Friday, August 15, 2014

How Maleficent Changed My Heart

My wife and I went to see Disney's new take on the Sleeping Beauty story last week. Which means that what I'm about to write is really current because, you know, it was only about two months after the movie came out. And what I found, aside from a movie that photoshopped Angelina Jolie's already imposing cheekbones to razor sharpness, was not what I had been expecting. I had expected a movie that used Jolie in a role more like Beowulf or Tomb Raider, only PG. I guessed, based on the trailers, that I should expect a story about a sexy witch in a movie that allowed the audience to revel in such a sinister character.

I was wrong. The movie was incredible. And what's more, I really saw themes of grace, forgiveness and redemption running through it.

From hereon, there be SPOILERS!

It starts off "Once upon a time," with two kingdoms right beside one another. One is run and ruled by greedy humans and the other, the Moors, is filled with faeries and other magical creatures. It is also protected by a powerful, though young, faerie named Maleficent, who dresses in earth tones, and has horns and huge wings. In short order, we are introduced to Stefan, a human who has crossed over into the Moors to look for something of value. He has been apprehended when we meet him and Maleficent has been called to dole out justice. She returns the treasure to its rightful place and she does the same with Stefan. However, when they are saying their goodbyes, it is clear that these two children have felt something kindled within them.

They grow, they laugh, they play... and then they kiss. They've fallen in love and all seems idyllic. But this is where Disney surprised me. Here we are, barely ten minutes into the film and the main character has already had her true love's kiss. And yet the narration says ominously "it was never meant to be."

Nonetheless, Maleficent is growing and living into her role, not as the Queen of the Moors, but as its protector:

Let me pause for a moment to comment on what you've just watched. First off, it's a good example of how visually stunning the movie is (not to mention the soundtrack). The movie rests on that to a large extent because there's not a huge amount of dialogue in it, thus paying attention to what's on the screen is crucial. Watch the clip again and look at the expressions on Maleficent's face. At this early point in the movie, Maleficent is a caring, compassionate and stalwart champion of her homeland. And so, knowing the story of Sleeping Beauty and the role Maleficent plays in that, you know all this will go sour. Even in terms of visualization, the colors in the movie will turn from those warm earth tones into stark, very bleak and dark colors.

What really moves me about the movie is always the how it happened part of the story. So back in his own kingdom, Stefan is present as the king is dying and hears him say that whomever can vanquish the protector of the Moors will be named the successor to the throne. Stefan knows how to contact the protector of the Moors, knows she trusts him, and so he goes to see her again, after not having been back to visit for a long time. He lulls Maleficent into lowering her guard, he gives her something to drink, and when she falls asleep, he cuts her wings off and takes them to the king, who promptly names him king. And that leaves us with a wingless, violated, vengeful Maleficent whose idyllic existence has been ripped from her (for the record, I've read some fascinating things that liken Maleficent losing her wings to rape). Like I said, the colors change from the warm tones into darker colors that reflect Maleficent's despair and drive for revenge. And what's more, without her wings, Maleficent looks less like a faerie protector and more like the horned demon-witch who we are so ready to call evil in the original Disney movie.

Meanwhile, Stefan is indeed named as the new king for the service he gave to the old king. He takes the throne and not too long later, he and his queen have a baby girl and invite everyone (well, almost everyone) to their castle for the christening. This is where the original 1959 Sleeping Beauty that Disney made picks up and I'm sure most of you know how it goes. But what I observed this time when Maleficent cursed the child was not some kind of malice toward the child herself, but one spurned lover desperately trying to cause the same kind of misery in the love that spurned her. I'm not trying to excuse the curse, but rather emphasize that it was an effort on Maleficent's part to punish Stefan for the hurt he had done to her.

After Maleficent's curse, King Stefan sends Aurora away to protect her. But in the movie Maleficent, that only makes it easier for Maleficent to lurk in the shadows and, despite herself, she keeps the child from getting killed when her bumbling caretakers are too busy bumbling and bickering to see the danger (in one scene, they're off on a picnic and Aurora happily dives off a cliff as she is chasing a butterfly; Maleficent does not leap off to catch the child, but rather magics some vines to catch her and deliver her back onto solids ground). After a whole sequence if this sort of interaction, Maleficent and Aurora come face to face and Aurora makes a surprising announcement:

After this, it is evident that Aurora's unconditional love has changed Maleficent's heart and so Maleficent attempts to revoke the curse that she had laid on Aurora. But it's no good. With all the hate and passion she had poured into the curse, it cannot be revoked, even by the one who placed it. Maleficent has changed so much that, on the eve of the curse's fulfillment, she desperately races to keep it from happening (for the record, yes, that is Prince Phillip inert or the other horse; Maleficent is attempting to bring true love's kiss to Aurora to keep the curse from being fulfilled).

Now, throughout this time watching Aurora, we kind of have this image of Maleficent as she was made to be in the original Disney movie; that is, she is maleficent; she is defined by the ill will she has toward Aurora. And in the movie of the same name, Maleficent has been watching over the child with a very stern, impassive visage. She even goes so far as to refer to the gorgeous, affectionate Aurora consistently as "Beastie." So I take it as a major sign when that stern, equanimous appearance breaks at the moment the curse is fulfilled. Watch that clip again and look at Maleficent's face immediately after Aurora pricks her finger; there is concern, grief and despair in it.

From here, the story continues as Maleficent attempts to deliver true love's kiss to Aurora in the form of Prince Phillip. She does deliver him there, but his kiss does not revive Aurora and Maleficent finally admits that she made the curse she did, saying that only true love could reviver her, because true love does not exist. In this admission, I realized how consuming her hatred of King Stefan was; Maleficent had loved him with such abandon and had been betrayed so completely that she decided true love could not exist and that anyone who thought so was simply fooling themselves. So, of course, it was a great surprise when Maleficent knelt beside the sleeping Aurora, apologized for what she had done to her, and kissed her on the forehead, thus rousing Aurora from her sleep. And I realized how much progress Disney had made in realizing that romantic love is not as complete and compelling as the love chosen and made by family bonds.

In the end, Maleficent was given her wings back (because MAGIC) and she resumed her role as the the protector of the Moors (she had kinda gone all Dark Lord on the place along with the dark color shift earlier in the movie). She also returned to her curly-horned, raptor-winged faerie self and the narrator mused how Maleficent was both hero and villain of the story. Which is what really captivated me, because I agreed with it. With that description, I realized that Maleficent was a story about how each of us carry in us the potential for both extremes; it is not the case that some people are born to be villains and some are born to be heroes, but that each of us has the potential to be the hero or the villain in our own life. Each of us has the Light and the Dark in us. Each of us wear our demon horns while trying to soar on our angel wings. And so I really see the movie as an inspiring, mythical metaphor that guides us to forgiveness and redemption through grace.

Now, before I call this post done, I also want to acknowledge the mixed reactions that the movies has received. I seen a lot of negative things about the movie, such as this review that goes on and on about how visually stunning it is until it pulls a one-eighty and labels the movie apologetics for Satan. On the other hand, you have Angelina Jolie herself talking about how revolutionary the movie is and how it revises our expectations for true love. Full disclosure, I tend to lean toward Jolie's side on this one (as if you couldn't figure that our from everything I've already written). But I would still like to hear what you have to say about the movie or any of the articles I've linked to. Please leave your reactions in the comments below!