Tim here. We’ve all had a few days for the recent trailer for Disney’s upcoming pillaging of former glories live-action Sleeping Beauty riff Maleficent to sink in (full disclosure: all I get is a big rotten whiff of Snow White and the Huntsman with a bigger role for its face-saving Prima Donna as the villain). So I’d like to take a moment to rewind 55 years back to the first Maleficent, for no better – and certainly, no worse – reason than that she’s one of the very best villains not only in the Disney canon, but in cinema as a whole. And while it’s never the wrong time to pay attention to one of the finest pieces of draftsmanship in the whole of American character animation, it’s nice to have an excuse.
The question, “Why is Maleficent so damn awesome?” has many answers, but here’s the easy one: black.
So much black. In a visual medium that, when projected on-screen (it’s just not the same on TV, not even in the sharpest of Blu-rays, though it comes close), is defined by the presence of color-tinted light, deep dark black is the most powerful statement you can make. Black is a negation, it stands apart from everything else onscreen, and it pulls your eye right to itself. In a movie with as many bright, super-saturated colors as designer Eyvind Earle crammed into Sleeping Beauty, black is even more potent, since it violates everything else in the frame. When Maleficent, in her sweeping, plunging blackness, enters that throne room, she is defying it simply by existing, by pulling the color out of the frame.
There is, then, the physical performance. Which sounds like a funny thing to say about drawings, but animators frequently refer to themselves as actors, and the supervising artist in charge of Maleficent, Marc Davis, was one of the best they ever had. He specialized in women – Cinderella, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, the absolutely wonderful Tinker Bell – and his two masterpieces were villainous caricatures of the gender, the crazed Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians and the icy bitch Maleficent herself. What I think is best about this character animation isn’t the chilly imperiousness (though that is terrific), but her cruel sense of joy: the tight little smile when Aurora pricks her finger, or her snide glance at a tied-up Phillip.
And then there's the vocal performance, provided by one of Disney’s all-time great voice actors, Eleanor Audley, who was also the voice of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother. Making her responsible for maybe the two meanest people in all of Disney. There’s a haughty, brittle quality to her voice that sounds like an antagonist Katherine Hepburn and fits perfectly the regal cruelty of her two villains. Her voice is at its best in Maleficent’s insinuating, venomous “gift” to the newborn princess, her taunting of the prince in her dungeons, or her frenzied scream “all the powers of Hell!” still one of the most unnerving lines in a Disney picture. Some kindly soul has collected most of her performance on YouTube, and a more satisfying four minutes I haven’t spent all day.
Also, for her art, Eleanor Audley was willing to look like this:
I adore Angelina Jolie as much as anybody, but that all adds up to a lot of iconic history to live up to, and I'm dubious that the film surrounding her will make that task any easier. However Maleficent turns out this summer, we’ll always have the flawless animated original.