Disney has taken to Hollywood’s trend of reboots and remakes by turning their classic animated fairytales into live action and darker toned movies. With the box office success of Maleficent, the live action Disney films are here to stay, followed by The Jungle Book coming in 2016 and Beauty and the Beast in 2017.
The remakes attempt to maintain a sense of nostalgia for the childhood fairytales we know and love while bringing a new angle to incorporate some unpredictability into the plot. One of their favorite angles is to make the villain a fully fleshed out character, in comparison to the one dimensional, 100% evil villains of the animated versions. Apart from not being invited to Aurora’s christening, it is never explained why Maleficent has such hatred for the royal family. Snow White’s stepmother, the Queen, is simply driven by vanity and envy of the princess’s beauty. Yet, Disney now feels compelled to let us know the back stories of these wicked witches and stepmothers and as a result the audience might end up sympathizing with them instead of rooting for the princess, the ‘good guy’ of the story.
Maybe Disney is going for an interesting twist on an already familiar tale. After all, there is still a lot to explore from these stories with older and more ominous origins. However, making their villain more interesting than the heroine can lead to a complete change of perspective, and this twist comes from various decisions that keep getting repeated in the live action movies:
1. The villain is played by Academy Award Winners or Nominees
Rule number one of remakes seems to be: If you bring in a very well known actor, the audiences will flock to the movie. Even if you weren’t that interested in a live action version of Sleeping Beauty, seeing Angelina Jolie with killer contour and horns could have changed your mind. If not, her smile and cackle surely made an impression.
Snow White and the Huntsman followed this same rule. Sure, some fame tailed after Kristen Stuart due to her commercial success in the Twilight series, yet it was casting Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen that elevated the film’s standards. The Oscar winner had the acting range to turn a plain evil character into a vengeful, bitter, power thirsty queen whom the audience could still feel sorry for.
Even in the less memorable adaptation, Mirror Mirror, the filmmakers didn’t hesitate in bringing in a high caliber actress like Julia Roberts to play the antagonist of Snow White. Even in the most recent live action remake, Cinderella, Cate Blanchett takes the role of the stepmother as a desperate woman in debt that turns to her last resorts to stay afloat while still being quite sassy.
A well known actress will fill up the theater seats, but should it turn out to be just bait to attract audiences, the ruse won’t last long. That’s why they have also made sure that:
2. The villains are complex and have a sad past
Maybe when the majority of the audience was around ten years old, a scary looking villain would have been enough to keep the plot going, but the audience has grown up and a one dimensional villain is no longer cutting it.
Behind every villain we now have a back story to explain why they became evil. For Maleficent, it was the betrayal she experienced from the humans, especially one she considered her friend. Queen Ravenna was betrayed by men before and uses the power of her beauty to weaken and control them, therefore needing to be young forever. And for the Stepmother in Cinderella she has lost her second husband and is left to take care of an estate with no means.
The reasoning for the bad guys’ choices is not necessarily aimed for us to like them, although it can happen. Motives help an audience understand why they are the way they are, making them more human in our eyes.
Even though it’s interesting to have a character turn evil after they have been repeatedly wounded, dismissing the classic Disney villain shouldn’t be the answer. Yes, they are more human now, but evil for the sake of evil can be fun as well. Think of Scar. He was as evil as it gets yet I don’t need to know that Scar always lived in the shadow of his big brother or was ridiculed for his black mane in order to understand his lust for power. He was sarcastic, ruthless and had a British accent. That was enough for many.
Even in Ever After, another live action adaption of Cinderella, the Stepmother played by Angelica Houston is downright cold and relishes in hurting Cinders. She is despicable in her poised manner but that is what makes her a fantastic villain.
Adding new layers to these characters is not a bad approach, but it may feel like there’s an imbalance in the story because:
3. Being pretty and special is no longer enough
Aurora could sing. That was about it. Magic and good looks made Cinderella’s dreams come true, not her efforts. Snow White loves animals and she is kind. The standards of Disney’s princesses require them to be sweet, kind to everyone and the fairest in all the land. Singing talents are optional but often sought after. In general, they have to be…nice. And in the end, ‘nice’ gets rewarded. It is the given message of ‘good conquers evil’ even if good just ends up being rescued and has everything done for it because it’s simply good.
Developing the villains and leaving the heroines with the same dated characteristics leaves the audience not caring about what happens because they know how the story ends and there is nothing new about the princess. Also, stripping away any romantic interest like was done in Maleficent only emphasizes how hollow our leading ladies are.
I am a firm believer that every Disney Princess has a special trait every little girl can learn from, even if it’s something as simple as good manners and being kind-hearted. However, to label them only as special, just because, underwhelms the main character and makes the bad guys stand out. In Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White is ‘the one.’ The forest creatures recognize her and reveal their magic to her. The dwarves and the people find her special even though she barely does much throughout the movie. Aurora in Maleficent is so pure and good it comes across as dim next to her sarcastic nemesis.
What makes a good story is the even contrast between the hero and the enemy. They represent both sides of the coin but they are at least on the same level. When one stands out with black magic, the other makes up for in integrity, winning the hearts of the people. But now, there is no battle because:
4. The Queens are ruling over the Princesses
As little girls, we dreamed about being princesses and no one said much to change our minds. We wanted beautiful locks, animals to play with and eventually a handsome prince would come along. Now we have queens, good or bad, that get stuff done. They don’t take crap from anyone and they embrace who they are, flaws and all.
Maleficent is no longer a witch but a mysterious fairy. Kids don’t want to be Cinderella nowadays. They want to be Elsa, the Snow Queen. Elsa is really the villain in the movie, in the most loose sense of the word. Sure, later on a twist comes out of left field, but Elsa is the one who causes the damage and hurts her sister Anna, whether she means to or not. Elsa can either isolate herself or face what she has done and that is exactly what she does.
The term princess is now frowned upon and the Queens are taking the glory with their unforgettable presences and their determination. The title of Queen demands more respect, and with it comes a heavier burden, which makes for a more intriguing character.
Maybe while their audiences grew up, Disney’s perspective developed as well. While I am true advocate for Disney’s decisions and style for the '90s films, it’s understandable why they are slowly steering into another direction. Perhaps a new generation of children will still "ooh and ahh" over the princess’s dress while us older fans will just murmur I wish I were as badass as you evil Queen.