I watched a lot of Disney movies growing up: Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, The Fox and the Hound. I loved them all.
But by far, my favorite (at least until The Little Mermaid came out) was Sleeping Beauty. For starters, Princess Aurora was really pretty and had perfect hair, and although as an adult I know these attributes say nothing about a woman’s character, as a five-year old girl, they told me everything I needed to know. Princess Aurora beautiful and rocked every outfit she wore and could do nothing wrong, ever.
On top of this, Aurora had three hilarious sidekicks in the forms of the good fairies Flora, Fauna, and (my favorite) Merryweather. Given my previous posts, I know you will be shocked — shocked! — to learn that my favorite scene involved the three of them baking a cake for Princess Aurora’s birthday. To this day, when a recipe tells me to fold in eggs gently, I picture this scene:
But aside from the princess’ beauty and the fairies’ mishaps, the real reason I loved Sleeping Beauty was down to the movie’s villain. The one, the only…
Quite frankly, Maleficent scared the pants off me. Correction: scares. Present tense. I mean, come on. Look at this chick. Those eyes. Those horns! She is basically a child’s nightmare brought to life.
As her name suggests, Maleficent is pure evil.* Her MO is basically, “Oh, so you didn’t invite me to the party for your baby? Well, guess what? When she is 16, I’m going to make sure she DIES, in the most unnecessarily elaborate way possible.” Come on, lady. Take it down a notch.
But without her, Sleeping Beauty would be a boring story about a princess who skips around barefoot in the forest and sings with birds. Zzzzzz. As much as Maleficent scared (scares) me, her presence kept me glued to the screen. We need Maleficent. Without her there is no conflict, no tension, no surprise — no story.
The same goes with any book or movie. No matter how charming a protagonist is (or how perfectly she styles her hair), her story will be downright boring without a someone or something standing in her way, throwing up hurdles at every turn. That’s why we need an antagonist to gum up the works — someone or something to make the protagonist’s journey worth reading or watching.
I’m about to get a little wonky on you, but really, a villain is a subset of antagonist. All villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains. Does that make sense? The distinction comes down to motivation. For example, as a villain, Maleficent’s sole motivation is to screw King Stefan and his family for not inviting her to baby Aurora’s party. Every move she makes is dictated by her desire to find Aurora and, ultimately, kill her.
An antagonist, however, doesn’t necessarily have to be a person — it can be a storm or a corrupt corporation. And when an antagonist is a person, he or she often has motivations and goals independent of the protagonist. These goals get in the protagonist’s way, preventing her from attaining her own goals, but this isn’t necessarily the antagonist’s aim. In The House of Sand and Fog, for example, both parties believe they are rightful owners to the same house, and they will do whatever it takes to make the house theirs. But their motivations are self-interested: they both want the house, for reasons financial and emotional. They get in each other’s way, but not for the mere sake of doing so.
For children, of course, a villain is the easiest type of antagonist to understand. There is no nuance. It’s Good vs. Evil, black and white. You may understand why the villain acts the way she does, but you don’t like her. A house fell on the Wicked Witch of the West’s sister, but does she have to be so mean about it? King Stefan dissed Maleficent by not inviting her to a party, but can’t she just harbor a grudge like a normal person? These villains terrorize their readers and viewers as much as they terrorize their protagonists and make the story that much more exciting.
What about you? Did (does?) Maleficent scare the crap out of you, too? What about Cruella de Ville? And do you agree or disagree with my distinction between villain and antagonist?
*As a random aside, when we were little, my brother was also terrified of Maleficent but could not pronounce her name, so he called her “Pagenti” (pronounced puh-JEN-tee). How he got Pagenti from Maleficent I will never know, but to this day, as far as I’m concerned, both names are synonymous with evil.