When I first heard of Maleficent, I determined not to watch it. Sleeping Beauty is my favorite Disney princess film (though I suppose Moana will have to be a close contender now) and I felt no need to see a remake when I value the film so much for its artistic beauty. Furthermore, I was troubled by what I read of the decision to make Maleficent a sympathetic character. Maleficent’s character in the animated film represents pure evil. She explicitly announces that she has aligned herself with the powers of hell. And Prince Philip defeats her with the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue. It is an allegory about the way in which virtue triumphs over sin. I felt that giving Maleficent a sympathetic backstory would ruin the simplistic beauty of this message. However, the other day I found myself watching Maleficent anyway. I was immediately interested in the story the film has to tell.
Before I go father, it is important to note that Maleficent is not an attempt to rewrite Sleeping Beauty or to get viewers to sympathize with the villain of the animated film. It does not say that what Maleficent does in Sleeping Beauty is right, justified, or understandable. Maleficent is its own version of the story, with its own characters (though they share names with the characters of the animated version), and its own world. It stands next to Sleeping Beauty just as any number of other retellings stand beside it without asking their audiences to change their understanding of what happens in Disney’s animated film. So I judge it on its own merits without comparing it to Sleeping Beauty.
Maleficent is, as its title suggests, not a story about Sleeping Beauty at all. Rather, it is the story of how Maleficent’s innocence is shattered through betrayal and suffering, how she seeks revenge, and how she finally learns to love again. It is the story of a fall and then a story of redemption. In a way, it is the story of Cinderella, if Cinderella were not perpetually industrious, cheerful, and good, but instead turned bitter and vengeful as a result of her pain. Cinderella turns outward and chooses love; Maleficent turns inward and chooses hate. That hate takes her on dark paths that she is not sure how to escape. In the end, Maleficent’s story teaches her that sin has consequences that are far-reaching and sometimes difficult to mend, even if you are truly sorry for the actions you have performed.
Despite this thoughtful exploration of the power of love, I have seen and heard many criticisms about the decision of the film to have Maleficent wake Aurora rather than Prince Philip. However, I think it is important to remember that a story that celebrates types of love other than the romantic does not by nature say that romantic love is therefore meaningless or somehow the same as other types of loves. Rather, Maleficent reminds viewers that not only erotic love has the power to heal, to unite, or to seek forgiveness. Maleficent might be read as the story of a mother’s love and a celebration of the ways in which mothers sacrifice for their children to try to keep them safe. A mother’s love does not replace the love between a man and a woman. It is different and separate. But that does not mean it is not worth honoring.
Although I remain a little skeptical of Disney’s plans to remake seemingly all of their animated films, I have to admit that the remakes I have seen so far seem very thoughtful. They are not the same stories but in live-action, but rather expansions of the old stories that ask viewers to consider other types of relationships. Perhaps this will bother some viewers. But we always have the animated films to enjoy, as well.