In case you’ve been asleep, there’s a new twist on heroes, villains, and true love.
The Novel and Broadway musical, Wicked, along with the film Oz the Great and Powerful, looked back at the painful origins the Wicked Witch of the West. Star Wars Episodes 1, 2, & 3 chronicle the love, loss, and rage that consumed Anakin Skywalker, confining him to the darkened, faceless, embodiment of malice later known as Darth Vader. In the same vein, Disney’s Maleficent uses the power of backstory to shed new light on one of Disney’s darkest characters.
Most of us remember the animated classic Sleeping Beauty. In it, Maleficent is pure evil, calling on the power of hell itself to prevent Prince Phillip from storming the castle to deliver the helpless slumbering damsel from the curse with the a power that only a handsome, cunning, prince can wield; true love’s kiss. Maleficent is a creation of Disney’s version of the story, combining elements of previously unnamed antagonists (an old woman, a disgruntled angel, an overlooked fairy) into an embodiment of an evil identity. This makes Disney’s colorful animated story a moral landscape of black and white. Maleficent is evil. Phillip is good. Sleeping Beauty is fair and powerless. Man must vanquish evil and rescue the female. The non-consensual kiss from the man will result in true love. End of story … sort of.
The Rest of the Story
Disney’s 1959 animated classic is itself a retelling of the version by the Brother’s Grimm, itself a condensed retelling of a version by Charles Perrault from 1696. Both of these give the names Aurora and Briar Rose to the sleeping princess. However, the original, first passed down through oral tradition dating back to the 15th century, but later included as part of Il Pentamerone, a first collection of European Fairy Tales by Giambattista Basile, published in 1634-6. In Basile’s collection, it is entitled Sun, Moon, and Talia.
Unlike Grimm, Perrault and the animated version of 1959, the live-action retelling contains echoes of the darker and more violent original Sun, Moon, and Talia. Once Talia, the princess, succumbs to the sleeping spell, she is discovered in her slumber by the prince (who is already married), who lusts after her, and “makes love to her” all while she is asleep. Pressing matters of the kingdom make him forget the incident after he leaves the cottage. Talia, however, is pregnant. She bears twins while still asleep (assisted by fairies) and awakens after a splinter in her finger is removed. The remainder of the story involves her understanding of what has happened, the jealousy and attempted murder of her and her children by the queen, and eventually her marriage to her rapist/king, with whom she lived a “long and happy life with her husband and children, always knowing full well that ‘The person who is favored by fortune has good luck even while sleeping.’”
Instead of the overtly sexual approach of the original, Disney re-creates a story wherein Maleficent, not the princess is the victim of a violent and devastating loss related to her body, identity, and psyche. The loss comes at the hand of one she trusts. The scene itself is the most compelling and emotionally powerful part of the film. It is the defining moment of Maleficent’s descent into darkness, yet the path is reasonable in light of what has been done to her. Such a twist forces the viewer to rethink their definition of evil. Can Maleficent really be evil if her actions come as the result of such immeasurable exploitation and pain?
Backstory works. We want to know how characters developed into the complicated personalities we resonate with. Heroes have dark sides and villains have faces. Maleficent effectively taps into this stream. The storyline isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough in the right places to be compelling. As I wrote above, we will see ourselves in Maleficent, but also in Stefan, Aurora, and Diaval. Diaval, in particular, offers some well-timed comic relief, and is a conscience of sorts for Maleficent, as hers develops.
Angelina Jolie is expansive in her command of Maleficent’s complexity. She makes you feel compassion for Maleficent, curiosity toward Maleficent, and utterly creeped-out by Maleficent, all at the same time. Her performance was wickedly good.
Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather. In an effort to replicate the quirky personalities from the animated film, Disney exchanged quirky for quacky. The trio’s incompetence wasn’t funny at all and their attempts at an all-girl, three stooges routine became very annoying very fast. Creatures as inept as these fairies should not be given magical powers, much less care for an infant. The fairies’ CGI manifestations were also poorly designed.
Prince Phillip. Undeveloped character, poorly delivered performance, awkwardly out of place in the story. Should have been edited completely.
Many tales present an evil character through the window of symbolism. Like the animated Maleficent of 1959, Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West, their identity is not tied to relationship, but to a detached characterization of issues, labels, and stereotypes. This flesh and blood Maleficent, however, puts a face on evil, and to our horror we find it to be the face of the person in the mirror. Cast in this light, evil is made “normal.” After all, if the face of evil could be the face in the mirror, then the temptation is to dismiss evil as a reality, rather than seeing the reality of evil within ourselves.
My good friend Mark Matlock put it this way, “This revision of Sleeping Beauty reflects the moral landscape of America where ‘pure evil’ doesn’t exist, just people hurt by others so not completely responsible for their actions.”
This is a two edged sword. On one hand, putting a face on those that inflict harm can deepen one’s capacity for mercy and grace and can help one discern what sort of help a perpetrator might really need.
The other edge is a need for evil to be recognized and not dismissed, but genuinely opposed. Matlock goes on to write, “It’s true, there are real victims, and hurt people often hurt people. That has to be taken to heart, [but] I believe in pure evil too, and while it’s present in this version, it’s harder to see.”
This raises the ongoing discussion on how followers of Christ navigate the powerful, but at times paradoxical realities of grace and truth, redemption and responsibility, forgiveness and justice among others. How far does grace extend in its redemption? Is redemption at some point accomplished to the neglect of one’s responsibility for what they have done? Is there a point at which forgiveness glosses over the injustices done by one who has come to their senses in repentance? Grace is both a sacred and scandalous reality.
In addition, Maleficent finds herself bound to the consequences of her decisions. Whether her actions impacted Aurora, creatures of the forest, Stefan, or even herself, she realizes to her surprise and dismay that she has reaped far more than she had sown. This is a lesson to all of us when repaying evil for evil. We end up with far more than we bargained for.
I kept circling back to two realities as the film progressed. First, the demand that someone pay for the injustices committed. As each character sought to avenge their pain, the pain only increased. It was only when Aurora, the most innocent among the characters became the sacrificial payment, taking the brunt of everyone’s pain into herself, that a redemptive shift took shape.
Second, the injustice of an innocent victim bearing the brunt of the other character’s pain was simultaneously catastrophic in beautiful and bitter ways. That it was thrust on the innocent was a bitter pill, yet Aurora embraced her redemptive role, and in a beautiful display of heroism brought about both redemption and reconciliation where hatred and division had been before.
Only true love would break the curse that hatred had cast. But it would be something other than a token, predictable, detached, superficial happily ever after affair. It would take a love birthed in the joys and pain of selflessness, risk, sacrifice, repentance, relationship, tears, and blood. It would take love bound in relationship.
In short, I kept being drawn to the need for a savior. Someone to bear and absorb the worst of the injustices, while at the same time releasing others from the bonds of their own pain. Sound like a story you’ve heard before?
While Maleficent leaves some strings untied, and can at times border on being too cute, it’s a film the family can enjoy and one that can create a great deal of conversation between kids and adults alike.
Maleficent is rated PG for intense images and some violence.
Questions to Ponder
Discuss the presence of evil in this story. Who would you say is good and evil in the story? Why?
How does this film blur the lines between the hero and villain?
Why do you think backstory is so attractive? How does knowing someone’s backstory help you understand them?
How could Maleficent’s actions be justified? How could they be considered evil? What’s the difference?
If you have an “enemy,” would their backstory change your perspective?
How does Diaval influence Maleficent?
Talk about Maleficent’s attempt to change her decision. How does this apply to the time we try to fix things ourselves?
How does Aurora act as a savior?