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Thursday
Jan302014

Will the real Maleficent please stand up?

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.

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Reader Comments (14)

and then she turns into a dragon and its THE BLACKEST THING THIS SIDE OF WESLEY SNIPES

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohnny

I don't know that any human can be Maleficent, but surely the closest has to be Angelina Jolie. I'm happy for the casting choice if nothing else. The film will have an impossible time matching Sleeping Beauty though.

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Maleficent is a great villain, but I love Frollo from "Hunchback" even more. How Disney made lust-for-a-woman the core villainous trait behind a Disney villain AND got away with it is beyond me, but I'm glad they did!

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

If we're accepting all the characters Disney calls villains for marketing purposes villains, my favorite is Chernabog in Fantasia. Such a wonderfully imposing presence onscreen.

Maleficent and Ursula go back and forth for me among the actual active villains in narrative Disney films for similar reasons. They're totally over the top, undeniable evil, and refuse to go down without an actual fight. And we all know if a giant fire breathing dragon or a skyscraper-sized octopus fought against a single knight or a single ship, the villains would actually win.

I also really like Madame Mim in The Sword and the Stone just because she's so ridiculous. The magic duel with Merlin is one of the funniest thing Disney ever animated and Mim is no less fearsome for participating in it.

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I loved the post, and I love Sleeping Beauty. While reading, I was thinking that this film could have been a great opportunity to cast an actress of color in a plum Hollywood part. Angelina is fine and all, but it's not like she needs the role. Imagine Angela Bassett!

Eleanor Audley also has a small part in All that Heaven Allows. That voice!

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDusty

'Sleeping Beauty' is still, by far, the most stunning and beutiful animated film of all times. The use of colours, the designs and the backgrounds are fascinating. However, from that trailer, I find the esthetic of 'Maleficient' as totally the opposite. And, as much as I like Angelina Jolie, I find her totally miscast in this.

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbonobo

Someone I know saw an advanced screening of this last November and says it is quite good. In terms of quality he compares it to Enchanted. I di not saw Enchanted yet but the critics were good.

Regarding Jolie he says she is great and she kills in every sibgle scene she is in. He also said that her voice is very similar to Eleanor Audley.

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpaul

Lovely post, Tim. I saw the movie again like a week ago and though I will probably never adore the movie, it's really good and Malie (am I starting something good with that nick?) is always a wicked joy to watch.
And I love Fauna's green because I always love green.

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

Sleeping Beauty just aggravates me.

Here we have Maleficent, who is undeniably evil, but extremely qualified and hard working. Just look at those spectacular thorns she conjurs up! You know girl's been working for YEARS to get her powers up to that level! And not satisfied with that, she still takes time to learn how to tame crows, cast death curses, hypnotize people and other small things like, you know, morphing into a giant black dragon of death, spitting green wicked fire from the depths of hell. Now, I don't proclaim to have any particular knowledge of the occult, but I'm pretty confident that requires some skills, the hard-earned type.

And regardless of all that effort, we're suppose to pull for some entitled one-percenter who's been born into wealth and royalty, spent her early life in a bubble being watched and protected by three fairies (poor hard-working Cinderella could only manage one and for a single night event, typical case of fairy-godmother inequality in favor of the rich), conveniently goes into a coma the minute things start to get tricky, only to wake up back to her life of privilege, now upgraded with tiaras and hot man candy!

If it were up to me that dragon would be eating everybody alive and spending their wealth on the preservation of the thorn forest (Maleficent strikes me as somehow environmentally conscious).

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

The screenplay of Maleficent is quite good ( dont believe the bad buzz).

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Carmen Sandiego, that post was brilliance. (Seriously though, look at your name. Maybe not the first time you were cheering on the villain.)

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Clearly I have to rewatch Sleeping Beauty. As a child, it was maybe my least favorite Disney movie (along with Snow White) - although I don't really remember why.

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

@Carmen Sandiego - I love the way you think even though I chose to see the Sleeping Beauty story as a symbolic one and don't much care about analysing the characters. But you wrote a really brilliant comment.

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

"Sleeping Beauty " is one of the reasons I became a movie fan.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

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