Disney’s dark new turn: Turning villains into heroes

In “Maleficent,” Angelina Jolie reveals what drove her to curse her baby, better known as Sleeping Beauty.
In “Maleficent,” Angelina Jolie reveals what drove her to curse her baby, better known as Sleeping Beauty.
Image: AP Photo/Disney/Greg Williams
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For decades, Disney’s films and series have taught audiences that crime doesn’t pay. But now, the company is changing its tune.

Last week, Disney Channel announced a new original movie called Descendants, a live-action adventure-comedy about the teenage offspring of Disney’s classic villains, including 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella De Vil, Snow White’s Evil Queen and Aladdin’s Jafar. The film’s modern-day take will involve the kids questioning “the evil that’s always been in their hearts,” the network said.

Descendants is scheduled to air in early 2015, a year after Disney releases yet another fresh take on a memorable baddie: Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie as the horn-tipped villainess from 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. The film, opening in May, re-imagines Maleficent’s backstory, in the same way the mega-successful Broadway musical Wicked (based on Gregory Maguire’s novel) offered a sympathetic take on The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West. “In general,” Jolie told Entertainment Weekly, “it’s a very good message to say, ‘Let’s look at something from the other side.’”

Especially in an entertainment world dominated by dark, antihero characters on popular shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Dexter, and Ray Donovan. While the wholesome company built on Mickey Mouse cannot create a series around the likes of drug kingpins or serial killers, its Disney Villains (as the company has been branding them in theme parks and merchandising) offer them an ideal entrée into at least semi-dark territory. An early attempt at this was Wreck-It Ralph, last year’s animated film hit about a misunderstood video game villain who becomes the hero, which grossed a healthy $471 million worldwide.

Now Disney is ready to go all-in on the notion that in pop culture, it’s good, and lucrative, to be bad. It’s given Maleficent a prime summer movie slot—May 30—while adding Descendants to its stable of Disney Channel Original Movies, which include five of the highest-rated six movies in cable TV history. Topping that list: 2007’s High School Musical 2, which attracted 18.6 million viewers and was directed by Kenny Ortega (who helmed all three High School Musical films). Now, Disney has signed him to work the same magic on Descendants.

If Descendants succeeds, it will allow Disney to tap into that lucrative teen angst audience that has fueled recent blockbuster franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games, as well as TV’s The Vampire Diaries. The movie could spawn Descendants sequels, both on Disney Channel and theatrically, TV spinoffs, stage productions and of course, merchandising. It’s the same approach that turned High School Musical into a billion-dollar franchise. Sometimes, even villains can save the day.