Maleficent Surprised Me with Its Thoughtful Look at a Character’s Fall and Redemption

Discussion Post

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.

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16 thoughts on “Maleficent Surprised Me with Its Thoughtful Look at a Character’s Fall and Redemption

  1. Paula Vince says:

    We watched it in our household not long ago. I enjoyed it a lot, for the reasons you mentioned. Yes, what a betrayal! And another thing I appreciated was how much happier Aurora’s character made her life than her father’s, who presumably had everything he’d ever aimed for. Won’t say more for plot spoilers, but yes, very well done.

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  2. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Awesome post! I really liked how this was its own version of the story, as you said, instead of trying to make the original justifiable. However I did notice that they had to change some things significantly to make this work- which for me personally clashed a little with the original (like the part where she says “prick her finger and… sleep” instead of “DIE!”). I don’t know why but that jarred with me (maybe because I wanted a redemption story of sorts? I don’t even know). I think maybe because of that I was left a little unsatisfied. That said I did really like the message of a mother’s love. But my absolutely favourite part was her friendship with the bird- I don’t know why but their relationship just really struck me as very beautiful. (And sorry if this comment’s a little rambly!)

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    • Krysta says:

      I didn’t like the “sleep” part, either. What kind of curse is that? Sleep for a long time, hahahahah! It’s just…weird. And you’re right. It does take a little away from the redemption arc maybe because it suggests she didn’t fall that low? And I think they were trying to keep the other fairies clumsy and useless. But the fairies in the animated film are silly and they still managed to have their moments. Why can’t they be silly fairies but also ones who can reach inside and find surprising depths when necessary?

      Yeah, the bird was awesome!

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        hahaha I know right!! It made her a bit more lame- but then they couldn’t have done anything else if they didn’t want her to be evil. Bit of a catch 22 there. Yes exactly. And I do agree with you about the fairies- my brain could not compute that they were supposed to be the same characters. Yes!!!

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  3. Michael J. Miller says:

    I actually teach ‘Maleficent’ when I do a unit in my Pop Culture class about our cultural Objectification of Women. I use the film when we move into strong depictions of women in film as it’s such a brilliant/powerful example inverting all these traditional stereotypical female archetypes in films. I first saw ‘Maleficent’ when it was in the theatre with a friend. It was the last day of school. We got out, went out for lunch and then hit the theatre. We saw it sort of on a whim…and it blew me away. I’ll go as far as to say I think it’s one of the most important films Disney’s ever made. I think it’s one of the most important films of our time too. I am so impressed with all it tries to do AND that it does so much so successfully too! Each time I watch it I take more from it.

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    • Krysta says:

      It certainly sounds like you teach all the best classes!

      I’ve only seen Maleficent once so far, but I’m sure I’d see more if I were to watch it again. It doesn’t do everything it attempts perfectly, but I think it’s impressive the creators attempted at all!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        I’ve very blessed to teach in a school where they offer us the chance to design some exciting electives. This course has always been one of my favorites.

        I don’t know how much you’ve read about ‘Maleficent’ but Angelina Jolie did a powerful interview around the time the film was released talking about how the scene with her wings was meant to be an analogy for rape. They wanted to explore what could make someone so broken they’d act as Maleficent does so they touched on such a intimate act of violence. Flowing from that then we see the two responses we, as human beings, have to violence. Do we allow it to corrupt us (as it does for Maleficent for a time) or do we seek to forgive and transcend (as we see with Aurora)? Then obviously it ultimately speaks to the power of transformation in and through love. It’s just breathtaking.

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        • Krysta says:

          Wow! Your students are very lucky!

          I do remember reading an article that mentioned Jolie saying that the scene represented a rape. I think that was a very difficult and sensitive matter to approach. However, I appreciate that the creators approached it very seriously and really worked through the responses a person could have. I think that Maleficent’s response is saddening but somehow it’s difficult to blame her when you’re watching her in pain. But you also have this hope that one day she’s going to recover something of who she was before, that she’s ultimately not going to let her experience take from her her identity as a caring person. And the juxtaposition with Aurora is so beautifully done, so that you can see how someone’s kindness can also have unintended and unknown rippling effects on the people around them.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            The respect and authenticity they used when approaching Maleficent’s violations really impressed me. I remember watching the film before I read the interview and having an emotional response to the scene that I couldn’t fully understand. Once I read what they were doing metaphorically it all fell into place. As I said before, there’s just SO MUCH going on in this film. I walked out of the theatre blown away and I’ve only grown to love and respect the film more.

            Maleficent was handled so well. You look at her actions and see her as “the villain.” But you understand what lead her to do what she did and you empathize with her journey. It is such an important lesson – evil isn’t natural. Evil is created. We see Maleficent was broken and, in her brokenness, sought vengeance in rage and anger. It reminds us, as we watch, that we should never just look at someone as “the bad guy.” Rather, evil is created and fostered. And, as a result, there’s always the potential for redemption too.

            I love what you said about “rippling” effects too. I think that really gets to the heart of one of the film’s core messages – both the good and the bad can spread like that, tainting or healing all they touch.

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  4. klyse3 says:

    I liked Maleficent as well, and thought it was a great example of how to explore the base of a fairytale from a different perspective.

    But Disney’s live-action remakes, good grief. I think Maleficent is the only one I’ve liked so far. I watched Beauty and the Beast for the first time last night and it’s ok, but I certainly don’t think they did anything especially new or creative with the story.

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    • Krysta says:

      I do have some reservations about some of the remake announcements. Exactly why do we need a “live-action” Dumbo? Is it even live-action if it’s all CGI? I’m so confused!

      I liked that the live Beauty and the Beast gave some nods to the original fairy tale, addressed some of the oddities of the animated film (like Belle borrowing books from a bookseller), and opened up the story to comment on other types of relationships such as that between Belle and her father or the friendship of Cogsworth and Lumiere. It did feel like a pretty straight remake of the animated film, though, not anything original.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I am behind the times in watching this film. I suppose most people watched it ages ago. 😀 But I’m glad I finally got around to it.

      Like

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