The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by veteran bloggers Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings is one of my favorite blogging events of the year. This is a time when we can focus on and pay tribute to the evil that movies do. I’ve joined this event in the past always trying to bring a creative angle to the villains. I’ve chosen Butch from the The Little Rascals, Wile E. Coyote of Road Runner fame, Harry Powell from The Night of the Hunter, and Henry F. Potter who wants to ensure against a wonderful life. One can argue that any of those have reason for evil whether by hunger or psychological issue. This year, however, I went back to the drawing board to focus on evil incarnate, one of the greatest examples of villainy in the history of movies.
The decade of the 1950s was in many ways an experimental one for Disney Studios culminating with Sleeping Beauty in 1959. Walt Disney came up with the idea for his studio’s sixteenth animated feature from Charles Perrault’s late 17th Century story, The Sleeping Beauty and Tchaikovsky’s music. Disney himself explained that his story took 6 years and $6 million to make, the most expensive feature to date for the studio, but the plans and work spanned the entire decade.
Walt Disney tasked his lot of talented animators with making Sleeping Beauty as different to previous releases as possible using moving illustrations, a unique style, and even a new aspect ratio, the new Technirama 70 widescreen format. In all of that they succeeded. Everything about this feature is complex including its memorable music directed by George Bruns adapted from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. The movie’s one fault is that the story is too similar to the legendary Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was the Disney comparison point for all that followed, and audiences didn’t show up in necessary numbers. Box office receipts for Sleeping Beauty totaled less that the $6 million production cost and in that way it was a disappointment. Today, however, this film represents something else altogether as it is one of Disney’s most admired works and artistically is one of the most influential. Sleeping Beauty has also eclipsed most other 1959 releases in monetary gain standing a solid second behind William Wyler’s Ben-Hur.
Animators can deservedly marvel at the artistry of Sleeping Beauty, but I marvel at its antagonist, a colorful, deliciously malicious fairy following in the tradition of the Evil Queen in Snow White more than two decades before with raven and all – except badder and more evil. This one is called Maleficent, a name that means causing harm or destruction, especially by supernatural means. A more appropriate name was never given a character. No one does it better than Maleficent does from a darker, more sinister core. Sure, there are many reasons to watch Sleeping Beauty like the aforementioned music, the beautiful tapestry of the story, and the lovable fairies, but without Maleficent the film would be all sugary charm and grace and let’s be honest, who wants that for 75 or so minutes?
Sleeping Beauty begins with a story book and as the pages turn we learn of King Stefan and Queen Leah who are welcoming a daughter, Princess Aurora, after many childless years. The King and Queen call for a holiday to celebrate the special event during which three magical fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, bestow upon little Aurora three special gifts. Flora and Fauna are able to reap upon the baby princess the gifts of beauty and song, but Merryweather is unable to offer her gift because the celebrations are interrupted by Maleficent who is quite upset she didn’t receive an invitation to the festivities. She too bestows a gift upon Princess Aurora, “The princess shall indeed grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her, BUT…before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel – and DIE!” Well, that’s as rotten as they come, if you ask me. Luckily Merryweather still has a gift to bestow and is able to weaken Maleficent’s spell casting a long sleep, rather than death, to the princess should her finger be pricked. Aurora will then only be awakened by love’s first kiss.
With the help of Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather the kingdom takes precautions to ensure Aurora’s safety. The King orders all spindles burned and the three fairies raise Aurora well hidden in a cottage deep in the forest. Unfortunately, evil is difficult to overcome. When Aurora is back in the castle when she turns 16, Maleficent casts a spell upon her and lures her into a dark tower. The Princess is tricked into touching the spindle of a cursed spinning wheel thereby fulfilling the curse. Maleficent revels is her rottenness when the fairies try to save Aurora. “ME!” she exclaims when the fairies try to outwit her, “ME! The mistress of all evil!” And she has a point. Maleficent’s powers are too much for Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather who must try a combination of tricks to save Aurora and her betrothed, Prince Phillip who must now somehow kiss the sleeping beauty in order to wake her.
Dreading the kiss the prince wants to give Aurora, Maleficent abducts Phillip promising to lock him away for a century. I’m not going to tell you what happens after that, but there’s lots of Maleficent treachery in store.
The Mistress of All Evil, as Maleficent proudly proclaims about herself, is on a constant mission to thwart the happiness of those in the kingdom. And all because they didn’t invite her to a party. Graced with extraordinary powers, this evil one is able to pull a lot from her bag of tricks, including becoming a dragon to fight against Phillip in an extremely scary scene toward the end of the movie. Sleeping Beauty is quite scary at times during its final act and it’s all thanks to this memorable villain who summons all of the forces of hell to beat her foe. She also knows how to make an entrance, usually by fire reminding us of the satanic forces within her. I doubt any other villain can out power this woman as she has not one stitch of heart. Only the power of virtue and truth can bring her down.
Maleficent was designed by animator Marc Davis with a giant vampire bat in mind. As a result, she is dark, green, dramatic, flamboyant, and operatic in scope. Maleficent is recognizable wherever she goes and leaves a hell of an impression. La Grand Dame of evil, as I like to call her, was voiced by Eleanor Audley who was chosen by Walt Disney for this the final fairy tale he produced. Audley was a favorite Disney voice artist, most memorably as Lady Tremaine, the evil stepmother in Cinderella (1950). For Maleficent Audley brilliantly designed a voice for the ages matching the sleek, horned diva to cruel elegant perfection. Maleficent is so memorable that she is still the subject of new motion pictures, albeit revisionist versions that I am against. This is for the real one, the great villain who is bent on revenge for eternity, who pulls every conceivable trick from her vast arsenal to destroy her enemies, and whose name itself is the definition of evil. Everything about Maleficent contributes to her legendary status as the Mistress of ALL Evil.