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‘Maleficent’ isn’t evil; she’s just scorned

Fairy tales and myths have been around as long as humans have been here to invent them. They tend to evolve over time, but they always seem to reflect some aspect of their home culture. Disney has created two versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale, the latest of which is titled "Maleficent." Following is the review of "Maleficent" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio: 

Once upon a time, good was good, evil was evil and all was right with the world. Then the worst thing happened: We all grew up. And things got really confusing. And they’ve stayed that way.

Not that I have anything against confusion, mind you. It seems like a much more natural state of being than, say, certitude. Being at least somewhat insecure forces you to adapt to new situations, and it helps keep you open to new experiences.

It’s what you do while muddling through the midst of that confusion that’s key. Take, for example, the folks at Disney. The studio that Uncle Walt founded specializes in taking old folk tales, making sure to insert a few fairies where needed, and revising them for the modern world. Many of us were raised on such mid-20th-century Disney adaptations as “Cinderella,” “Snow White” and, in 1959, “Sleeping Beauty.”

That last one is particularly memorable, especially the vision of the dark fairy Maleficent, resplendently evil in a way that seems scary and dominating but is, ultimately, just a metaphor to illustrate the larger message: Evil is forever destined to fall before the power of true love’s kiss. That’s what I mean by certitude.

In an America just emerging from the Second World War, trying to rebound in a boom of post-war prosperity, such sentiments were understandable. The message seemed to be, “It was all just a bad dream, folks. Watch television. Spend money. It’s going to be OK.” And many of those who could, did just that. But has any message of erstwhile comfort ever been more delusional? Or, arguably, damaging?

In recent years, to its credit, Disney has adapted to the times. Since the late ’80s, with such fairy-tale adaptations as “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” Disney films have, for the most part, featured spirited, independent women characters who don’t need to be saved, thank you very much. In fact, Disney’s women characters of today – Anna and Elsa of last year’s “Frozen” being good examples – can save others, as well.

Disney’s newest offering, “Maleficent,” takes things even further. Following in the vein of “Wicked” author Gregory Maguire and others who have re-examined classic tales in ways that change their very essence, “Maleficent” transforms the title character from the epitome of mere evil to a symbol of woman scorned. Yes, this new Maleficent, embodied by Angelina Jolie, will do evil deeds – such as cursing a young princess to fall into the proverbial deep sleep – but she can be excused. Once a brightly sprite spirit, she is inherently good. And, besides, wouldn’t you know it, a man is to blame.

Aside from the limitations of this revelation, “Maleficent” doesn’t go much beyond that simple sentiment – except to focus on Jolie’s prominent cheekbones, Sharlto Copley’s glowering rage and a lot of special-effects wizardry.

The muddling message here ends up being more than a bit confusing. This time, though, I don’t mean it in a good way.