Tuesday, October 6, 2015

My Renegade, TOB Take on Maleficent

A few disclaimers before we get into this: 1) I'll admit, this has little to do with weddings today, but this is the forum I have for writing so here I write.  2) If I weren't 8 months pregnant, my hysterical crying over this movie might have been just regular crying.  Still, I think it has a lot of emotional merit worth crying over.  3) Spoilers lurk ahead, though I suspect I'm one of the last people in the world to have watched this.

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A few months ago, I read a few posts floating around Catholic blogland praising the truth, beauty and goodness to be found in Disney's Cinderella remake, particularly compared to the lack of goodness in Maleficent, which, of course, is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty.  I'm dying to see Cinderella and haven't yet, but as a lifelong Disney lover, I grabbed Maleficent, in spite of what I'd heard, when I spotted it at the library.  Free movies, people.

To my surprise, I found myself more moved (read: sobbing uncontrollably) by this film than any other I've recently seen.  To my even greater surprise, I seem to be in the minority on this.  After watching, the general secular opinion I read was that Maleficent is visually striking but weak on its intended pro-woman storytelling, and the general Christian interpretations I came across viewed the film as too subversive, with the message that men are weak and true love isn't real.  All due respect, especially to Kendra, whose Maleficent vs. Cinderella post I really enjoyed reading, I have a different take, one rooted in the longings of our fallen hearts and the hope of our redemption.

Maleficent introduces us to the titular fairy when she's a girl, joyful and free in her gorgeous woodland home.  There are some beautiful shots of her flying through the sky, gazing upon the heavens.  Like in the start of Genesis, the world, the garden, is unstained by sin or shame.  

Pope Saint JPII's Theology of the Body points to the Genesis narrative as a lens for understanding the deepest parts of our humanity: daily battles between love and lust, temptation and self-control, and our ache for something infinite, the result of the broken communion between man and God that took place at the Fall.  It's a communion we won't fully get back this side of heaven, but the unitive, nuptial aspects of each vocation give us a glimpse of the Father's divine love, the only love that can ever satisfy entirely.  

The Fall in Maleficent takes place when Maleficent's first love, the future King Stefan and Princess Aurora's (a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty's) father, a poor young man and reformed thief who's set his sights on greatness, secures the throne for himself by fulfilling the (current) dying King's request that Maleficent be destroyed after humiliating him on the battlefield.  Specifically, Stefan returns to Maleficent's wood after years apart have passed between them, drugs her into sleep, and cuts off her wings.  

The scene where Maleficent wakes from this sleep, completely bewildered and in deep physical and emotional pain, is wrenching (this was about where my tears started, and they didn't really stop after that), and marks the start of her path to becoming the glamorous-yet-terrifying villain I remember from my childhood.  Her transformation comes complete with shape-shifting raven sidekick; in this movie he is a man named Diaval whom Maleficent tends to treat like a plaything--to his resentment in several instances--turning him into whatever animal suits her whims and her needs.

Are these exemplary, functional relationships between men and women?  Not at all.  But that's what I think affected me so deeply and so truthfully about this movie.  It's oversimplifying, in my opinion, for morally-minded viewers to draw the conclusion that the film justifies Maleficent's descent into darkness and that it begs us to sympathize with her.  It's undeniable that she's been horribly, painfully wronged, by a perhaps more obvious villain than she in Stefan, yet it remained impossible  to see her in an entirely sympathetic light, or to feel she had a right to her sense of hatred.  I just saw it as a believable, if not virtuous, reaction to being so burned in her vulnerability.  I think Maleficent's resulting mistrust and manipulation of men makes her neither the sole victim of the wing-cutting, nor merely a misunderstood woman whom we should see as morally relatively good just because she was on the receiving end of an evil act.  I wept for the tragedy of human fallenness and of the wounds men and women inflict on each other, and for the actual walls of thorns Maleficent builds around herself.  King Stefan falls for selfish ambition, while Maleficent falls for revenge and isolation, each to the other's harm.

It's an interesting figure of speech, "falling" for something.  The movie speaks to this in a literal way through Stefan and Maleficent's sins, yet the phrase also implies someone has believed a lie they shouldn't have.  In Maleficent's case, she falls for the lie that cursing Stefan's daughter, Aurora, will right the wrong done to her and bring her fulfillment.  The second half of the movie focuses on the surprising maternal pull that draws Maleficent to Aurora as the princess grows up in seclusion, safe from Maleficent's spinning wheel curse.

Strangely, it's only since becoming a mother that I've felt most acutely a woman's desire for motherhood and for giving life, and have mourned most deeply the times when a woman struggles with this, through miscarriage, fertility issues, or otherwise.  I cried a whole lot more as I watched Maleficent's inclination to care for baby Aurora, who's left in the care of three incompetent pixies, and later, to engage her in conversation and invite Aurora into her company.  I found it beautiful that a woman so broken, so walled, still found her feminine heart stirred, subtly and unknowingly at first, and then more fully, by Aurora's new life as an infant and by Aurora's purity of spirit as a teenager.

Can we talk about Maleficent's love for Aurora?  Much seems to have been made of the fact that the movie suggests men are unnecessary, for the reason that it's Maleficent's motherly kiss that wakes Aurora from her cursed slumber, instead of Prince Philip's.  While it's true Maleficent's experience of betrayal is what leads her to make a mockery of true love's kiss when she casts the curse on the baby princess (which, again, is in my eyes an indicator of her imperfection, rather than a call to justify her actions without critical evaluation), I'm not so sure the reality of true love is in question here so much as the reality of love at first sight.

Aurora and Philip share a sweet, shy conversation in the woods at their first meeting, which notably lacks the "Once Upon a Dream" sequence from the original Sleeping Beauty, with its lines like "you'll love me at once."  When Aurora's pixie guardians learn about the prince, they're so excited at the possibility of Philip being the one to break the inevitable sleeping spell that they seem to depersonalize him.  In their understandable desperation to save Aurora, the pixies are happy enough that anyone, that is, the first man to come along, might love the princess, rather than someone.  JPII professed in one of his TOB audiences that "man is unique and unrepeatable above all because of his heart, which decides his being from within"--it makes sense, then, that each person and each couple's love story will be similarly unique. 

I go back and forth on the idea of soulmates.  On the surface, maybe, it looks like Maleficent suggests either that true romantic love isn't real, or that Philip and Aurora aren't meant to be, but I think there's actually another idea at work.  Regardless of whether or not the prince and princess are each other's destiny, the spell simply specifies that the princess be awoken by "true love's kiss," raising the question of whether Philip and Aurora can actually share true love, as in self-gift and sacrifice, after just one short encounter.  It could be just a matter of semantics, but I prefer to see Philip's "failed" kiss as an insight into how we fall in love--it's more than emotion, more than the flutter of feelings that spring from a first meeting, that makes for authentic romance and good will. What's more, the movie makes a point of showing that Philip is an entirely different man than Stefan.  Unlike the king, who drugs Maleficent and violates her body against her will, Philip is hesitant to even kiss Aurora while she's asleep, for the very reason that she'll have no idea, and finally agrees only at the pixies' incessant requests.

I got a little wary at the end of the movie, which shows Aurora and Maleficent on their own, back in Maleficent's newly dethroned forest.  The woods have been restored to their original beauty and Maleficent's wings have been restored to her (which, together, suggest to me a powerful image of a return to the garden in eternity and the resurrection of the body).  Had the film concluded just with that whole All You Women Who Independent business, I would've been disappointed.  After what I perceive as an effort to explore the truth of love as a gradual development--the fruit of coming to see and know another, rather than instantaneous, traditional fairy-tale love--leaving Aurora entirely on her own would've been a little too obviously feminist, too easy an ending for me.  But I don't think this movie takes many easy outs.  Instead, by making a choice to show Prince Philip returning to visit the princess, we're left with a sense of possibility that maybe a truthful, personal love really could develop between these two.  Their first meeting and first kiss aren't the end game, but the beginning.

So that's that, my unexpected reaction to and weird interpretation of this story.  I think secular critics missed the point of the movie by reducing it to a commentary on the injustices men inflict on women, and that it's a shame it was marketed (falsely, in my opinion) in a way that made light of evil.  And I think audiences who care about the moral implications of what they watch also missed the mark, making the assumption, perhaps, that if any plot twist strays too far from tradition, there must be some agenda at work. I know it'd be naive of me to think Hollywood doesn't, in fact, have an agenda, yet the beauty of Maleficent lies, to me, in the truths about who we are, beneath any cultural conventions or media-driven intentions about love, sex, and gender.  Whether the world chooses to recognize it or not, it's the truth that all of us are fallen and walking around with wounded hearts, yet there is grace at work in the world, and restorative love and healing are possible.

What about you? Agree?  Disagree?  What did you think of Maleficent, and did you notice any of the TOB underpinnings I did?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. I'll preface by saying that I haven't had an opportunity to see this yet, but having read this, and Kendra's take before, I'd like to ask if you have any comments on the movie specifically as marketed to children (which I think was the basis of Kendra's negative criticism). Do you think children can grasp the moral nuances of this film? Do you think it was marketed for an appropriate audience?

  2. I'll preface by saying that I haven't had an opportunity to see this yet, but having read this, and Kendra's take before, I'd like to ask if you have any comments on the movie specifically as marketed to children (which I think was the basis of Kendra's negative criticism). Do you think children can grasp the moral nuances of this film? Do you think it was marketed for an appropriate audience?

    1. Having only a toddler and almost-full-term baby in the womb right now, I could be totally off base on this, but I'd say the movie is best suited for kids maybe 11 and older, partially for the reasons alone that there are some violent/scary images, but additionally for its sexual implications, which, while they aren't terribly overt, deserve to be talked about (in an age-appropriate way) and would be a missed opportunity otherwise, I think, for parents and kids to discuss the nature of love as responsibility for another person and to talk about the ways men and women can deeply hurt one another, encouraging them and instructing them in how to strive for a better, more authentic love.

      So, while I feel it's a huge shame that the movie was marketed to families as just another Sleeping Beauty story, which might have drawn younger audiences than it should have--in addition to the shameful fact that Hollywood is, of course, driven by profit, never mind the moral messages that a certain age group might absorb--I also think parents have a responsibility to evaluate for themselves what's appropriate for their children, independent of the ratings system and the media. In other words, no, I don't think it was marketed well, yet I truly think the movie deserves a closer look beyond the "get in touch with evil" sort of message that was put forth, and that kids who are old enough to see the movie, content-wise, can and should be mature enough to see it as a morally complex story, one they can interpret critically, rather than a black and white one--if there's any disagreement between Kendra's outlook and mine, I think it might lie in that area of moral absolutes vs. moral complexities, though I did pick up on some other criticism in her review, as well (and Kendra, if you're reading this, feel free to correct me!)

      I added a comment with more on these ideas to her original post:

  3. (I tried to post this comment like three times this morning and I have no idea if it went through because I got some kind of error message every time, so if you've gotten this several times today - sorry!)

    Wow - thanks for this interpretation! To be honest, I hadn't thought about any of this. I saw Maleficent in theaters soon after it came out, and I didn't honestly spend too much time thinking about it afterward. I mean, I really loved the movie, I thought it was so visually beautiful, and the whole story interested me (which is surprising because Sleeping Beauty is actually one of my least favorite Disney movies...), but I took it all as purely entertainment and didn't bother trying to read into it. After reading this post I think I could definitely stand to give it another watch!



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