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.

Storytelling with Norman Rockwell

Storytelling with Norman Rockwell

Click on the picture to access the SlideShare presentation.

Note: you might want to check out our new book TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: MATISSE   available  from AMAZON.COM as an ebook.  Click here for more info: 


More storytelling tips for marketers

You may already know that the new buzz word in marketing is storytelling. You may also wonder why it took the marketing gurus so long to realize that stories resonate strongly with humans beings, and therefore, with clients. Brands must tell a story to the customers, and good marketers should, therefore, learn as much as possible about the craft of storytelling to be able to create and project a more impactful and relevant positioning in the minds of their audience.

We already started discussing the mythological structure of storytelling in a previous post (please refer to “The Power of Storytelling, the Mythological Structure”- http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-F2  – you may want to read it before you continue). Now we pick up where we left off, and begin to cover the kinds of characters we come across in muscular and enduring stories.

The renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung put forward the theory that the elements (themes, topics, characters, plot) commonly found in dreams are the same ones present in the mythologies of all peoples at different times. He called them archetypes.

Joseph Campbell, the famous American mythologist, went further to propose that all stories have basically the same structure. In his seminal book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, he identifies and explains the phases that a typical hero or protagonist goes through.

Hollywood was quick to capitalize on Campbell’s powerful ideas and created a simplified memo for scriptwriters spelling out the stages of the hero’s journey and the typical characters found in mythological stories. When used with creativity and originality, these phases are hardly noticeable on the surface of a good movie, and the characters may take on many different forms, but the closer the deep structure of the plot remains to its mythological backbone the stronger it will resonate with the viewers.


Antonio Canova’s Theseus and the Centaur

We covered the stages of the story in a previous post. Now, who are the usual characters in powerful stories? Here’s the list, and its implications for marketing:

The hero: this is the protagonist or the representation of  your customer. He will have to overcome problems and bypass obstacles to get to his goal. He has a strong need that must be met – by your solution or product.

The shadow: this usually represents the hero’s opponent or dark side. In marketing, we may think of it as our competition, or any flaws our products may have that must be corrected or features that need to be enhanced.

The mentor: in stories, they appear as older and wiser men or women, whose job is to guide and aid the hero along the path to accomplishing his goal. Marketers may use this concept in their messages and positioning. Think of the communications with your customers as ways of mentoring them.

The herald: this is the character that announces to the hero that he will need to act upon his needs and desires to have them sorted out. He pushed the hero forward. What better metaphor for a CALL TO ACTION? Your “call to action” needs to be included in all the communications with the client, your hero. It’s your job to tell them what to do next. Clarify the path.

The threshold guardians: these are people who hinder the hero’s progress at different plot points. They are not necessarily evil, but they will be obstacles to overcome. Think of them metaphorically as any obstruction on the client’s path to the micro or macro conversions you set up: faulty or unhelpful landing pages, redirect errors, unclear info about the product, interruptions or problems on the shopping cart path, etc. Be an ally to the hero and help him overcome these difficulties.

The trickster: that is a character that provides comic relief in stories. Also, these pranksters may provide useful information through their jokes. As a marketer, keep in mind that what people need, through your messages (you blog posts, for example), is to have info, develop their knowledge or to have fun. Don’t underestimate the power of comedy. This is a powerful way to win the customers’ hearts and minds.

The shapeshifter: usually someone who keeps changing their form or intentions. We never know if he’s an ally or an enemy. Or he may start off as an enemy and become an ally eventually. As a marketer, I think it’s very useful to see testimonials and comments on social media sites as typical shapeshifters.  They will sometimes align with your intentions in helping the hero get to his (and your) goal, but they can also badmouth you to the point of putting the whole journey in jeopardy. Shapeshifters need to me monitored closely on the Internet and responded to immediately. This is a huge part of your job as a marketer.

We hope this analysis of the main archetypes will help you structure the story of your brand more effectively. In future posts, we will carry on imparting more tips to help you hone your skills as a storyteller and marketer.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.





Storytelling with Winslow Homer, the famous American Painter

Storytelling with Winslow Homer, the famous American Painter

Winslow Homer.  Click on the picture to access the SlideShare presentation. You might want to check  out our post on the mythological structure of storytelling as well:  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-F2

Note: you might want to check out our new book TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: MATISSE   available  from AMAZON.COM as an ebook.  Click here for more info: 



The power of storytelling (the mythological structure)

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” 
 Doris Lessing

Those who have seen the film LIFE OF PI will have no problem relating the quote above to the movie’s main theme. At the end of the movie, we understand that the narrative may as well have been a metaphorical one, and we are asked to choose which version of the truth we would prefer: the one told through analogies and mythology or a raw sequence of facts. I have made my choice. You will have to make yours.

Like all great movies, Life of Pi lends itself to a number of interpretations, has layers and layers of meanings, and covers many different themes. The one that resonated the most with me, however, was its acclaim of the power of storytelling.


Carl Jung, the renowned psychoanalyst, pointed out that the characters (archetypes) and motifs we find in mythological stories are the same we generate in dreams. Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist and writer, in his seminal book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, took Jung’s ideas further and proposed that all stories involving the myth of a hero have the same deep structure and feature the same archetypes, although they appear in different shapes and forms: the myth of the hero wears a thousand faces after all. In his book, he analyzes a great number of mythological stories from different cultures at different times to prove his point. He is very persuasive, I must admit.

In the 1980s, Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood development executive, adapted and simplified the ideas of Joseph Campbell to be applied in scriptwriting and moviemaking. He compiled a seven-page memo for the big shots in Hollywood that revolutionized the industry. Later this memo was turned into a book (The Writer’s Journey) which, to this day, is considered a bible for scriptwriters in the business. After all, important directors such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola had all drunk from the fountain of Campbell’s ideas to produce some of their most brilliant works.

Without getting too technical, let’s just cover the main steps of a typical hero’s journey to give you an idea of the phases of stories that deeply resonate with us, basically because they find an echo in the depths of our psyche. Then, if you are interested, you can expand your knowledge by referring to the original and more complete sources. A typical mythological hero follows this path:

Ordinary World: at the beginning of the story, the hero is shown in his natural habitat, living his normal life, but we can already sense that he does not really fit in, there’s something missing, he may not be totally adapted to the context.

Call to Adventure: at some point afterward, the hero is called upon action. Something happens that affects or changes his life. The news that prompts the change is usually brought to him by an archetype we call the herald. Unless the hero does something about the novel situation, his life or the lives of his friends and loved ones will be in danger.

Refusal of the call: but the hero resists the call. He comes up with all kinds of excuses not to embark on this journey. He is afraid.

Meeting with the mentor: at this point an older man or woman, usually grumpy or funny, shows up and intervenes, lending the hero guidance and support, goading him to take the bait and start his adventure.

Crossing the first threshold: that’s when the story gets really started, the hero accepts the challenge and will confront his first problems. An enemy will try to prevent him from entering the world of the adventure. The hero will somehow manage to bypass this entity and move on.

Tests, allies and enemies: now, for a long stretch of the story, the hero will be going through a series of trials and obstacles on the journey towards his goal. He will meet supportive characters but also many foes, of all kinds, will cross his path.

Approach to the innermost cave: all the obstacles will lead him to the biggest of them all. The hero and his allies prepare for it.

Ordeal: arriving at this climactic point, the hero will face death or an almost insurmountable problem.  He deals with it as bravely as he can.

Reward (seizing the Sword): he survives the ordeal and gets a prize (a metaphorical “sword”), which will help him get  through the rest of his mission.

The Road Back: now, with the mission almost accomplished, the hero will try to get back home. He’s already transformed  somehow by the experience, but will still have to confront a lot of opposition (usually represented by a “chase scene” in modern movies) before he gets back home.

Resurrection: this is the hero’s final problem, occurring right before he’s able to cross the threshold back home. Another climactic moment. The hero struggles courageously and is rewarded with the “elixir” (something that he will take back to the community he came from to help the others get to a more elevated stage)

Return with the Elixir: the elixir is passed on to the community. End of the story.


Joseph Campbell

If you pay close attention to the movies you like the most, you will be able to identify this structure. Of course, this framework should lend itself to all kinds of variations. It’s not supposed to be a formula. Some of the steps may be missed or shuffled around, the circumstances and situations the hero finds himself in can be very diverse. This is what makes movies and stories magical. But the firmer the skeleton of the narrative, the closer it gets to the steps of the myth of the hero, the more it will resonate with an audience.

Nevertheless, to really understand how stories are built, we would still need to discuss the archetypical nature of the characters in narratives in more detail (remember we mentioned the herald and the mentor in passing?),  but that is beyond the scope of this post. We will resume this topic in a future post.

Also, storytelling is a great tool for language learning and we will discuss how it can be used in the classroom on another occasion.

For now, that is all.

(you may way now to read my post MORE STORYTELLING TIPS FOR MARKETERS: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-UK )

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.