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'Maleficent': The feminist retelling of a Disney villain

In Disney’s pantheon of evil stepmothers and female deviants, Maleficent has always stood apart.

Her popularity is undeniable. Fifty-five years after “Sleeping Beauty,” she ranks second only to Scar of “The Lion King” in about.com’s ranking of the greatest Disney villains, and trailed behind the Wicked Queen from “Snow White” in MovieFone’s recent list.

Now, Disney offers “Maleficent” as a recasting of its fabled anti-heroine in a continuation of its slow shift away from its familiar princess formula. That's a victory for women, said Jacquelyn Aluotto, founder of gender equality nonprofits Real Beauty Real Women and Break the Cycle.

"I think it's a refreshing and interesting take because women are so many different things. She's an outcast," Aluotto said. "I'm really hoping that Disney will go ahead and create that bold character. As we get into a different age, women are going to demand it."

Same character, feminist take?

Without spoiling the new film, the reworking of Maleficent isn’t that of a simple cut-and-dried fairy-tale antagonist. At its center lies a conflicted, deeply troubled woman (played by Angelina Jolie) who is far from perfect, rather than an inexplicably vicious, baby-cursing witch. That's quite a departure from Disney's more familiar formula where a young princess is undermined by an older, sometimes ugly, almost always single, malevolent woman, only to be rescued (either literally, through marriage or both) by the man/prince of her dreams.

"It's a complete departure from the pretty princess getting rescued. There is no salvation coming at the hands of a man," PBS "Just Seen It" critic Lisa Johnson Mandell said after seeing the film. "Maleficent is heinously violated by the man she loved. The men are not the hero in this thing."

More than many Disney evildoers, Maleficent offers Disney perhaps its most compelling chance at a reboot because of the key differences between her and many of her contemporaries. It’s the mystery surrounding her actions that offers her the depth others like her lack.

"She's a bit wry without being whimsical," Mandell said. "She has a dark, humorous side."

Even in the classic motif of the now-clichéd Disney villainess, Maleficent is unusual. With the exception of The Wicked Queen, she’s one of the only female villains in the pre-Pixar days of Disney who was physically beautiful. Unlike her classic peers who were specifically motivated (The Wicked Queen and Cruella de Vil both hung their hats on homicidal vanity; Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” and Cinderella’s stepmother ran on toxic jealousy), Maleficent doesn’t seem to be out for power or to be the fairest of them all. Rather, she’s just plain angry.

While her reasons for cursing an infant to a teenage death were unclear at best in the 1959 original film, Maleficent seems put out over not being invited to baby Aurora’s royal christening — angry enough to wait 16 years for her curse to take effect, imprison the betrothed prince and try to kill him by becoming a dragon just to get her nebulous point across. There must be some sort of history there, which is what producer Joe Roth aims to answer with the new film, told from the Mistress of Evil’s perspective.

“This movie is about a character we’ve only known as hard-hearted, and our story answers the question ‘Why?’ I’d like audiences to feel like they’ve entered a world they’ve never seen before with ‘Maleficent,’ and I hope they come away feeling like no one is beyond redemption,” Roth said in a promotional interview for Disney.

A new direction

The film is the latest in what seems to be Disney’s investment in stories and female characters whose circumstances are more gray than black and white.

Disney used to bank on its typical plot driver of romantic love overcoming any and all obstacles but announced in 2010 that it would say goodbye to fairy tales in favor of gaining "wider appeal."

What audiences got instead of stereotypical damsels in distress were protagonists like Elsa of "Frozen" and Merida of "Brave": girls who might be princesses but stray far from the typical fairy-tale script.

"(The 'Frozen' characters) are significant departures from tradition in a film that shakes up the hyper-romantic 'princess' formula that has stood Disney in good stead for decades and that has grown stale," Stephanie Holden wrote in the New York Times.

"Frozen" and "Brave" have no clear-cut villains, for example. Rather, the conflict of the films comes from their central characters' struggle to compromise between what they want and what they're told is best for them. In Merida's case, the conflict is avoiding an arranged marriage; for Elsa, it's overcoming adversity to embrace who she is.

When Merida bristled at the idea of an arranged marriage in "Brave" and was a talented archer and tomboy, some critics questioned whether the redheaded heroine could be gay.

However, the Atlantic's Chris Heller applauded "Brave" not as a pro-gay movie, but as a compassionate film that broke from Disney's princess tradition of love plus marriage equals the ultimate happy ending.

"It's about the compassion it takes to, as Merida and Elinor put it, 'break tradition,' to change both society's rules and the prejudices within ones' own mind," Heller wrote.

'Frozen' gender roles?

Newer films like "Frozen" and "Brave" aren't above criticism or disappointment from viewers expecting a more complete departure from traditional gender roles.

Slate critic Dana Stevens wrote on the heels of "Frozen's" release that she worried about the effect one scene in particular would have on her young daughter: the moment when Elsa sings "Let it Go" and turns from a conservatively dressed princess to a spruced-up ice queen.

"By the time she sashays out onto that balcony to greet the dawn, Elsa is clad in a slinky, slit-to-the-thigh dress with a transparent snowflake-patterned train and a pair of silver-white high heels, her braid shaken loose and switched over one shoulder in what’s subtly, but unmistakably, a gesture of come-hither bad-girl seduction," Stevens wrote. "I’m not the only one who feels a familiar sense of deflation every time that pulse-racing song culminates in a vision of female self-actualization as narrow and horizon-diminishing as a makeover."

While praising "Frozen" as a digression from the princess standard, Holden also argued that Elsa and company could have gone further in the interest of gender equality.

"Its princesses may gaze at a glass ceiling, but most are not ready to shatter it," Holden wrote.

Will a 21st-century Maleficent do what the iconic Elsa could not? Yes, says Mandell, and that could also translate into a bigger audience for Disney.

"This is women doing their own thing and taking their power back. Because it's dark and there are battle scenes, I think little boys will watch it also," Mandell said. "It sends an important message to boys: Women are equal and powerful, too."

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com Twitter: ChandraMJohnson