I recently saw Maleficent. All I can say is: “Magnificent!”
Ok, I guess a bit more. (SPOILERS to follow…)
Maleficent is perhaps the most sophisticated Disney movie I’ve seen from a character and story construction perspective. The character is sometimes a hero and sometimes a villain. Angelina Jolie does an amazing job portraying complex emotions, displaying almost simultaneously a mixture of anger, regret, compassion, pain and love. The nuances in her facial expressions reveal that she doesn’t want to be who she became.
The story starts and Maleficent is a young child. She’s clearly a protagonist, and I find myself wondering how it all goes bad. I mean, I know this is a retelling of a Disney villain, and with a name like Maleficent it can’t be all sunshine and roses, can it?
She’s a fae creature, with otherworldly features. From a Judeo-Christian symbolism perspective, she has demonic features (the horns) and angelic features (the wings). With the symbolic capacity for good and evil, she is the most human of all the characters in the story. Allegorically, Maleficent represents the human soul, and through the story we see her taken from purity, through a fall, and into redemption.
Of course it doesn’t stay sunshine and roses. We see the most visceral, disturbing, and completely non-sexual rape scene I could imagine in a made-for-young-adults movie. When the king-to-be goes back to her and drugs her (roofie?), he takes advantage of her while she’s sleeping. Not in a sexual way, but he rips her wings from her body, and taking her purity (from the point of view that bird wings are symbolically a sign of angelic nature) as a trophy back to the kingdom so he can ascend the throne.
She’s been violated in the truest sense of the word. Her wings were her power and joy, and those have been taken from her. The remaining symbolic features are her horns, and this lack of balance mirrors who she becomes. A creature of anger, who has lost her joy, and her grace.
And we sympathize with her. Thankfully we don’t see the ripping of the wings (it is PG after all), but when she wakes up without them, and we see the villain return to the kingdom to ascend the throne, we’re right beside her, hating him with all our might.
But then she becomes consumed by her rage. She subjects her own kingdom to her rule, and embraces darkness. And that’s where I, as an audience member, started to cringe and go, “Heeeey… Maleficent. Are you sure you want to go there? I’m not sure I’m on board with this. Am I supposed to be on board with this?”
And she gets darker, and of course innocents are caught in the cross-fire of her rage.
This culminates in the curse she levies on Aurora, towards what I would consider the end of ‘Act 2’. She levies the curse and then says “no power on this Earth can undo it” (or words to that effect).
(more SPOILERS) Act 3 begins, and she watches Aurora grow. In spite of herself, she comes to love the girl and starts to fulfill a godmother role in deliciously rendered irony. She regrets her anger and who she has become, and tries to undo the curse… except she can’t. She then tries to find someone who can give “true love’s kiss” in order to break the curse, though she herself believes that no such kiss exists. The twist is finally that the prince’s kiss is not one of true love, and Maleficent herself gives the kiss on the forehead… it’s a kiss of motherly love.
Shortly thereafter, Aurora frees Maleficent’s wings, and the wings return to her, as a symbol of restored and redeemed purity. The evil king ends up dying in a scene reminiscent of how Gaston died at the end of Beauty and the Beast. This is an important “sealer” to her redemption, because she chooses to let the king live. He does not die by her hand.
Between this and Frozen, I’m liking the dimension that Disney’s added that shows not all true love is romantic love. Love takes familial and platonic aspects as well, and Disney seems to be reaching out towards the concept of love that the Greeks called agape, the unselfish love for another.
Until next time,