This week marks the release of Maleficent, a retelling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty that focuses on the infamous villain and how she evolved into the evil sorceress who cursed one of Disney’s most beloved princesses. A poster was recently revealed for next year’s Cinderella, and Disney has announced their plans to produce a new take on Beauty and the Beast. It’s safe to say that Hollywood’s not going to be finished cranking out live action fairy tale films anytime soon. Although the fairy tale movie, even the live action one, isn’t a new concept, the recent influx of the attempts at creating a spin on some of our favorite Brothers Grimm and Disney stories from childhood has hit an all time high. While most of these tales have been box office successes, I’m not alone in the opinion that they have yet to do justice to the versions we all grew up with. Let’s take a closer look at why so many of these adaptations have been disappointments to fans of the traditional fairy tale.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Tim Burton’s version of an Alice in Wonderland sequel is without a doubt magnificent to look at, particularly on the big screen. The 3D version is one of the few films since Avatar that have been worth the extra few dollars at the theater. It’s one of the most visually appealing movies I’ve seen. However, most of us didn’t watch Alice in Wonderland solely for its visual effects. We wanted to reminisce over the quirky tale of nonsense we remembered from when we were young. The first mistake Burton and Disney made with this movie is titling it the same as its animated predecessor, then confusing audiences by creating what is essentially Burton’s own version of a sequel to the original movie and book on which it’s based (Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). I can only imagine that the motivation behind this decision stems from the mistake that adaptations consistently make, which is the desire to appeal to a wider range of audiences. When we revisit Alice this time around, she’s 19 years old. She’s no longer a child, confused and fascinated by the strange sights in her dreams. Alice is now an adult, who is no longer visiting Wonderland in her dreams. She’s visiting Underland to save it from its evil ruler. Are you sure we aren’t in Narnia? It’s beautiful, bewildering, and boring chaos. How is that even possible?
Speaking of saving a kingdom, we have now arrived at what I firmly believe is the biggest crime committed by both Alice in Wonderland and another successful adaptation we’ll cover. Both films offer an attempt at recreating these beloved stories that largely revolve around the innocence of young girls. I firmly believe that it’s completely unnecessary, and even detrimental to the quality of the storytelling, for Alice to be the hero of a war between two sisters. A 19 year old society girl is the chosen one, fated to slay a monster to end someone else’s family feud? Not only is that completely impractical, it detracts from the essence of the idea of these fairy tales we all know and love. The young girls in these stories are not heroes. They’re just children, or in other cases princesses, either using their imaginations or simply waiting to be saved. You don’t just drop these girls in the middle of a kingdom and hand them a sword. Yes, women deserve equality, but can’t we present strong female heroines without casting them as inexplicable action heroes? And you know what, it’s okay to want to be saved every once in a while. Which brings us to our second subject of scrutiny:
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
This attempt at a dark version of an epic fantasy tale is also guilty of trying to unnecessarily forge its female lead into a warrior hero. Snow White has been locked in a tower most of her life, yet she’s destined to lead the way in a battle against the evil queen Ravenna. Why isn’t true love’s kiss enough here? Sometimes all we need is a happily ever after rather than a climactic bloody battle. I understand the intent – we’ve come so far in the battle against sexism that we don’t want to seem weak, so we can’t sit around letting the Huntsman fight all of our battles, nor should we. However, in terms of narrative function there are far better examples of strong, competent female characters to draw from. Films like Snow White and The Huntsman don’t celebrate the strength in femininity, rather they reframe the female lead with distinctly masculine traits. The aim should be to move toward female heroines in the mold of, for example, Princess Leia. Princess Leia was an intelligent, capable and strong female character. The key to characters like Princess Leia is that femininity is not sacrificed in favor of a skewed masculine ideal. In the case of the Snow White and The Huntsman, the addition of her warrior destiny muddies the clear water that is an evil queen preying on a pure and innocent girl. Which in turn brings us to the final grave error we will discuss for now: the misuse of the villain.
Director Ruper Sanders made a colossal mistake when he crafted a movie containing Charlize Theron as the villain, then gave her a fascinating back story, then proceeded to instead revolve the story around a princess who measures dull and lifeless compared to the presence Theron brings to the table as Queen Ravenna. When you watch a Disney fairy tale, you’re supposed to want to be the princess. When I watch Snow White and the Huntsman, I just want to be Charlize Theron. Not only does she get the better characterization, she also gets all of the badass special effects. That creepy milk bath? Absolutely enthralling. Theron is a scene stealer, throughout the entire duration of this film. My best advice is if you’re going to create an appealing and compelling villain, make her the focal point. Give us the whole story. Follow the success of characters such as Wicked’s Elphaba by giving us depth and history to make it difficult to root against her. I have high hopes that Robert Stromberg utilizes Angelina in this way in Maleficent. There’s no guesswork involved in determining who the star of this film is, let’s just hope she gets the justice she deserves.
If you’re going to go dark, go all the way. If you’re insistent on a hero, create a well structured, fleshed out hero, with the motivation and the ability to save the world. And please, don’t sacrifice heart and emotion for CGI. It’s beautiful, but it’s boring.