal truth in the supposed dichotomy of witch/maiden. What it is is hard to explain, but it’s fascinating. And this film, it seems, is aware of both of those things. We aren’t told that the evil fairy is jealous of the princess’s beauty or youth. Instead, we’re told that the evil fairy has been a “shadow,” haunting the girl ever since she was a small child. We don’t know why, but the fact that the trailer shows these two figures confronting each other head on sets us up for an exploration of more than just the same old “she’s prettier than I am” explanation.
In my own writing, I’m very interesting in the places where the witch and the woman intersect and see themselves mirrored in the other. So the notion of the girl being aware of this malevolent woman watching her her entire life, and trying to urge her out of the shadows is really much more interesting than the cartoon princesses of old, who were being watched, but were clueless until it was too late. This princess knows that her counterpart is out there, and as for the counterpart – Maleficent is clearly more than just evil. Angelina Jolie’s eyes are both piercing and sad in the two close-ups of her face, and though we don’t know why she’s so drawn to this blonde, inviting young woman, you can bet it has more to do with either petty jealousy or a forgotten invitation to a party. In fact, when she says “then you will be afraid,” do we hear a note of regret in her voice? Some darkly maternal instinct that doesn’t want to frighten the girl?
I’m drawn in. I want to see whether the makers of this film will add some satisfying layers to yet another woman vs. woman fairy tale, and how they’ll explore the character of the villain in such a way that her story is relatable and yet still dark and horrifying. For once, I have faith that a major movie studio might just do the undercurrents of this tale justice, even if they are relying on their own copyrighted characters and basically just reselling their own brand. I’m in.
I can’t say the same for Frozen. But you probably guessed that.