Walt Disney is adept at moulding the dreams of little girls. He’s the reason I brushed my hair with a fork, sucked up single strands of spaghetti, and bit purposefully into shiny apples. He’s the reason I believed that one day my prince would come and rescue me from my tower. While remembering the times I scrutinised my lineage for royalty, it’s easy to see how imbued my early years were with Disney’s ideologies, much like a lot of young girls. For the most part, the damage probably hasn’t extended further than flashes of wistfulness, to an earlier time when I wished I was a mermaid, or when I’d sit cross-legged on a rug firmly planted on the ground, believing I was soaring through the Arabian skies. And to be honest, it’s still a little hard to relinquish these dreams.
Disney princesses are perfect – beautiful and vindicated, their happy endings sweet and seemingly deserved after the turmoil they’ve faced shackled by their lonely, rich existences. But as role models, these girls have little surface. Most are nudged gently through the narrative, their only autonomy posed as a discontent for their situation. The real shakers are the villains, those we’re taught to hiss and boo at, the ugly incarnations of evil. There are always two definitive forces at work in these stories, it’s a tale as old as time (I’m sorry), where right triumphs wrong, and then seemingly all is well, happily ever after. It comforts us to watch this easy analogy of humanity, because we all wish to believe that we’re good, and the forces of evil that move our worlds will wither and fail. But this isn’t how life usually plays out, is it? Sure, there are tyrannous leaders such as Snow White’s Wicked Queen in our real world. There’s no room for the argument of misguided perspective within when looking at, say, Hitler. But the truth is that morality is a spectrum depending on where we’re coming from, and Disney films offer little scope for balanced judgement. In real life we view the sanctimonious with suspicion, and all Disney princesses are a level of perfect it’d be impossible for real women to achieve. The recent live-action release Maleficent (2014) tells the other side of the story of Sleeping Beauty (1959). We all know the original, the evil sorceress Maleficent curses an infant princess, driven by little more than pride and jealousy, two emotions we know from childhood are wrong, to be suppressed. Maleficent of 1959 condemns Aurora to death, a pretty serious fate to present to children, further distancing evil from the comfort of good.
Maleficent of 2014, however, intelligently reveals more balanced motives. The King, portrayed previously as a caring, distraught father, is shown to be the root cause of the turbulence that clouds Maleficent’s actions. Without telling too much, as it’s worth seeing the way the story unfolds onscreen, we learn that her seemingly selfish intentions are based on a terrible experience inflicted on her, as unjust and harrowing as her own curse on baby Aurora. Though the way she sought revenge was certainly sketchy, and the teaching that any reciprocal evil is as uncalled for as the first is completely correct, providing reason to rhyme is healthier than any representation of bonafide, uninhibited ruthlessness. Angelina Jolie is a suitable vehicle for Maleficent, her own troubled past triumphed by an image of a campaigning humanitarian, with a successful and loving family. Though Jolie has succeeded her demons, her edge is still visible, and her past is a part of her she doesn’t apologise for. Far from the image of the princess, which Jolie never claimed to be, she presents a more realistic form of a human than many in Hollywood. And this is reflected in her many-faceted role as Maleficent.
Maleficent provides a more rounded explanation of the fraught, delicate nature of morality, which is a relatively new territory for children’s films. Another comparison can be drawn from the delightful Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz fame, and her nemesis The Wicked Witch of the West. In the stage show, drawn from Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked, we see that the witch, who’s really called Elphaba, is hardly evil. She’s a scapegoat for the oppressive state of Oz, for speaking out against the injustices the Wizard forces upon his subjects, including the real-world problem of animal cruelty. It’s another reworking of a fairy tale that offers a stunning alternative to the bias of goodness; a balanced view on what can make someone be perceived as good, and damned as evil. If tomorrow’s adults were presented with Maleficent and Elphaba as heroes, would they grow up differently? Would the ills of the world cause us not to turn our heads in disgust, or rise up like villagers with torches and buckets of water, but try to understand the motives of those in our lives who are troublesome? What about the very real troubles within ourselves, such as jealousy, a desire to hurt and shun? Emotions such as these can make us feel less than human, but the truth is they’re just as normal as our virtues. Understanding this is the key to progression, both mental and societal. We were all brought up on a framework of good vs. evil, which is unrealistic and potentially harmful. Maleficent provides an honest update of a classic, and whilst I’ve spent half my life wishing I had the ashy blonde locks, the grace and beauty of Aurora, this new protagonist has made me realise I’d rather have the edge and integrity of Maleficent. It’s a lesson I wish I’d learnt as a child, when the opportunity to be a Disney princess felt nothing short of impossible, but the adult reality of feeling human was much further away.