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Disney’s Latest Trend: The Sympathetic Villain

Kim Scharfenberger - published on 11/15/13 - updated on 06/07/17

Fairy tales used to be pretty clear about right and wrong, but a string of new films from Disney seems to challenge traditional approaches to good and evil.

Disney just released the first teaser trailer for the highly anticipated Maleficent, starring a wicked-looking Angelina Jolie as the infamous villainess and Elle Fanning as the cursed Princess Aurora. The film is due to hit theaters May 2014. But there’s an interesting twist that Maleficent is bringing to the Sleeping Beauty mythos, which is evident from the title – this time around, the focus is on the villain’s backstory, while the traditionally accepted heroine will become a side character.

The synopsis for this villain-centered flick promises “the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain.” Maleficent is described as “a beautiful, pure-hearted young woman [who] has an idyllic life… until an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land’s fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone.” This betrayal is allegedly what inspires her to “place a curse on the invading king’s successor’s newborn infant, Aurora.” Just from the synopsis alone, Maleficent is painted as a tragic hero – one who was merely defending her kingdom before a series of unfortunate events occurred. Moreover, even her curse on the baby Princess Aurora is just a way of protecting her land. If she was working to protect others, how villainous could she possibly be?

The film has not yet been released, but several interviews with Angelina Jolie seem to promise that audiences will get a brand new perspective of Maleficent. “I hope in the end you see a woman who is capable of being many things, and just because she protects herself and is aggressive, it doesn’t mean she can’t have other [warmer] qualities.” When asked about whether Maleficent has redeeming qualities, Jolie answers with, “It sounds really crazy to say that there will be something that’s good for young girls in this, because it sounds like you’re saying they should be a villain. But [Maleficent] is actually a great person.” It’s an interesting take on one of the most well-known animated villains in film history, to say the least. And it’s not the first Disney film to take this approach with villains.

In much of its recently released entertainment, Disney has been perpetuating this trend of retelling and revamping the villain’s story, often with a sympathetic light projected on the villain’s past. Through these retellings, the audience inevitably sympathizes with the villain in question, maybe even going so far as to assume that their evil decisions were unavoidable in their unfortunate circumstances.

One of these Disney retellings was released this past March –Oz the Great and Powerful. The film tracks the story of the Witches of Oz, specifically the Wicked Witches of the East and West before they were “wicked.” Although the Witch of the East turns out to be the biggest villain in the story, the traditionally accepted villain from The Wizard of Oz – the Wicked Witch of the West – is portrayed as a sympathetic victim of cruel manipulation. At first beautiful and kind, she suffers from a broken heart over her unrequited love for Oz and eats a poisoned apple in order to forget her heartbreak, which transforms her into the familiar green-skinned crone audiences will remember. From this perspective, Dorothy’s future arch nemesis seems far more sympathetic than the witch from the original film. After all, it turns out she’s just a victim of other people’s evil and most everyone in any given audience can sympathize with a broken heart.

This trend even found its way into Disney’s children’s entertainment as well. The entire basis of the animated feature Wreck-It Ralph was one video game villain’s struggle to attain heroism. Ralph is the villain in an arcade game called “Fix-It Felix” – he wrecks things and Felix fixes them. But Ralph tires of being an outcast and sets off on a journey to earn a medal and thus become a hero. One would think that this would be a great opportunity to show a character overcoming his inclinations and growing to become a genuine hero. And Ralph does succeed in proving his hero’s worth through his selfless actions for other characters in the film, but that’s not the final message that the film conveys. Instead, Ralph’s chosen mantra, even at the end of the film, is: “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad.” At the film’s close, Ralph is still wrecking things in his game; it’s just that Felix and the rest of the game occupants accept him for who he is now. Obviously, Ralph is not actually a villain and is good-hearted, but it’s still curious that the message Ralph keeps repeating is that “[he] will never be good, and that’s not bad.”

There’s nothing wrong with trying to understand the inner workings of a villain’s mind. Especially in popular stories that are widely known, a retelling from a different and unexpected perspective (such as the villain’s) can be entertaining because it brings new material to the table. But ultimately, films like Maleficent and Oz the Great and Powerful glorify traditionally accepted villains and attempt to justify their misdemeanors through delving into their misunderstood pasts. And films like Wreck-It Ralph even go so far as to say, “It’s not bad to be ‘bad.’”

The films of the past (such as the original Sleeping Beauty or The Wizard of Oz) expressed concrete understandings of right and wrong, reflected through characters that were absolutely good or absolutely evil. There was no middle-ground for the fire-throwing Witch of the West or the shape-shifting Maleficent in their original stories. But modern society has created many shades of gray for interpreting people’s actions, and these villain-centered stories seems to be a result of that mentality. It might seem harmless, but if so much time is spent obsessing over the origins and motivations of villains, we might begin to wonder where all the heroes have gone.

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