Poor Maleficent. She's not my favourite Disney villain by a long chalk - in fact, she's not even my favourite Disney villainess (that would be Ursula the sea-witch in The Little Mermaid). However, she deserves far better than she got in the live-action film bearing her name which was released in 2014 and which I've now finally watched.
I have to admit I was prejudiced against Maleficent from the start. Reviews of it suggested that the film was an attempt to rehabilitate the main character in the same manner as the book and later musical Wicked did the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. This seemed to me to defeat the very reason the film was made in the first place. Maleficent had been voted the villain Disney fans wanted to see more of, and the film was a consequence of that - but if you're an admirer of the bad fairy in the original animated Sleeping Beauty, chances are you're not interested in seeing her portrayed as not so very bad after all. What the original Maleficent has is style - she goes about her villainous business with panache and without a trace of regret or vulnerability. To attempt a whitewash would be to take away the only thing she has going for her.
Still, there's no denying that there's room for development as far as Maleficent's character is concerned. In the original fairy tale, the (nameless) fairy who curses Sleeping Beauty only appears at the beginning of the tale, and her curse is the result of her being miffed at not being invited to the christening. This is classic folk tale logic - according to them, supernatural beings are often notoriously thin-skinned, and you commit a breach of etiquette against them at your peril. Now, Disney's Maleficent in the original animated film not only curses the infant Aurora, she also sticks around to make sure that what she's foretold is fulfilled (which makes you wonder - why not just sit back and let the magic run its course? Doesn't she trust her own curses?). Her continued active efforts to ensure Aurora gets no happy ending do make the "not invited to the party" motive seem a tad threadbare. Maybe giving the character a back-story and a more credible motive to go with it would not be such a bad thing after all?
I hadn't seen much of Maleficent, however, before I realised that it fulfilled my worst fears. It wasn't only an attempt to whitewash Maleficent, but a singularly bad attempt. A pompous female narrator tells us of two neighbouring countries, one peopled by selfish, greedy humans, and one an idyllic place full of magical creatures whom the humans envy. Argh - please not the "greedy humans versus peaceful species living in harmony with nature" plot, one of my all-time pet hates! It gets worse. We see a young Maleficent - why is she even called that if she's not evil yet? - flying over the enchanted woodlands and sunnily greeting various revoltingly cutesy CGI critters. She's plainly as good as good can be, so her descent into baby-cursing must be entirely due to those pesky humans. True enough, it's when her childhood sweetheart Stephan betrays her that she goes off the rails. When the King decrees that whoever kills Maleficent will succeed him, Stephan drugs her, steals her wings - he can't quite bring himself to kill her, though with hindsight that would have been wiser - and becomes king on the strength of it. On the plus side, no-one hunts Maleficent any more, as it's assumed Stephan killed her when he nabbed the wings. On the minus side, she's really upset.
You'd think the whole betrayal-and-wing-stealing setup would prove a better motive for Maleficent than not being invited to a christening, but it's so clumsily done it adds nothing to the original story, quite the reverse. Maleficent's back-story is for the most part narrated rather than built up by potentially character-developing dialogue - it's a schoolbook example of telling rather than showing. I found myself far preferring the old, un-reconstructed Maleficent: she was plainly a bad fairy by profession, and cursing newborns is the kind of thing bad fairies do - all part of a usual day in the life of a fairy-tale villain. New Maleficent, on the other hand, seems to think she has some moral justification for making sure Stephan's child fell into eternal sleep on her sixteenth birthday - but fond as she was of her wings, this is a wildly disproportionate retaliation. By making the newborn-cursing part of a revenge-on-the-ex plot, Maleficent actually manages to highlight the horror of it rather than making it more understandable.
The film then gets even sillier as Maleficent warms to Aurora and eventually tries her darndest to break her own curse - at this point, there's no longer any attempt made to align what's happening with the plot in the animated film. And in the end, I kid you not, it is not the Prince's smooch that wakes Aurora, but Maleficent's repentant kiss (on the forehead - there are limits). She's grown to love her, see, so this is "true love's kiss". Not that that's much of a comfort to the girl's real parents - her blameless mother who's died not knowing what will happen to her child and her increasingly unhinged father (and wouldn't you be if someone cursed your kid? It's not paranoia if it's real). And don't get me started on Maleficent's treatment of the three good fairies - charming comic sidekicks in the original Disney classic, inept and woefully unfunny in this film.
Fleshing out the character of fairy-tale villains is a tall order, as they're pretty hardcore, and the original tales - not being exercises in psychological realism - don't give you many hints regarding the inner workings of their mind. But it can be done. I recently watched the first season of the TV series Once Upon A Time and was completely sold on it - which, let's just say, is not particularly surprising. I'll be gushing more about its attractions at some later date. Suffice it to say, for now, that the fairy-tale villains in Once may be rendered more complex by a tragic back-story or two, but they are nevertheless still villains - they choose to become bad, and to remain bad. Real affection towards a select few people in their lives doesn't make them less of a menace to everyone else. This, I think, would have been an approach which could have worked with Maleficent too: an attempt to enrich her character without prettifying or excusing her obvious malevolence. In fact, Maleficent does appear in Once, but only as a minor character: it will be interesting to see if she is reintroduced later, and what in that case this franchise's take on her will be.
As it is, I will let yet another version of Maleficent have the last word: the cheerfully messy teenage romcom Descendants shown on Disney Channel, about the second generation of Disney villains navigating high school, features a thoroughly rotten-to-the-core Maleficent, interestingly not the least bit inspired by the 2014 film, only by the animated classic. She tries to persuade her increasingly doubtful daughter (there's no clue as to who the father is - the film doesn't really address where villain babies come from) to carry out her wicked plans in a catchy musical number which includes the lyrics (abbreviated): "Don't you want to be evil? Don't you want to be cool?" In its simplicity, I think this sums up the character of the bad fairy - at least in her Disney version - far better than anything in Maleficent.