There I was, happily going about my day – on my way from work, driving the kids somewhere, or sitting down to read the weekend paper – and there she was. It’s as if Disney has taken up a full frontal assault on my senses, bombarding me with Angelina Jolie wherever I go. The billboards, promotional pieces, and media profiles are everywhere I look. That freaky headpiece and the huge black wings are being embossed in my brain by sheer overconsumption. No, it’s not some dark conspiracy, it’s just the huge marketing campaign for the latest Disney blockbuster movie Maleficent (on the other hand, maybe it is some dark conspiracy).
But something about this movie struck an odd chord with me. A cursory look at the plot for this movie reveals that it’s just a retelling of the classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty: beautiful young princess put to sleep by a curse from a bad fairy and awoken by handsome prince. But this movie has a twist: the star is not the beautiful princess, or even the handsome prince who rescues her, rather the vindictive fairy.
“What’s really going on here?” I asked my teen and tween daughters, who sit squarely in the target demographic for movies like this. “Stop carrying on about it Dad”, they said, “they are just telling the story from a different perspective”. Indeed, after you run out of sequels and prequels, the next way to keep squeezing life out of a movie franchise is to do a ‘perspective shift’.
But what bothered me here was the cultural implications of these ‘shifts’ on such classic tales of good and evil.
Another example is the movie Mirror Mirror (2012), which is a remake of the classic fairytale Snow White, but this time starring the evil queen/stepmother, played by Julia Roberts. Maleficent takes this shift a step further.
The pattern “good against bad and eventually good wins” is common in movies and TV series. But after people began to tire of the same old story line, writers responded by blurring the boundaries and exploring the complexity of the characters. They might make it a little harder to work out who is good and who is bad, or have lead characters who are deeply flawed (such as in some of my favourites like House, Dexter, and The Shield). Some of them are likeable, and some we love to hate. In all cases, the intent is that we empathise with the baddie as well.
In Mirror Mirror, we know that the queen is bad – always was, always will be. In Maleficent, we are taken on a journey into the life of the lead character to understand why she turned into a bad fairy. And inevitably, it likely wasn’t her fault. Rather she was the product of some terrible experiences as a young fairy that “radicalised” her and caused to her shift to the dark side.
Pop culture is a product of the sentiments of society at the time. Back when these fairy tales and similar stories were composed, society had a clear idea of what is good and what is bad, and a strong desire to see good triumph. More recently, in the gangster movie genre, we still retained the boundaries between good and bad, but liked the escapism of wanting bad to win, or at least give good a run for their money.
But nowadays, there is no more good and bad. In moral relativism doublespeak, war is peace, freedom is slavery, good is bad, and bad is good. We can’t tell the difference between good and bad any more because there is no such thing as bad. Instead of trying to eradicate or fight bad, we are asked to understand it and its ‘root causes’ and show empathy. People aren’t intrinsically bad at all; rather they are forced into bad behaviour by external events beyond their control. The Twinkie defence has been broadened into a global excuse for bad.
Movies like Maleficent are just a “Mirror Mirror” of our own attitudes.