Disney movies are often known for their iconic villains, but even among that impressive rogues gallery, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty takes the cake. Or, perhaps more appropriately, someone denies her a slice of cake, and she murders their kid.
Maleficent’s appeal is manifold. For one thing, look at her. She’s terrifying. Tattered black and purple robes, deathly green pallor, horned headdress, a creepy smile that turns to murderous rage in an instant, a raven familiar, and the ability to manifest bright green flame at will. This is someone you know right away is very bad news, and everything about her proves this first impression right. She is also extremely powerful. Throughout the course of the film, we see her teleport in and out at will, mesmerize people, summon lightning, lay death curses, summon giant walls of thorns, and even turn into a dragon. Her power is such that the other three fairies can’t outdo her, and can only serve to weaken her spells at best.
Maleficent is obviously rather evil, but I think what sets her apart from other Disney villains is not, as many suggest, her pettiness, which I intend to discuss further, but more her sheer cruelty. Maleficent goes for the hurt much more than the kill. Part of her style seems to be luring people into a false sense of security, by smiling and speaking with a calm voice, before striking in as nasty a manner as possible. Indeed, when she curses Princess Aurora, before which she pretends she’s going to offer a blessing, she could easily have just killed the baby right then and there, but instead Maleficent chooses to let her grow up a bit, be happy, and let everyone else come to love her. Then she would die. That’s pretty sick. Later on, when she captures Prince Philip, she is once again in a position where she could kill him, but instead she chooses to keep him in her dungeon for one hundred years, just so he could, as a frail old man on the verge of death, go to find his princess, far too late to do anything about saving her. Now, one could argue that these actions are simply villainous hubris designed to give the good guys a fighting chance, and perhaps they are, to some degree. However, I think she takes those risks largely because it would be oh so much more satisfying to see the pain and torment of her victims over time. One assumes that as a dark fairy witch, Maleficent probably won’t grow old, so long-term sadism would fit her M.O. rather well.
As for the matter of her motivation for cursing Aurora, most people, and the initial reading of the text as well, would say Maleficent was angry about not being invited to the girl’s christening. As revenge on the parents and the other fairies, therefore, she lays the curse. However, I’m not sure I agree. This is pure speculation, I grant you, but based on the rest of her behavior, I don’t think Maleficent gave even a single damn about the christening or being invited to it. I mean, would she have been offended if she hadn’t been invited to these things in the past? Who would have ever invited a dark fairy witch who dresses like a demonic vampire to their soirees? And what would she have wanted to do there? Mingle with a bunch of good fairies and nobles? No, this strikes me as another of her games, in which she, catlike, toys with her prey before finishing them off. The lack of invite, therefore, was nothing but a flimsy pretense, a vicious little joke to herself Maleficent makes to intimidate the royal family and confuse them into believing, if only for a moment, that what she’s doing is their fault.
In the end, Maleficent makes a few mistakes which lead to her doom, mainly that of turning into a giant monster to defeat the heroes, which, as anyone with a villainous handbook knows, signals one’s demise. To be honest, though, I’m inclined to let this one slide. For one thing, she doesn’t just turn into some snake or spider, she turns into a full-fledged dragon that breathes unearthly fire. It was pretty clear that Philip couldn’t challenge her physically, and the fairies couldn’t challenge her magically, so the move was not that stupid. It was only because the four heroes worked together that they managed to overcome her. Even in the end, there was no body, so it is possible she got away.
While she wasn’t the first evil witch or evil queen archetype to come out of Disney’s stable, Maleficent is, to my mind, the most malevolent, the most powerful, and the coolest. She has often been imitated, but never quite duplicated.