Maleficent might just be one of my favorite Disney villains–and really one of my favorite villains, period. She’s certainly monstrous, a dark fairy with a name that quite literally means “evil” or “harm” and a secondary title as “Mistress of all Evil.” But she’s also incredibly refreshing, a female character who, in the 1959 Disney film Sleeping Beauty, demands to be seen and heard, while the heroine is quite literally asleep for the majority of the action.
Of course, Maleficent wasn’t always such a favorite. When I was a child, I remember watching Sleeping Beauty and either going into another room entirely or hiding my face behind a pillow while she was in dragon form, stomping around and breathing that strange, lime green fire. I mean, look, y’all, in the 1959 animated film she was scary as shit, sending lightning and fire after the prince, turning into a huge monster, calling on all the powers of hell in her fight to keep Sleeping Beauty and Prince Phillip apart. The fantastic voice acting from Eleanor Audley (who also voiced Cinderella‘s Lady Tremaine, and who reportedly influenced much of the character design for Maleficent, including some of her mannerisms and facial expressions) added to the overall feel of the character, and certainly so did the design of the character–tall and elegant and very, very cold.
I found Maleficent’s anger and malice confusing and unsettling. She was an adult who got angry about not being invited to a party, then decided to take out her anger on the infant Aurora. Sure, the party was for Aurora’s christening. But Aurora herself didn’t make out the invitations, obviously, and yet she bears the brunt of Maleficent’s punishment for the perceived offenses.
Maleficent first blesses, then curses Aurora–she will grow in beauty and grace, but on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle, and she will die. One of the kinder fairies still hasn’t presented her gift, and while she is unable to lift the curse entirely, she is able to change the death sentence into that of a long, deep sleep. Of course, given the time period during which the film is set, not inviting a prominent person from the area to such a grand occasion as a christening would’ve been a major insult, but whether or not it would’ve resulted in bloodshed is debatable. I’ve long been curious, too, about what kind of past she had with King Stefan and the Queen, suspecting that Aurora’s christening can’t have been the beginning of the problem.
And then I started studying literature, found myself quite interested in folklore and fairy tales, and I looked up some of the source texts for Disney’s version of the film. The film was based on old stories, much as Cinderella and many of the other Golden Age films were. It can be difficult to trace fairly tales and folklore, and the tales themselves are, in general, easier identified by type than by precise plot and characters. And there are many, many different versions of the Sleeping Beauty story, reaching back at least as far as the early 17th century, likely much farther.
There’s generally a slighted fairy in these tales–in the Perrault version of the tale, the fairy is not invited because she hasn’t left her home in many years and is thought dead, and in the Grimms’ version, she is generally (there are a few versions, actually) not invited because the king and queen quite literally don’t have enough place settings. In Basile version from the 17th century, there is no Maleficent figure–the princess is simply very unlucky. In none of those versions, though, is the slighted fairy the true antagonist of the tale. Instead, the Basile authored version casts a jealous queen as the villainess–after the king impregnates the princess in her sleep (yes, ew) and she gives birth to twins, the queen tries to kill her. In the Perrault tale, the true villain is the princess’s mother-in-law, who tried to kill her and the children. But in the Grimms’ tales and in the Tchaikovsky ballet, the villainness is much closer to that of the Disney films.
But in the more recent, live-action film Maleficent (2014), the details are changed up a bit, mostly to allow for some rehabilitation of the character. The film begins when Maleficent is a child, a young fairy who falls in love with a young peasant boy, a human named Stefan. But Stefan eventually betrays Maleficent, cutting off her wings in order to win favor with the king and secure his place as the future king. In the years after the betrayal, Maleficent develops her distinct style, wearing all black and fashioning a staff that also functions as cane, as the loss of her wings has changed her sense of balance and equilibrium significantly. And when she does curse Aurora, it is only with a long, deep sleep–never with the threat of death. In many ways, the film doesn’t just rehabilitate Maleficent–it de-fangs her entirely. Gone is her dragon form: rather than turning into a dragon, she turns her raven into a dragon. Gone is the overt sense of malice: instead, it is clear that she is reacting to pain and trauma.
So is Maleficent a monster? Maybe it just depends on the version of her you’re looking at, the lens you’re looking through.