Archives For fairy tales

Disney’s most iconic animated villain has returned to the big screen in a live-action fantasy that twists and soars as it fractures the original fairy tale upon which it’s based. At its simplest level Maleficent is an extended re-imagining of Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty (1959) with a focus on its well-known, dark-cloaked villain. However in presenting this alternative perspective, the live-action film dabbles in contemporary feminist, religious and ecological themes as it takes you through its fantasy world.

Courtesy of Disney (Film Poster)

Courtesy of Disney (Film Poster)

The story begins with Maleficent as a young fairy living in the Moors, a world of enchantment and peace. She eventually meets Stephan, an orphan human boy from the greedy human world. The story then follows them, through love, to adulthood as she becomes the strongest fairy and he pursues his dream to live in the castle. Stephan’s ambition eventually leads to a violent moment of betrayal which directs the film’s plot into the Sleeping Beauty narrative complete with the famous “Christening” scene. The rest of the movie faithfully follows the animated classic’s story but with a different lens, so to speak.

Maleficent is not a Hollywood or studio trend-setter. The film is simply another serving of a villainous character back story (i.e., Star Wars, Wicked, Oz the Great and Powerful). It also follows Disney’s somewhat misguided interest in revisiting their animated classics as live-action films (i.e.,101 Dalmatians, Jungle Book) or Broadway shows (i.e., Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King). Some work and some don’t.

Interestingly in 1959 Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was a critical flop. Walt Disney called it an “expensive failure” saying “I sorta got trapped.” Audiences expected the softer and safer Cinderella (1950) but got a more stylized design and a darker, more frightening villain. Due to the film’s failure, Disney would not to return to the classic princess narrative for another 30 years.

Courtesy of Disney [Promotional Poster 1959]

Courtesy of Disney [Promotional Poster 1959]

Fortunately over that period of time Maleficent became one of the most iconic Disney villains and arguably one of its most popular characters. Maleficent may have, in fact, helped to pull Sleeping Beauty out of obscurity and into the beloved canon of animated Disney films. It is no surprise that Disney chose to tell her back story.

Directed by Robert Stromberg, the production designer for Avatar (2009) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) and written by Disney Veteran, Linda Woolverton, Maleficent contains stunning imagery surrounding its decidedly feminist tale. Visually speaking the fantasy world has a hazy “story land” mystique without being cartoony or campy. The human world is murky and muted while the enchanted land beyond the moors is vibrant and mystical. The magical creatures are rendered with a fantastic realism that recalls the art of Brian Froud.

The most striking visuals are of Maleficent herself, who is portrayed to perfection by the talented Angelina Jolie. From start to finish, the film’s narrative rotates around her nearly to a fault. There are very few other elements, exchanges or characters whose screen presence command the same level of attention as Jolie. She makes this film. It is Jolie’s show and that manages to work because, after all, it is Maleficent’s story.

There were moments, however, that the film felt more like an explanation of the animated classic rather than a film in its own right. The plot moved from one moment to the next gliding behind the radiant Maleficent in very much the same way as the sleeping Aurora floats behind her on the trip to the moors. Many filmic elements get lost in her wake as the plot winks at the audience as if to say, “See that’s what really happened.”

That is not to say the film doesn’t contain any interesting sub-textual themes. Maleficent presents a number of complicated contemporary ideas. For example there is an Avatar-inspired eco-subtext winding through the plot. We cheer for the peaceful mystical moors and against the greedy human world. In this way, Maleficent could be considered an Earth Mother and Protector who violently avenges the pillaging of the land and eventually finds balances through the cycle of life.

The secondary characters are, with no exception, secondary or less than secondary. Like the narrative they live in shadow of Jolie’s Maleficent. With that said, Sam Riley as the Crow is a well-played, fascinating addition. The two most disappointing characters are Ella Fanning’s Aurora and Brenton Thwaite’s Prince Philip. Both are out of place in the earthy, magical realism presented by the rest of the film’s design. Aurora recalls her “unmemorable” animated counterpart. The film could have handled a stronger, grittier princess or an “Aurora unplugged.” As for Thwaite, his “boy band” appearance and glossy smile are better suited to a Disney Channel sitcom than a subversive dark retelling of a classic fairy tale.

Movie Still from Disney's Maleficent

Movie Still from Disney’s Maleficent

Overall Maleficent is very satisfying and fun to watch. It is worth the ticket price just to see Angelina Jolie capture the iconic character. The film contains battle scenes, dragons, tree guards and hairy human kings. But what is most engaging about this film and what keeps the narrative from sinking into obscurity is two yet to be mentioned themes.

From this point forward, this article contains spoilers. Do not continue reading if you have not seen the film and prefer to be surprised.

Aside from the Avatar ecological subtext, there are two other notable themes in Maleficent that cause the fairy tale to fracture. The first is the theme of the “fallen angel” and the second is that of the “anti-mother.”  Both have distinct feminist tones which, in recent years, Disney has been attempting to nurture.

Before going forward let’s get one thing straight. The story is not told from Maleficent’s point of view. The narrator is revealed to be Aurora. As the story opens, she tells us that we’ve been more or less “dealt a bag goods.” Here’s how it really happened…

The theme of the “fallen angel” is presented both visually and narratively from start to finish. Maleficent is a fairy with large feathered wings that drag on the ground and tower above her head. Near the beginning of the film, she flies up to the clouds, faces the camera and opens her wings. This imagery recalls an angel against the sky.

When Stephan performs the violent act of cutting off her wings, Maleficent is grounded. She becomes the “fallen angel,” a process that is further demonstrated by the darkening of the moors and the skeleton imagery behind her throne. Hatred and vengeance consume her as she becomes the dark queen with all the expected iconic trappings of a sorceress or devil character such as a staff, black leather cap around her horns, black clothes and a crow. She becomes the vengeful dark “fallen angel” or as she is called in the film, “witch.”

Only childhood innocence can penetrate through her hate. When she finally displays love again she earns back her wings. However, as demonstrated visually, she doesn’t simply return to her former self. At the end Maleficent retains her dark, gothic appearance, her crow familiar and her magical staff. Secondly, near the end of the film, she flies into the sky as she did at the beginning. Just before striking the angelic pose, she pauses in profile with wings outstretched which recalls the Winged Nike – a symbol of victory.

Maleficent is essentially driven to revenge not simply because she was scorned but because she was physically violated. Her body was cut and part of her life stolen. However she finds a new life through the love of a child and that is where Disney fractures another classically embedded fairy tale theme – the “anti-mother.”

Traditionally the “good” mothers are either biological grandmothers or, more often, fairy-god mothers. In Maleficent, these typical good mothers are absent or incompetent. The three “aunties” don’t know how to feed a baby or bake a cake – two common signs of the “good mother.” At times the three pixie women have more in common with the witches of Hocus Pocus (1993) than the three good fairies of Sleeping Beauty.

Movie still from Disney's Maleficent.

Movie still from Disney’s Maleficent.

It is the “anti-mother” or dark witch who actually cares for the child and keeps her safe. Where the fairies are tired of raising Aurora, Maleficent and the crow protect her and become her shadow guardians. In a complete reversal, the film turns the “anti-mother,” who is typcially jealous of youth, into the good or “godmother” as Aurora says.  In this way, the godmother and the fallen angel are one.

Becoming the good mother saves Maleficent from herself but, fortunately, does not transform her into something she is not. She remains the dark-clad, powerful gothic fairy. In doing so, the mother – daughter bond, typically absent from fairy tales and Disney animation, is rediscovered and allowed to thrive. This is punctuated by the film’s twist on “true love’s kiss” which was, unfortunately, predictable due to Frozen (2014).

If you add in the ecological subtext, Maleficent is a visually beautiful film with dynamic elements that circle around its spectacular title character. While the film could have explored relationship dynamics and narrative elements more in-depth, the film compensated with interesting themes, beautiful visuals and Angelina Jolie.

I am starting this journey in the early days of American cinema; from its inception in 1895 through its development into a viable culturally-influential industry. I’ve dated this period as “pre-1939.”  Many of you will recognize 1939 as being the release date of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM)’s classic film The Wizard of Oz, a film that contains the most iconic Hollywood witch in American cultural history.

From 1895 to 1916 moving pictures were just a technical novelty. As film historian Jeanine Basinger said, “No one really took movies very seriously. It was thought that they were a fad.” Most early movies depicted actual events, landscape photography, historical re-enactments or popular stories. (Basinger, American Cinema, 1994)

During these first two decades, only nine American films contained a witch.  Of these nine, five were dramatizations of beloved fantasy stories. The list includes The Magic Sword (1901), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910), His Majesty the Scarecrow (1914), Mary PIckford in Cinderella (1914), and Snow White (1916).

In all of these films, the witch is a non-threatening, non-theological fairy tale construct. Her appearance and behavior recall the circus-clown or court jester with a big round collar and colorful patchwork clothing, or a heavy wizard cape and cone hat.  She plays the role of the buffoon.

William Wenslow's Wicked Witch from the original printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

William Wenslow’s Wicked Witch from the original printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Because this is the silent film era, filmmakers primarily used visual cues to define character. To do so, they had to draw from pre-cinematic cultural sources in order to speak to their viewers.  The witch as clown motif can be found in still renderings from that time period. It is even a common element in Mother Goose drawings. Additionally, all of these stooped, elderly witches are surrounded by other non-cinematic icons such as brooms, cauldrons, and pointed hats.

The concept of magic focuses on transformation and trickery. For example, In His Majesty the Scarecrow (1914), Mombi the Witch transforms her three ugly companions into beautiful maidens. In Snow White (1916), the witch transforms the Queen from bland to beautiful. The use of magic in this way is reminiscent of something you might find in a Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity (e.g. As You Like It)

Of the earliest nine films, the remaining four did not recreate fantasy stories. However, they have very little influence on the construction of the Hollywood witch. These include a lost animated experimental short called Bewitched Matches (1913). The first filming of Shakespeare’s MacBeth (1916) and an historical narrative called The Witch of Salem (1913).

The fourth film, The Mysteries of Myra (1915), is the most interesting of these early witch movies. The popular seventeen part film serial recounts the tale of Myra Maynard, the daughter of an Occult leader, who is repeatedly hunted by her dead father’s devil-worshipping Order. In each episode, the narrative tackles an Occult subject with no mention of witchcraft until episode thirteen. In this aptly numbered episode, a cloaked witch helps Myra escape the satanic Order.

Film restoration artist Eric Stedman, notes that episode thirteen is the only one to “introduce traditional fantasy – magic and characters rather than concepts derived from then – current spiritualism.”  What spiritualism? He is referring to  the public’s growing interest in Occult practice and, of course, Aleister Crowley. Some of the film’s Occult imagery  recalls the popular images of Crowley himself.  Interestingly, at the time of filming, Crowley was living in New England not terribly far from the production lots in Ithaca, NY.  .

Shot from one of the Occult scenes from The Mysteries of Myra (1915)

Shot from one of the Occult scenes from The Mysteries of Myra (1915)

Despite the narrative proximity of witchcraft and Satanism in the serial, the writers clearly separated the two magical practices.  In this way, the witch remained a fantasy construction.  At some point in the pre-cinematic entertainment world, the witch was separated from her satanic connection and became trapped within a fairy tale.  As such, she is denied all theological relevance or esoteric meaning – good or bad.  Although it is outside my exploration, I would speculate that this is the result of Victorian cultural styling and the increasing dominance of rational thought.

Now, let’s move to the period ranging from 1916 to 1932.  During these sixteen years, there is only one Witch film – a lost animated short called At Rainbow’s End (1925).  Why did the witch disappear? At this time movies had transitioned from novelty to commodity. The new industry, now located in California, had to maintain viewer interest through realistic sensationalized marketing strategies.  Remember, this is before the Production Code. The fantasy witch had no place in salacious, adult entertainment and, therefore, disappeared.  (Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture, 1993)

However, by 1932, the world and Hollywood had drastically changed.  Silent films turned to sound (Talkies) and the Hayes Commission began enforcing its Catholic-based moral censorship code. Additionally, the country had lived through a World War, the free-wheeling roaring 1920s and was now in a deep economic depression. Hollywood responded with wholesome, upbeat and glittery escapist films. Not surprisingly the fantasy witch reappears.  From 1932-1939, Hollywood produced five witch films including Disney’s Babes in the Woods (1932), Betty Boop’s Snow White (1933), Betty Boop’s Baby Be Good (1935), The Greedy Humpty Dumpty (1937) and Disney’s Snow White (1937).

At first glance, these animated witches appear to be similar to the earlier variety.  They are “hags in rags” with cauldrons, brooms and pointy hats.  However, there is a difference.  In Disney’s Babes in the Woods (1932), the witch plays the buffoon, but she is more grotesque in form.  Her pointy face and emaciated body are gangly and sharply angled.  Her clothes, now dark and ragged, are topped with a flowing torn cape.  This iconic look is repeated over and over throughout the period.

wicked-queen-685

Walt Disney’s Wicked Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Then in 1937 Disney released what would become his masterpiece – the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  In its wake, the film created a famous American Hollywood witch – the Wicked Queen. She is the first witch to step out of the side-show act and enter the realm of macabre.  Disney’s Queen is an amalgam of the early fairy tale witch, the 1930s animated hag and something new, something darker.  While she is still trapped within the fairy tale narrative, she is frightening and intense in both her forms:  “a hag in rags” and glamorous queen.

In addition, for the first time in Hollywood’s history, we witness the witch as a representative of “transgressive female sexuality.” Film professor Elizabeth Bell notes that Disney’s production papers describe the Queen’s “beauty as sinister, mature [with] plenty of curves.” The Wicked Queen is a femme fatale who is defined as “represent[ing] demonic natural forces that, like a cyclone, threaten to uproot man from himself.”  In this historic film, the Hollywood witch transmutes into what feminist film theorist Barbara Creed calls “the monstrous feminine.”  (Elizabeth Bell, “Somatexts at the Disney Shop,” From Mouse to Mermaid, 1995)

During the Pre-1939 period, the witch began her journey as a side-show act devoid of any esoteric or theological meaning.  By the end, she had transformed into an allegory for the powerful, independent, sexualized woman.  Was this a function of America’s need to reinforce traditional gender roles during the Depression? Or was it simply a function of Disney’s own conservative nature?

In the next post, we’ll move on and follow the transformation.  Next stop, the year 1939 with the release of The Wizard of Oz and the birth of the all-American Hollywood Witch.

 

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

David Chaim Smith, Blood of Space 2, 2009. Graphite/ink on digital print. 18x22” NFS.

David Chaim Smith, Blood of Space 2, 2009. Graphite/ink on digital print. 18x22” NFS.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.