Sunday, August 17, 2014

Disney's Maleficent: Adding complexity, with caution

One of the most common complaints leveled against Disney films has always been the lack of complexity. Their detractors generally emphasize that the Disney universe seem to adhere to a rigid Good/Evil dichotomy, with little or no room for nuanced, multi-faceted characters. Disney's latest effort Maleficent, a live-action reinterpretation with gothic undertones of the 1959 iconic animated feature film Sleeping Beauty, appears like a curious attempt to break with tradition and respond to those allegations with a shining counterexample.

Remaining substantially faithful to the well-known original version  the wicked fairy Maleficent puts on princess Aurora a deadly spell that only true love can break  scriptwriter Linda Woolverton (Beauty and The Beast, The Lion King) programmatically subverts every convention we traditionally associate with Disney pictures. The first recognizable result of this kind of reversal process is, as the film's title suggests, that the villain plays the lead role, while the original protagonist Princess Aurora is a somewhat secondary character. The opening shot shows the Disney logo fading into an aerial view of the king's castle, then the camera soon leaves the kingdom's territory and heads for the Moors, the neighboring forest realm where Maleficent lives. This is not only a major shift in point of view, but the first of many hints that what we are watching is an "untold", "unofficial" story unfolding on the margins of tradition.

The first quarter or so of the movie provides an explanation to a question that wasn't even touched in the 1959 film, and didn't need to be: why does Maleficent feel such a visceral hate for King Stefan, to the point that she curses his daughter to die? While originally the only motivation for Maleficent's resentment was basically that they drew her that way, in the revised version she is no more the incarnation of Pure Evil, but she has a very good reason to be enraged  if you have seen the film, a scene involving a pair of wings will immediately spring to your mind.

(Spoilers ahead!)

But if Maleficent is not your typical fairy tale villain, the heroes in this story display some peculiarities too. Prince Stefan undergoes a transformation from a lovable boy who would do anything to protect his sweetheart, to an abusive, power-hungry king-to-be. On the other end of the spectrum we find young Prince Philip, perfectly embodied by teenage idol Brenton Thwaites, who seems destined to wake Aurora from her dead-like sleep but is condemned instead to the worst fate imaginable for a Prince Charming: impotence. Which brings us to the plot's turning point and main departure from the original cartoon: Aurora comes to life again thanks to a woman's kiss, a kiss of which the least that can be said is that it's ambiguous.

Indeed I'm not alone in recognizing in the chemistry between Maleficent and Princess Aurora a possible allusion to an implied romance. Many clues actually seem to point in this direction. First of all, there is no single male character who could legitimately play the part of the classic fairy tale prince. In fact, as we have seen, the two main male characters King Stefan and Prince Philip are respectively wicked and weak, while Maleficent's crow servant Diaval, who instead has a positive connotation and displays great charm, is nonetheless portrayed as an angelic, sexless creature. Moreover, the only sexual  intercourse hinted at in the film is a rape, and the event is so traumatic that it doesn't only cause Maleficent to distance herself forever from her former lover, but also leads her to reject completely the human kingdom with all its values.

Ambiguity becomes more palpable later in the film. While three incompetent little pixies take care of Aurora's education and safety in a cabin in the woods, removed from the danger of enchanted spinning wheels, Maleficent unexpectedly develops a strong bond with the young princess, to the point that she earns from her the title of godmother. But what at first might appear simply as a motherly feeling gradually takes the shape of something else once Aurora enters adolescence, and just before reaching 16 years of age, which coincides with both maturity and the curse's fulfillment, Aurora expresses the desire to move to the Moors to live with Maleficent. The importance of this decision is underscored by the fact that at this point an encounter between Aurora and Prince Philip has already taken place, without her showing any interest in him that could go beyond a tender friendship.

These could be easily dismissed as mere conjectures, if the pivotal kiss scene didn't dispel most of the perplexities. Not only the classical prince's kiss is replaced by a (chaste) woman's kiss, but what is more important, following the True Love's kiss Woolverton refuses to insert any scene that could reassure us in our heteronormative expectations. At the end, Aurora is crowned queen of the human and fairy kingdoms, with the unification of the two realms paralleling the bond that has developed between Maleficent and Aurora, while Prince Philip, although present to the celebration, still remains a cardboard figure of marginal importance.

If we would stop here, we could conclude that Maleficent is a game changer for Disney. To a certain extent it certainly is, although it resembles less a shift in the Disneyan paradigm and more a velvet revolution. In fact, however surprised we might be by seeing the norms of Disney storytelling turned upside-down, the whole operation can be viewed as part of a strategy as well. After all, Disney has always made a special effort to be in step with the times without losing touch with tradition during all its history. Actually, this is not a prerogative of the Walt Disney Studios. The so-called Classical Hollywood Cinema has often relied upon a combination of well-established conventions and bold innovations to produce original works without shocking the audience. On closer inspection, the reason why Maleficent stands out from the average Disney feature resides not much in the introduction of a homosexual subtext, but rather in the way this novelty is disguised behind a more tepidly innovative change. An omniscient voiceover narrator, who is eventually revealed to be "the one they called the Sleeping Beauty", provides at some points a commentary on the events, underlining above all Maleficent's change of heart and the unexpected turns that the story takes. This commentary has the function to prevent us from going too far with interpretations, insisting on the supposedly audacious stylistic deviances on display while under the surface the film deals undisturbedly with trickier issues.

That being said, giving credence to fanciful conspiracy theories claiming that Disney is secretly advancing a "gay agenda" would be a mistake. In my opinion, what Disney is trying to do with Maleficent is just strengthen its ties of complicity with spectators by showing openness towards a thorny subject. As welcome as this news is, though, I doubt we really need to be taught by Disney that homosexual love can be considered "true love". Actually, accepting to portray a gay relationship in the most cautious way possible seems less an act of courage than a marketing ploy these days – at least in an era where the US President is a proud supporter of same-sex marriages, and even the Pope of the Catholic Church has shown open-mindedness on the subject. Neither would Disney be the first company to adopt this type of strategy. In 1994 IKEA launched the first-ever gay-themed advertising campaign, a then-pioneering example in a now more widespread marketing strategy. The episode of the Barilla CEO who in September 2013 announced that the brand would not feature gay families in ads, immediately followed by a wave of comparative commercials by other Italian food companies openly mocking Barilla's narrow-mindedness, represents an important warning for those companies who fail to recognize ongoing social changes.

For these reasons, Maleficent can be considered as Disney's latest effort to adapt to an ever-changing context, the innovations in narrative don't raising it from being mostly the product of a conservative mind. For its timid treatment of homosexuality and the prudence with which it introduces a potentially controversial theme, it perfectly incarnates the famous motto of Prince Salina in Tomasi Di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard: "Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same".

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