Live-Action Cinema and the Fairy Tale

I recently went to see Maleficent with the Monash Fairy Tale Salon – spoilers ahead! I will admit, I went in prepared to hate it. I didn’t hate it as much as I hated Snow White and the Huntsman (the skirt ripping scene was about it for me as far as that film went). In all honesty, I’m always wary of tales told from the villain’s perspective. The greatness of the fairy tale villain is villainy. A film that situates the villain as the sympathetic figure loses the oomph of a truly vicious villain. Maleficent in the Disney animated film is incredible. She is filled with malice and snark. She is wicked in its most absolute sense – hence her name. While there are glimpses of this Maleficent in the new film, there are only glimpses. Her glorious wickedness has been stripped away and instead she’s a woman wronged by a man, a woman who becomes a surrogate mother to his child. I found that disappointing. Even more disappointing, King Stefan isn’t even turned into a glorious villain to make up for the loss. There is no sense of why she’d love him and why he would then turn into such a raging megalomaniac. The film seems to suggest that all human men are greedy and violent.* That’s it. And they aren’t even very good at it. King Stefan turns into a crazed version of Miss Havisham without the wit and bitterness.

Perhaps most awful of all, the fairy godmothers turn into bumbling, comic relief. I love the fairy godmothers of the animated feature. They are small, funny, but incredibly powerful! Little old women who can squabble over the colour of a dress one moment, the next help a prince defeat an evil dragon. In Maleficent, they are simply incompetent and foolish. They aren’t even allowed to soften Maleficent’s death curse – Maleficent does that herself and I’m not even sure why.

As Louisa, one of our group, pointed out, Aurora doesn’t even sleep that long under the curse. Louisa has written a marvelous review about the loss of time in the film that you should be able to find shortly through the salon’s blog. Indeed, Aurora in the animated film is a wise, kind young woman – she is not simply happy and bubbly. As Louisa pointed out, bestowing a blessing of happiness on her may have in fact been a curse – she became a cardboard cutout of a character.

It wasn’t all gloom, however. I did love Diaval. I would watch an entire film about him. Witty and yet tragic, his magical transformations make him one of the most true fairy tale figures of the film.

I think that’s the problem with a lot of contemporary, live action adaptation of fairy tale. They aren’t real fairy tale. They attempt to become dark, to become like Lord of the Rings. It is a curse Stardust happily avoided and that is a great fairy tale film of recent years. The films of the 80s, like The Princess Bride and Labyrinth, likewise balanced humour with tragedy and villainy. Who needs a Maleficent wronged by a thief when you can have Jareth, the Goblin King, who is deliciously wicked, yet somehow emotionally needy too? The villains were complicated inherently – they didn’t simply ‘turn’ evil as a result of outside forces. That made them so much more interesting and entertaining. The use of puppetry, also, beats out CGI for me.

I have been reading with increasing worry about the film adaptation of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, too. i09 recently posted a story about it. Mind, one of the things that amuses me is how often people assume it is Disney sanitizing the ‘original’ Grimms’ tales. Actually, the Grimms were the first to start cutting out the sex. Sondheim actually added in much of the sex and violence of the musical. Disney is simply taking it out again, which is disappointing. I fear I’ll be muttering under my breath once again when I go to the cinema to see it.

* There’s really only one human woman in the film, the Queen, and she dies off screen after barely speaking.

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One thought on “Live-Action Cinema and the Fairy Tale

  1. Pingback: Maleficent | The Monash Fairy Tale Salon

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