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Wicked Already Changed Disney’s Fairy Tale Princesses, so Do We Need a Film?


Jon M. Chu will direct a screen adaptation of Wicked, with the release date yet to be set.

Hollywood has certainly taken its time in bringing the breakout Broadway musical to cinemas. Universal announced in June 2016 that it had targeted the film for December 2019, although by August 2018 it had been confirmed that slot would go to Cats. The film was pushed back to December 2021 but then taken off the schedule completely when the pandemic hit. This is quite a delayed adaptation process for a musical that opened on Broadway in October 2003.

Of course, this isn’t unusual in itself. Many successful musicals take their time coming to the screen. My Fair Lady premiered on Broadway in March 1956 but released in cinemas in October 1964. Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in September 1964 but arrived in cinemas in November 1971. The trend continues: Chu’s In the Heights hit Broadway in March 2008 but is scheduled to release in cinemas in June 2021.

There is, of course, a cold logic behind this delay. The goal is for a production to make as much money as possible on stage before releasing it in a more widely distributable and reproducible format. After all, it is notable that Disney actually brought forward its release of Hamilton by over a year when the pandemic hit, as the circumstances meant that the release of the musical on streaming posed no credible threat to ticket sales for the stage show.

However, despite the long journey that Wicked has taken towards the screen, film fans have already seen its influence creeping in around the edges. Like the T. Rex from Jurassic Park, its presence is felt long before it emerges from the dense overgrowth. Wicked might not yet have produced a faithful and literal adaptation that sampled the popular songs from the soundtrack, but the show has left a sizable pop cultural footprint.

Frozen Maleficent Oz the Great and Powerful Wicked Disney fairy tale princesses fairytale princess

Adapted from Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, Wicked effectively offers a revisionist take on The Wizard of Oz. The story focuses on Elphaba, the green-skinned woman who would become known as the Wicked Witch of the West. As a young student, Elphaba questions the structures and the systems of the magical world of Oz and so finds herself vilified and demonized by the powers that be. It is essentially The Wizard of Oz as seen through the eyes of the Wicked Witch.

This deconstructionist take on a beloved concept premiered to less-than-auspicious reviews. The New York Times observed that – but for breakout performer Kristin Chenoweth – the musical would “spend close to three hours flapping its oversized wings without taking off.” The New York Daily News complained that the show was “a ‘Wicked‘ waste of talent.” Newsweek criticized the production as an “overproduced, overblown, confusingly dark and laboriously ambitious jumble.”

However, the show quickly found an audience. It lost Best Musical to Avenue Q at the 2004 Tony Awards but went on to become the second highest-grossing Broadway musical ever behind only The Lion King. The show’s centerpiece song, “Defying Gravity,” went on to become “the silliest, most inspiring, most enduring song in recent Broadway history.” However, Wicked’s influence extended beyond Broadway itself. Disney, in particular, would find it very hard to escape the show’s gravity.

The Disney renaissance of the late 1980s and early 1990s had in large part been spurred by the musical sensibilities of Broadway musicians Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. However, the company had moved away from that style of musical production at the turn of the millennium. The success of Wicked arguably spurred a renewed interest in the union of fairy tale tropes and Broadway sensibilities.

In 2010, Disney reimagined the classic fairy tale Rapunzel as Tangled. The animated film cast musical theater superstar Donna Murphy as the villainous Mother Gothel. Murphy has been described as “one of the biggest stars on Broadway.” Menken tailored the song “Mother Knows Best” to Murphy because the directors “really wanted a musical theatre moment.”  Menken reflected that “all of (a) sudden it seems that there is a hunger for this form again. And I don’t know if that was there a year ago.”

That hunger would only deepen with the studio’s next major animated fairy tale adaptation. Released in November 2013, Frozen was a very loose adaptation of “The Snow Queen.” It also wore its Broadway influences a lot more overtly than Tangled. The cast included Broadway veterans like Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, and Santino Fontana. The songs were written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Robert Lopez won two Tony Awards for his work on Avenue Q in 2004.

However, Frozen suggested that the influence of Wicked ran deeper than the shared theatrical sensibility. Much like Wicked, Frozen dared to reimagine a classic fairy tale from the perspective of its villainous female character, asking whether the eponymous Snow Queen was truly evil or simply misunderstood. Frozen invited these comparisons by casting Idina Menzel, who had originated the role of Elphaba on stage, in the role of the powerful-but-misunderstood Elsa.

Critics recognized the resonance. In The New York Times, Stephen Holden described Frozen as having “a lot in common with that Broadway juggernaut.” Molly Sprayregen contended that the lead characters in Frozen and Wicked shared an “essence that only Menzel’s voice can bring to characters like Elsa and Elphaba.” Less charitable reviews just called it “a knockoff.” These comparisons were only further reinforced when Frozen got its own Broadway adaptation.

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Disney felt the influence of Wicked on more than just its animated output. A few months before Frozen, the studio released Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful. The film belonged to a separate set of Disney productions, spurred by the success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. It was a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, offering another sympathetic reimagining of the Wicked Witch of the West. In Oz the Great and Powerful, the character was named Theodora and played by Mila Kunis.

To be fair, Oz the Great and Powerful was not directly influenced by Wicked. Writer Mitchell Kapner had been hoping to write a prequel to The Wizard of Oz for years and was afraid that he’d “missed the boat” when he saw Wicked. Still, it’s impossible to watch Oz the Great and Powerful without thinking of the other revisionist prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Critics rushed to make comparisons, with Richard Corliss quipping that the film was “mostly … Wicked bad.”

The following year would see the release of Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie in a reimagining of Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty told from the perspective of that story’s villain. It continued the trend running from Wicked through Frozen: a classic piece of fairy tale pop culture, but giving the villain center stage. Critics saw this at the time. Reviewing the film’s sequel, Pete Travers complained that the film was content to “rip off Frozen and Broadway’s Wicked without capturing a scrap of the fun.”

This poses a challenge for any cinematic adaptation of Wicked. Most of what made the musical ground-breaking has already soaked into pop culture in the years since the show premiered. This recalls what critics described as John Carter’s Star Wars problem,” the challenge facing Andrew Stanton’s 2011 adaptation of A Princess of Mars arriving in a cultural landscape where Star Wars had already realized a lot of what made the source material unique. (Dune faces a similar problem.)

Frozen Maleficent Oz the Great and Powerful Wicked Disney fairy tale princesses fairytale princess

To be fair, Wicked does have one potential advantage over the various films that have taken cues from it. The novel and musical are willing to confront and embrace Elphaba’s villainy in a way that Frozen and Maleficent were not. Even in its crowd-pleasing stage adaptation, Wicked was willing to engage in an active deconstruction of the fairy tale milieu in a way that movies like Oz the Great and Powerful, Frozen, and Maleficent were not.

For all that Elsa and Maleficent were the villains in the stories that inspired Frozen and Maleficent, the narratives in the films themselves are structured to make the characters heroic and misunderstood. As Devon Maloney observed, while Maleficent was a more modern take on Snow White, “its lessons are exactly the same.” These movies modernize the classic fairy tale princess narrative template, rather than interrogate or deconstruct it.

For all that Frozen has feminist moments and rejects some of the classic Disney trappings, it hedges its bets. Kristoff (Groff) is entirely right to point out the absurdity of Anna (Kristen Bell) getting engaged to a handsome stranger that she just met, but the film still has Kristoff and Anna’s passive-aggressive bickering transform into true love between complete strangers. For all Frozen is a love story between sisters Elsa and Anna, it still shoehorns a romance between Anna and Kristoff in there.

Likewise, Oz the Great and Powerful allows Theodora to remain a villain, but one motivated by the romantic rejection of the narrative’s real hero – the eponymous wizard (James Franco). Producer Joe Roth noted that the film appealed to him because “a male protagonist is very hard to come by” in these stories.

There is still room for a faithful adaptation of Wicked that does more than apply the musical’s superficial trappings to a familiar fairy tale property by turning a female villain into a princess. Elphaba is a radically different character than Elsa, Maleficent, or Theodora. She is a woman who rejects the simple logic of fairy tales and is vilified for that. She never becomes a princess like Elsa, never learns to be a mother like Maleficent, and is more than just a spurned lover like Theodora.

Disney has spent a decade trying to reach the bar set by Wicked, but it’s never quite gotten over it. Perhaps Wicked still has some magic to share.

About the author

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a pop culture critic at large for The Escapist. He writes the twice-weekly In the Frame column, writes and voices the In the Frame videos, provides film reviews and writes the weekly Out of Focus column. Plus, occasionally he has opinions about other things as well. Darren lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. He also writes for The Irish Independent, the country’s second largest broadsheet, and provides weekly film coverage for radio station Q102. He co-hosts the weekly 250 podcast and he has also written three published books of criticism on The X-Files, Christopher Nolan and Doctor Who. He somehow finds time to watch movies and television on top of that. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.