'Maleficent' and the Rise of the Grim Fairy Tale

As Angelina Jolie's dark Disney movie hits theaters, see how fairy tale films went from 'once upon a time' to 'welcome to my nightmare'

Angelina Jolie Maleficent
Frank Connor/Disney
Angelina Jolie in 'Maleficent.'
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The trailers teased glimpses of Sleeping Beauty's iconic villainess, accompanied by a gothic cover of "Once Upon a Dream." Gone were the 1959 animated film's Technicolor wonders, replaced with shades of blacks and blues, while Lana del Rey's vocals enveloped Mary Costa and Bill Shirley's airy duet with jazz-club smokiness. Even when the sneak peek appeared to throw a bone of sympathy towards the titular evil character, it brooded with the faux-angst of 9th grade poetry. This was what you could expect from  Maleficent — Disney's early bid for summer-film dominance, and an inside-out look at the classic bedtime story that was all in on the wicked-witch aesthetic. The message was clear: We love you but we've chosen darkness. This is not your father's fairy tale.

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This star vehicle for Angelina Jolie fits snuggly into a new ideal for fantasy films: Luring both older kids and their parents, studios raid the storybooks for classic once-upon-a-timers then singe the films' edges with PG spookiness. It was Tim Burton who pioneered the field, taking a Washington Irving staple of elementary-school reading lists and coming up with the decidely macabre Sleepy Hollow (1999). Then came the billion-dollar success of his prickly take on Alice in Wonderland (2010), which quickly inspired a wave of hopefuls: Red Riding Hood (2011), Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)Oz the Great and Powerful and Jack the Giant Slayer (both 2013), as well as television series like Once Upon a Time and Grimm. It's an unlikely shift — made possible by 50 years of Hollywood resistance.

In the heyday of Walt Disney, an out-and-out dour event film like Maleficent would have been barred at the Magic Castle gates. The grandaddy of animation once wrote that his work spoke to innocence, "showing it the fun and joy of living; showing it that laughter is healthy; showing it that the human species, although happily ridiculous at times, is still reaching for the stars." Whimsy, through color, character, and song, was the name of the game. There was room for horrors: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) had its wicked witch; Bambi (1942) immediately claws at heartstrings with the death of the baby deer's mother; and Fantasia (1940) had the balls to depict Chernobog dancing with demons and wayward spirits to the tune of Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain." Darkness was sparse but present, an indication of how bright the lighter side could shine. 

Technically, this was revisionism. What qualified as family-friendly for the Brothers Grimm's 18th century audiences wouldn't survive Round One with American censors (and would likely have left most children traumatized). So gone was the death of Snow White's witch by flaming shoes, the lynching of Pinocchio in Act II, Cinderella's step sisters severing of their toes to make the glass slipper fit, and Sleeping Beauty's endless slaughtering at the hand of thorny bramble. "Going back to the source material" may be the eye-roll-worthy, catch-all explanation for cranking up classic fantasies' violent overtones in mdoern adaptations, but it's not complete bull. 

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You could trace some of this back to the identity crisis that Walt Disney Pictures faced in the Seventies and Eighties. The House That Mickey Built was synonymous with "fairy tale" cinema, animation and live-action steadily reliably in G-rated territory. But their competitors were diverse — and encroaching on their territory with more mature fantasies. Ralph Bakshi's animated The Lord of the Rings (1979), Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981), Jim Henson's Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) — all of these movies forced the hands of Disney bigwigs in terms of expanding their scope. 

When Disney's 1979 Star-Wars-retread The Black Hole earned a PG rating, a foot was in the door for "edgier" fairy tale movies. Six years later, the company released Return to Oz, a twisted Wizard of Oz sequel from famed editor and sound designer Walter Murch. Like 1984's critically-praised The Company of Wolves, a Freudian retelling of Little Red Riding and one of the few non-Disney fairy tale features of the time, Oz bombed at the box office. Disney's 1985 animated film The Black Cauldron — notoriously sliced to bits by studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg in hopes of scaling back its ghoulish sensibilities — would follow suit. The implosion of dark fantasy rejuvenated Disney Animation's fairy tale brand of play-it-safe kids' flicks: 1989's The Little Mermaid, exorcised of Hans Christian Andersen's original ending (the young heroine sacrifices herself by plunging into the ocean and dissolving into sea foam), was a classic love story and monumental success.

As the Nineties went on, however, black-and-white morals of "fairy tale" entertainment were too simple, even for Disney. Prompted by attempts to understand Sadaam Hussein and small-town violence committed by seemingly innocent children, author Gregory Maguire surfed that cultural shift and penned 1995's fantasy novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It was the best of both worlds: Maguire explored the ins and outs of "true evil" while capitalizing on a public domain brand. Theater producers couldn't resist, and like Walt back in the day, they massaged out Wicked's R-rated material (Oz's prostitute circles had to go) and turned it into a musical that still rakes in millions on Broadway today.

But it was the combo of two polar opposite successes, 2007's Enchanted and 2008's The Dark Knight, that seemed to Wicked-ize Hollywood. Christopher Nolan's post-9/11 opus turned the industry on to the box-office possibilities of a "gritty" take on a name brand, and Enchanted proved that there were ways for Disney to riff on its bountiful fairy tale legacy. With all of Hollywood scrambled to reboot franchises using The Dark Knight mold, it was natural for Disney to steer their ship into the current — especially after 2009's The Princess and the Frog , a throw back riff on The Frog Prince, underperformed (its $104 million gross flying under the Nineties-era cartoons).

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Revisionist fairy tale movies are everything a studio could want from a blockbuster: Their imagery is inherently spectacular, their plots are malleable enough to fit any trend, and they prey on nostalgia. Alice in Wonderland is the closest Disney will come to their live-action/animated hybrids, carousel horse races and subbing Julie Andrews showstoppers for epic battles and Johnny Depp jigs. Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood is a direct response to the Twilight franchise that she imbued with sulky teen romance. Universal hoped people would buy Snow White and the Huntsman as a Lord of the Rings-lite adventure, and their gamble paid off (the film grossed $396 million worldwide). With Maleficent, Disney pilfers Wicked to turn one of its most devilish rogues into an anti-hero. And that's the age we live in: Angelina Jolie's horned sorceress is basically the fairy tale response to Walter White. 

The dark cloud hovering over the genre may loom for awhile; For every Frozen that breaks box-office records, a Mirror Mirror flops. With Marvel on the superhero beat, a handful of Star Wars waiting in the wings, and Pixar doing its thing, Walt Disney proper will undoubtedly continue to conjure up Maleficent-like revisionist tales. Next: A Cinderella redux from Kenneth Branagh. Regardless of how dark  it goes, we're guessing the stepsisters don't cut off their toes in that one either.

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