Why Maleficent doesn’t work as a fairy tale

Maleficent, the new Disney movie that tells the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point-of-view of its original Nemesis – the evil fairy godmother – had all the potential to awe audiences, going way beyond its stunning visuals, if they had decided to work on more complex and original levels, paying closer attention to how mythology and its archetypes (typical characters) sustain great storytelling.

One can’t help but think of Wicked, that, first as novel, and then as a successful Broadway musical, also narrated the backstory of an evil character, the Wicked Witch of the West, of The Wizard of Oz fame, from the difficulties she had as a (literally) green child all the way to her adulthood, when she gets to meet Dorothy and her shoes. Although both Maleficent and Wicked chose to tell the story from the point of view of the alleged villain, the latter accomplished a lot more artistically.

Maleficent as a character is carefully construed to represent a strong role model for girls. Angelina Jolie looks stunning in the role, and will visually fascinate girls and boys alike. Boys, however, will surely be more entertained by the great number of superhero-like action scenes and predictable visual effects. It’s unfortunate, however, that the story is too weak to replace the original in children’s imagination, as it’s a lot less dark and scary in its connotations. Fairy tales are not supposed to be watered-down versions of their originals, and it’s a shame that Disney progressively goes in this direction with every new version they produce.

These are some of the problems that weaken Maleficent (Spoiler alert: you may want to watch the movie before reading the following):

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

1. The hero/heroine archetype of the story keeps shifting (is it Prince Phillip? Aurora? Or Maleficent herself?) Stories need a well-defined hero with a clear objective. The hero can and should be flawed (so there’s nothing wrong with Maleficent’s rage and wish for revenge from a dramatic stance). However, the whole story should be about her journey, and the transformation she goes through along what is commonly called the dramatic arc. Maleficent the movie does not really have any of its characters growing or changing through experience in its almost two hours of storyline. In this version, Maleficent has always been a strong and benevolent fairy, protective or the moor and its creatures. Then she makes one mistake led my revenge or jealousy, and spends the rest of the movie trying to fix it. This does not a good story maketh.

2. I’m sure that, for young moviegoers, the three little “good fairy-godmothers” are visually enchanting and can even be funny at times (especially the one played by Imelda Staunton), and they dutifully fill the role of tricksters, an important kind of archetype, providing the comic relief every story needs. However, adults will miss the irony and wit usually delivered by such characters in more sophisticated versions of kids’ movies.

3. Diaval, the raven, is too weak as a mentor, another essential archetype in effective stories. Maleficent, both as a movie and as a character, would have benefited a lot more if she had a more intriguing, wiser, and possibly older tutor to rely on. It would have given the movie a much stronger structure.

4. King Stefan, who starts off as Maleficent’s first love, does not have a clear archetypal role in the story. He’s too lame as a shadow/nemesis, and not very convincing as a shapeshifter (archetype usually filled by the heroine’s romantic interest). Similarly, young prince Phillip fails to awaken the sleeping princess with his cold teenage kiss: I don’t think we need to say anything more about his role in the story after this flop. Therefore, the movie really relegates male figures to totally secondary and pathetic roles.

5. Aurora’s role also does not fit in within the mythological structure of effective storytelling, being neither a hero nor a shadow, or any other essential archetype. She roams around the moors, beautiful and wide-eyed, without any specific dramatic function. The couple of scenes in which both Aurora and Prince Phillip, at different moments, unconsciously float in the air in the wake of Maleficent clearly indicate that these characters lack what is fundamental in archetypes of more importance: agency. Frankly, these levitation scenes boarder the ridicule.

6. The movie climax, packed with action and pyrotechnics, does not look any different from the last superhero movie you may have watched. The grand finale depicts lots of deus-ex machina solutions ( “Into a dragon”, orders Maleficent, before her loyal raven becomes a fire-spitting monster. Well, that is an easy way out, right? Worse: he fails! Maleficent will need to get her creepy dead wings back to succeed.

Speaking of those wings: at first, the scene in which they are cut off looked like this was going to be one of darkest and best moments of the movie, and could easily stand for all the feminist and environmentalist metaphors the movie repeatedly uses. However, the fact that they fly back and reattach themselves to their owner in a climactic scene at the end spoils all the dark beauty and menacing effect of the former scene. Now the wings are just another deus ex-machina-kind of solution employed by poorly-creative scritpwriters. Besides, one wonders why the wings did not decide to do this years before.

Now it’s your turn. Share with us your opinion on Maleficent.

For more on storytelling I would suggest you read two other posts in this blog:  “The Power of Storytelling – The Mythological  Structure ” (http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-F2) and “More Storytelling Tips for Marketers” (http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-UK).

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.


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