Disney’s Maleficent has a completely different vibe than the studio’s earlier retelling of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. As the title suggests, Sleeping Beauty is no longer the center of the story. Central instead is Maleficent, played by Angelina Jolie. Jolie’s Maleficent is the new incarnation of the evil fairy who casts the spell on the princess Aurora. Aurora falls into an eternal sleep on her sixteenth birthday, predestined (I dare say) to prick her finger on a spinning wheel. Of course her sleep can only be ended by “true love’s kiss.”
In this movie we learn Maleficent’s backstory: she is not really bad—she’s just been hurt by a man she trusted. Her first love, a boy named Stefan, turns out to be an ambitious and ruthless young man who physically removes her wings while she is sleeping. His trophy brings him the king’s throne.
Seeking revenge, Maleficent eventually curses the king’s baby daughter, Aurora. However, as she watches Aurora grow up, she begins to regret her angry actions. One of the truest things about the film is the fact that once she’s spoken the words of curse, she cannot undo what she’s done. This should resonate with anyone who has read the book of James. Maleficent allows her anger and bitterness to damage the innocent. She puts up literal walls around herself, while Stefan’s guilt over his actions leads him to live in fear of revenge.
For adult viewers, the rape metaphor is rather obvious and effective; it is painful to watch the scene when Maleficent wakes up to find her wings are gone. Younger viewers will not read it the same way, but will understand the depth of her loss all the same. Given Jolie’s advocacy for women in countries where education is unavailable to girls and where rape and female genital mutilation are the standard, this scene and its aftereffects have immediacy and poignancy.
After our viewing, my teen daughter and I compared Maleficent with Frozen and Brave, two other recent Disney fairy tale stories with strong female leads. In all of them, a sympathetic and strong young woman chooses to act on her anger—and in doing so, each makes a mess of her life and the lives of others. None of them is able to fix the situation herself. My daughter said, “Well, that’s a pretty Christian way of looking at things, because we all mess up our lives, and we can’t fix them on our own.” While the solution to our problems may not be “true love’s kiss,” in whatever form Disney chooses to present it, we are dependent on the love of someone more powerful.
The film owes more to modern feminism and Peter Jackson than it does to the New Testament, however. Female characters are stronger and are given more agency than any ancient telling of Sleeping Beauty, and the visuals are influenced by Jackson’s interpretations of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
In the quest to make Maleficent a sympathetic character, the film tips the scale. As we move away from characterizing Sleeping Beauty as a completely passive and helpless woman, we now have a completely evil and unfeeling man who is unsympathetic in almost every way. If the concern is to have fewer flat and one-sided characters, the pendulum has swung too far.
Regardless, Maleficent is an affecting story, and Jolie is outstanding in her role. The dark subtexts are more faithful to the old fairy tales than the sweet, vacant version that Disney produced earlier, making this less appropriate for the youngest viewers.
Redemption of an evil character might even be a comfort to us who are also deeply in need of redemption. (Walt Disney)