Maleficent Not Magnificant

Courtesy Disney

Courtesy Disney

Ever since I was a little girl, my dad has always taken me to see movies. It was a part of the very fabric of my childhood, the films, actors, and stories all intertwining like thread in the tapestry of my pop culture education.

Last week, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, my dad looked at me and said it was a good time to go see a movie. We decided on the recent summer blockbuster Maleficent, an alternate look at Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from the viewpoint of the titular evil sorceress Maleficent, played by the incredibly high cheekbones of Angelina Jolie. As a huge fan of Broadway’s wonderful Wicked, the story of The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the viridescent Wicked Witch of the West, I was super excited about learning the backstory of one of Disney’s most elegant and charmingly evil villainesses.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, I’ll give you the chance to cover your eyes and ears and scream “LALALALALA!!” at the top of your lungs because here be spoilers. Like serious spoilers. I’m basically going to be giving away the whole plot of the movie so if you want to be surprised when you see it don’t read on.

Maleficent begins with the voiceover of an elderly Princess Aurora (the narcoleptic heroine from the familiar tale of Sleeping Beauty, which for those who have lived under a rock for the past 300 years is about of a fifteen year old girl who’s deathly allergic to spinning wheels and somehow manages to prick her finger on the only spindle in the entire country) narrating the tragic tale of Maleficent, a powerful fairy who cursed the infant Aurora with eternal slumber. In an attempt at Wicked-esque revisionism, she gives us a backstory on the delightfully immoral witch.

We first see Maleficent as a young buffalo-horned fairy-girl, innocent and kind in her dealings as she lives in the peaceful democratic fairy paradise that is Sweden… I mean… the Moors. She meets and falls in love with a human boy named Stefan. But Stefan is very power-hungry and ambitious and he later betrays Maleficent by cutting off her wings so he can become King of the humans.

So Maleficent, in her revenge, crashes the christening of Stefan’s newborn daughter and curses her with the whole Sleeping Beauty shtick, except in this version, Maleficent, not the third blue fairy, who adds on the whole true love’s kiss clause.

Aurora is sent to live with the three imbecilic fairies who don’t even know what babies eat and Maleficent ends up raising Aurora herself because otherwise the three fairies would have long let the child toddle right off a cliff.

Of course, Maleficent grows to love the kid but she cannot break her own curse. Her punishment on Stefan for revenge has given her no satistfaction and has harmed her even more. Aurora ends up pricking her finger on the spindle of the spinning wheel and in a move directly copied from Frozen, it ends up being Maleficent, not her dashing Bieber-like prince, who gives her the true love’s kiss that wakes the doe-eyed princess up.

Maleficent’s whole deal is that she wants to protect her people, the fairies, from the encroachment of humans. She also hates Stefan’s guts for totally breaking her heart and crippling her. She’s got a lot of hate going on and it’s very justified. Stefan, of course, has always had bad guilt about how he cut Maleficent’s wings off, but now the girl he used to love has just cursed his kid so he is totally justified to hate on Maleficent. The thing is, they both have bad faults and they both have sinned against each other. Now when I saw this movie, I was constantly expecting it to be a meditation of the corrupting darkness of revenge in the lives of two former friends. It definitely goes into that. Maleficent only becomes truly evil after she curses Aurora and Stefan really goes to the dark side when he tries to destroy the Moors to avenge his cursed daughter.

But I ended up being really unsatisfied with the ending of this movie. I had liked it a lot from the beginning to the final act, but it ended without any real redemption for Stefan. Whenever there is a story about revenge, the only way to make it satisfying is through the redemptive power of forgiveness. Maleficent never forgave Stefan and he never forgave Maleficent. They took their hate right up to a climactic tower battle in which Stefan ended up plummeting to his death because he could not forgive her. His character, which could have been as complex and multifaceted Maleficent’s, ended up falling flat (no pun intended) as just another power-hungry psychopath. I know the whole thing about this movie is role reversal, but isn’t the point of a gritty reboot from the bad guy’s perspective to show that there are no true villains? Stefan’s character in this movie was just as two dimensional as Maleficent’s in Sleeping Beauty. Power drove him crazy and he stayed crazy through the whole movie. He never got his moment to forgive Maleficent. He was never a sympathetic character.

I know that the whole theme of the Maleficent/Stefan relationship was to show them as complementary opposites, but I felt so dissatisfied seeing his broken body lying in the ruins of his castle as his former friend turned enemy looked down at him impassively. In my mind, it would have been more moving to see the two old enemies forgive each other. To me it seemed like the entire movie was aiming for them to overcome their mutual betrayals and forgive but it missed the mark. In the end, Maleficent got her revenge from Stefan, who even had the clichéd villainy to try to stab her in the back after she tried to make peace so he could die truly evil in the eyes of the audience. It’s like the whole debatable of making Greedo shoot at Han first in the original Star Wars movie to make him “more heroic”. The whole point of having anti-heroes is that their morality is not drawn on such staunch lines. Everyone has the capacity to make good and bad decisions in life. For a gritty reboot that lauds itself as seeing a story from a different perspective, Maleficent ended up drawing the lines of good and evil just as arbitrarily as the movie it was trying to make more realistic. The whole theme the movie was trying to get at was all about how unforgiveness enslaves the soul and corrupts it. The only thing that can end the endless cycle of revenge is forgiveness, but no one really forgave anyone.

What made me mad with this movie about character complexity was that by the ending, nobody but Maleficent was complex. Take the character of Aurora as the wide-eyed ingénue. The girl got whatever she wanted in life without ever lifting a finger. From her birth she was blessed by the fairies with extraordinary beauty and the literal gift (not joking) of “everybody always loving her”. Want to live in the magic fairy kingdom that no human is allowed in? Sure you can, Aurora! Here’s a hot prince who is desperately in love with you as a side!

The thing I disliked the most about Aurora was that she never made any sacrifices or had to give up what she wanted. All her life she wanted to live in magic fairy land. Since she’s never actually had to deal with a hard situation in her life, I expected the end of Maleficent to show her growing up and taking the responsibility for the human kingdom she’s just inherited via tower pushing. Since Stefan had basically oppressed the humans into oblivion, I thought the ending would show Aurora selflessly sacrificing her childish dreams of a perfect paradise to do the hard thing in the real world that is leading her flawed people who need her. Everyone is always talking about what a good person Aurora is, so why not use her caring, compassionate personality to turn around the human kingdom and make it good again?

But the thing about the ending of the movie is that after the big battle is won, we never see the human kingdom again. Aurora becomes the queen of the Moors (you know, the magical fairy democracy which made a big point in the beginning about needing no king). Yeah, she says the two kingdoms were united under her rule, but all we see is Aurora prancing around in magic fairy land, leaving the people in her actual kingdom to presumably suck it up while their queen indulges her own whims. Aurora sacrifices nothing.

Maybe I’m looking at this too deeply (and I must admit that I have a problem with psychoanalyzing fictional entertainment), but I felt like none of the themes the movie was trying to make actually came full circle. It talked about sacrifice, and betrayal, and forgiveness, and redemption, but it never really dived below the surface into what those things actually mean. The ending of Maleficent, despite being garishly happy and full of big smiles and colorful flowers, did not do it for me. It ended up not satisfying me emotionally or mentally because it did not go deep enough into what writer’s call the “human condition”. Of course, not being deep isn’t what was the problem. I like absurdness and fun just as much as anyone, but the thing about Maleficent is that it was claiming to give us depth. It wanted to be serious and hard hitting but it missed.

I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t see the movie, though. It was good. Perhaps I, like Maleficent, ironically misjudged things. Please submit your own analysis below! Have a great day!

One thought on “Maleficent Not Magnificant

  1. As the author’s father I had the same reaction to the movie. I liked it, but being a slave to unforgiveness does lead to death and it is ugly, as we’ve been taught in our church. As an aside, the very first movie I took Maddie to see was “Stewart Little” in 1999. Maddie was just two and could barely keep the automatic folding seat down. When the movie was over and the lights came up, Maddie was crying. “Did you not like it” I asked? Maddie answered “Can we see it again?”

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