|Sam Riley and Angelia Jolie in Maleficent|
“True Love’s Kiss”
A Review of Maleficent by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Four Reels
Maleficent represents the latest installment in the rise of fanfiction in mainstream entertainment, continuing a tradition that became popular in the mid 2000s including plays (Wicked), television shows (Once Upon a Time), and novels (50 Shades of Grey). This method of inventing new or alternative stories based on previous famous works has always existed – the Apocrypha is just biblical fanfiction – but has exploded recently, caused by the tsunami of amateur bloggers. Maleficent rises above the internet babble due to its wonderful narrative with mostly the same characters as the original but significant plot twists. These characters are extremely well developed, especially Sam Riley as Diaval the raven – an extremely small role in the original, he becomes Maleficent’s wise confidant and conscience. It’s a modern fairy tale that is a great addition to the Disney narrative rather than a shallow replacement.
There are two worlds in this story: the peaceful, nature world of sprites and woodland creatures called The Moors and the dark, violent, Game of Thrones-esque world of men that is so bad it is unnamed. Maleficent (Angelia Jolie) is a fairy who as a teenager fell in love with a wayward human Stefan (Sharlto Copley). He ultimately betrays her love and becomes king, setting the familiar Disney events in motion. This sinful action poisons the Universe and throws these two worlds at each other throats, culminating in Maleficent cursing Stefan’s daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) to fall into a permanent sleep on her sixteenth birthday. After this, the film takes a widely unorthodox turn and, through a series of odd events, Maleficent ends up raising the child and gradually grows in maternal affection. Yet, despite her best efforts, she cannot lift her own curse.
The worst aspect of Maleficent, albeit not a major theme, is that it perpetuates a familiar Disney stereotype that goes all the way back to Bambi: the human, theistic world is dark, cruel, and savage while the naturalistic, pagan/pantheist world is pure, kind, and undefiled. Anyone who has seen Grizzly Man or studied ancient pagan cultures knows this is far from the truth. Yet this human world is not theistic; it is totally devoid of religion altogether. At least in The Moors, there is a social order based on justice. Paganism has value in that it represents man’s search for truth without revelation. St. Paul tells the Greeks that they worship God even though they do not know His Name. Aurora represents Christian culture that has come to this pagan land. In her, it finds fulfillment and a connection to those made in God’s image. Even the title character recognizes that Aurora, not herself, must rule what used to her kingdom. In the end, The Moors transforms into Narnia.
A theme that does work well is the perversion of sin. Stefans’ betrayal is the cornerstone that drives the whole film; it is the original sin that casts both worlds into darkness. Aurora’s birth is somewhat immaculate in that she is immediately given the gifts of happiness and beauty by the pixies. Her purity shines forth as she is unafraid to enter The Moors and confront Maleficent as an equal. Maleficent’s heart melts in her presence. This is the essence of purity, which is not simply freedom from evil thoughts, but bringing out the best in people around you. Stefan, however, chooses to continue down the path of pride and paranoia, unwilling to admit his own part in his daughter’s situation.
Disney seems to be going through a mid-life crisis, like it needs to respond to the foolish actions of its past. This can easily be seen in the role of the “prince.” Traditionally, the price is handsome, faultless, and rides in on a valiant steed to save the day. Beginning with Beauty and the Beast, Disney started toying with this image. Gradually, the prince devolved to a scallywag like Aladdin, Flynn, or Kristoff, diminishing in relevance and screen time. In Maleficent, Prince Phillip, while still handsome, is the most useless character in the film who plays no role in anything. Taking a note from Frozen, it is not a romantic kiss that will save Aurora but the kiss of true love, a love that has suffered and taken time to develop rather than instant attraction.
The original Sleeping Beauty is a better film for children; it has the archetypical patterns that are important for healthy spiritual and social development. Yet Maleficent displays some important messages for adults. In the mess of a fallen world, good and evil are not always immediately apparent. Jesus reached out to Roman centurions, prostitutes, and tax collectors – the very people demonized by the religious authorities of the day. Maleficent sure looks evil, but she didn’t start out that way and she doesn’t have to end that way. Neither do we.