With recent fairy tale films, Frozen and Maleficent, Disney has made a departure from many of the tropes we know so well from the classic animated films of the past. But as things change, they also stay the same. Let’s look at the five ways things are changing and the two that are adamantly the same. (Be warned, spoilers lay beyond this point).
Love doesn’t happen in a day
Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and the Little Mermaid not only depend on true love as the main driving force of their plots and crucial to their resolutions, but also suggest that it occurs instantaneously. Both Frozen and Maleficent openly mock this ‘at first sight’ mentality.
When Kristoff hassle’s Anna for getting engaged to someone she ‘just met that day!’ And in Maleficent when the fairies practically force Prince Phillip to kiss the sleeping Aurora even though, as he points out, they too have only just met.
It’s all about family
In a connected note true love is no longer solely connected to romantic love. Disney is subverting the very expectations they themselves established. It is not Phillip’s kiss that wakes Aurora, but the motherly and regretful kiss of Maleficent. At the last minute Anna turns away from her own suspected salvation in Kristoff and sacrifices herself for her sister who in turn restores Anna through the unconditional and selfless love of a sister. Yes it’s all about family, in Frozen it’s sibling love in Maleficent it’s pseudo mother/daughter love. Interestingly it’s love between women in both instances. Girls are beginning to see positive relationships between women on the big screen rather than mostly petty, jealous, antagonistic ones.
Bad or just misunderstood
Taking classic villains, Maleficent and Elsa (based on Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen) and making them heroes… well less bad more troubled sort of grey, these things are never clear cut, sort of people. That’s what Disney seems to be all about these days and it will be interesting to see in the rest of their upcoming revisionist fairy tales keep it up. Maleficent really drives the point home in the narrator’s statement that “My kingdom was united by one who was both hero and villain.” At the end of the film.
In the earlier fairy tale films these women were (in Maleficent’s case) or would have been (in Elsa’s) black and white baddies. Dramatically evil, despising their sweet and innocent counterparts for little more than their pretty faces were annoying.
The sins of the father
Fathers in fairy tales generally, let alone Disney’s, are problematic characters. In the locations/time periods in which these fairy tales are set fathers are entirely in control of the lives of their daughters and responsible for their protection. Yet they almost always fail in this capacity (Snow White and Cinderella’s fathers remarry horrible women, Sleeping Beauty’s father does try but fails to save her from the curse, Ariel’s dad drives her straight to the Sea Witch and poor Maurice is just not capable of looking after Belle and she instead takes care of him). Despite this none of them are ever held responsible, they’re absolved of all guilt either by dying (Snow White and Cinderella) or due to ineptitude (sorry Maurice). Triton and the father of Sleeping Beauty do feel some responsibility as characters but within the larger context of the film in is the villainous females Ursula and Maleficent who adopt the blame. This tradition is somewhat upheld in Frozen but Maleficent takes a dramatic new approach. Stefan is the ultimate Bad Guy, cruel, ambitious and self-serving simply because that’s the way man is. Like the women who came before him he had no real motive and then he went crazy so it got even worse. It’s as if he has taken on all of the blame and guilt of the fathers of the past nine decades.
Someday my prince will come…
But he’ll probably be useless or a jerk.
Phillip’s not battling dragons anymore and Hans truly shocked me in how much of an arse he was (seriously I was flipping out). Phillips’ pretty ineffectual throughout the film, just there because he has to be, but Hans is does for princes what Stefan does for fathers (though not quite as extreme). Disney is basically standing up and saying ‘NO!’ to patriarchy in the most overt way possible.
So things have certainly changed since Snow White kicked off Disney’s feature length animations in 1937 but not everything…
Fairest of them all
The wide eyed innocence and sincere goodness of our young female leads is still going strong. Aurora’s giddy laughter in the leaves in Maleficent and her earnest declaration of “You’re my fairy godmother.” when faced with the woman who cursed her is evidence of this. Anna too is naïve to the dangers of the world, far too willing to love Hans and leave the Kingdom in his hands. To be fair, her character is developed enough to account for this behaviour. Aurora not so much. She might as well be the spirit of ‘sweet’ because there isn’t much more to her. The extra time she spends conscious over her 1959 incarnation is mostly spent in wide eye wonder of the moors and serving as a plot device for the emotional development of Maleficent. The Disney princesses of the 60’s and beyond including Anna have far more agency and depth of character than this blonde beauty. But if all your time and energy has been spent dragging a villain out of the mud it must be hard to give even a dash of personality to anyone else.
Where’s my mummy
It is a tried and tested tradition of fairy tales much older than Disney’s to have an absent biological mother. She is often dead before the first paragraph is over and Maleficent and Frozen are no exception. In Frozen both mother and father die while abroad and we’re left with not one but two orphan princesses. Thanks to the death of their father as well they’ve been lucky not to be saddled with an evil stepmother but, instead, must suffer a painful estrangement from each other and confinement to the castle, loneliness is the true evil these sisters face. In Maleficent the mother is largely off-stage, she is voiceless and lacks definition. The audience has no indication how she feels about marrying Stefan, she is distressed during the cursing of her child though this is only scene in which we actually see her and finally she dies off-screen, neglected by the husband she probably didn’t want. Her, slightly more vivid, daughter doesn’t even spare her a thought when learning of her parentage. The role of mother is completely consumed in this film by Maleficent.