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maleficentI love reading The Imaginative Conservative. This online journal welcomes a variety of authors representing the spectrum of conservatism who converse on topics related to truth, beauty, and goodness. Sometimes, however, conservatism rightly deserves its reputation for nay-­saying. Such is my response to Bruce Frohnen’s essay, “Malevolent?…No…Maleficent?…Whatever.” Mr. Frohnen detects a feminist reading underlying the plot that supposedly reduces a well-­told story to nothing more than the attempt of Hollywood to impose a quasi-lesbian narrative on a traditional fairy tale. But I would counter that Maleficent has much more content than a “Strong Female Lead” and constitutes an attempt by a new Disney generation to return to true fairy-tale-mythic-storytelling.

In the 1960s, Disney produced what has become the typical version of the Sleeping Beauty narrative filled with songs, bright colors, and cuddly fairies. Like many of the now classic Disney movies, this tale was a child- friendly rendition of a horrifying story recorded by the Grimm brothers. Before the brothers Grimm wrote down their Germanic version, Giambettista Basil recorded the earliest known edition of the Sleeping Beauty myth (entitled Talia, Sun, and Moon). Mr. Basil’s version follows what we now consider traditional parts of the story—fairy gifts, a curse, and potentially eternal sleep. He then takes the tale in dark direction: After a hundred years of slumber, the drowsing maiden is raped by a king. She conceives and births twins while still enchanted. When the king returns (presumably to repeat his rape), he is astounded to find the woman awake and the children tended by fairies. He then explains what he did, and Talia is happy to become his mistress. The story concludes with the queen’s discovery of the other woman, the attempted killing of the children, and the king kicking his queen into the fire pit where she burns alive, allowing him to marry his true love and legitimize the product of his lust. The original Sleeping Beauty is no mere morality tale, but a story of magic, lust, power, and human relationships worked out in a horrifying manner.

With these two different versions of the story in mind, I want to walk through the major plot movements of Maleficent. The film begins with an unnamed narrator who introduces her tale with the idea that the story is not always the way it seems. We first meet a horned, winged fairy-child named Maleficent. This fairy is powerful, beautiful, and takes enormous joy in flight. She lives in a moor, a part of the land inhabited only by fairies. Her world is in an uneasy truce with the human world, and she meets Stephan as a potential invader. Rather than killing Stephan, she befriends him. Stephan, however, is marked from the beginning by a sense of greed and ambition. Their friendship grows into romance, ultimately leading to “true love’s kiss” at age sixteen. Stephan grows closer to the human world and increases in power, eventually leaving Maleficent and his childish infatuation. He reunites with his old flame, however, when the king promises the crown to whoever defeated the winged defender of Fairy. Stephan uses his friendship with Maleficent to lure her into sleep, during which he contemplates murdering her. Unable to cut her throat, he takes her wings instead. The most poignant part of the film comes when Maleficent awakes and expresses her sorrow. Her wordless cry and the music underlying her anguish express the loss of something personal and irreplaceable.

article-2546565-1AFEC18400000578-366_634x469The film at this point has already established Maleficent as a powerful fairy filled with a natural magic. She healed broken branches and called on woodland guardians to defeat an invading army of knights. Her magic now manifests itself in rage, culminating in revenge upon King Stephan’s daughter, Aurora; her curse is made irrevocable. Sixteen years pass quickly in the film, and the audience sees Maleficent watching Aurora grow, interacting with her and saving her from the incompetence of the three sprites. As Maleficent comes to know Aurora as a person, she relinquishes her thirst for revenge. There is a scene of profound repentance as Maleficent recognizes she was “lost in anger and revenge” when she uttered her curse. She tries to take the curse back, but her own magic makes that impossible.

The climax of the story is a moment in which Maleficent rises above the sappiness of romantic love. Before her sleep, Aurora sees a young man and they instantly fall into infatuation. This teenage romance, however, does not suffice as “true love.” The prince is unable to awaken her, not because the film is proclaiming some lesbian message, but because true love is this: “Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” Maleficent, unable to reverse her curse, vows to protect Aurora and spend her remaining days at her side. She seals this vow with a kiss on the forehead. This moment of sacrificial love shatters the curse. Aurora is crowned queen, uniting both fairy and human lands, and the film ends with a promise that perhaps when she and Prince Phillip mature and grow in their friendship they might find a joyous marital love.

Rather than a celebration of feminism and lesbianism, Maleficent tells a tale of betrayal, revenge, and redemption. Maleficent receives back her wings and has the opportunity to kill King Stephan in battle. She relents, saying “enough.” In one last gasp of greed and ambition, Stephan tries to kill Maleficent with an iron sword and leaps to his death. Instead of a stranger’s kiss somehow being “true love,” love is shown to be sacrificial. And rather than Mr. Frohnen’s “fractured fairy tale,” Maleficent harkens back to a darker, adult, and more human version of Sleeping Beauty.

3139250_origIn addition to the above reasons, I found Maleficent worthy because it is a fairy tale in the truest Tolkienian sense. In On Fairy Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien speaks of the requirements for a fantasy: It must take place in a genuinely secondary world; it must take magic seriously; and it must inspire belief in the reader. Maleficent does all the above. The mixing of beautiful, computer-generated images with human actors created a unique world. The winged Maleficent, rather than evoking notions of the demonic, somehow works as a uniquely beautiful, utterly different kind of creature. Magic is not reduced to some scientific system (a la Harry Potter), but is an intrinsic quality much like the magic of Tolkien’s elves. The reality of moral consequences throughout this story causes the audience to see it as a real, secondary world, worthy of belief. This film, set alongside the recent Marvel, Pixar, and Disney films (like Frozen), represents a new level of Disney myth-making, and we conservatives should praise it instead of finding unjustified fault with it.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.  

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Published: Jun 19, 2014
Josh Herring
Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.
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9 replies to this post
  1. Thank you so much for this positive review, my wife and I are not secular liberal feminist ideologues. I teach the Catholic faith faithfully, as a wanna-be orthodox Catholic. We took away exactly what is presented here. We took our daughters and we were able to explain how true love is not always or even primarily found in romantic love circles. I’m in love with my children in a way that is fatherly and as true as any experience of human love I’ve ever had. And this tale exposed the fact that romantic love relations require prudence, as well the depiction of infatuation or love at first sight, may indeed lead on to true love, but time and testing reveal true character. In short, I went into viewing this movie with a lot of negative expectations from reading my usual religious movie reviewer sources, but I was won over. I want my wife and daughters to be strong in mind, and morally speaking, this is not feminist ideology and not every modern depiction of strong females who offer complexity must be placed in such a negative box. Thanks again for publishing this contrarian review.

  2. How I wish this site would keep away from “pop culture” as far and fast as possible. Whether dumb movies or “Pharell Williams” , I cannot stand it when high-brow publications try to “intellectualize” the low end. It bores. Stick to Belloc and Eliot please

  3. Pulled between two vastly different reviews, I’ll give the film a miss. There is also a case to be made for boycotting Disney since they abandoned Narnia after their second film, in 2008 (the three grossed $1.5 billion). Secondly, Mr Herring, ‘birth’ is not a verb. However, thank you for the post.

  4. Well, that’s a spirited defense of the movie. Being the author of the not-quite-so-positive review, perhaps I should clarify: I am aware of the deeper, darker fairy tale and have no problem whatsoever with the idea of bringing it to the screen. I’ve actually never been a big fan of Disney’s earlier, saccharin, versions of fairy tales, either. The question concerns how well done the Jolie movie is, or is not. It is not.

    More important, to my mind, is our second reviewer’s failure to get any of my jokes. I take this quite personally and am rather hurt by the whole thing. My central point was that the movie’s makers were not up to the task of doing a decent job of it, instead substituting some superficial and ham-fisted political correctness for a thoughtful, developed story line. In making that point I used some hyperbole, including a throw away line about “the gals” getting married. I wasn’t trying to be subtle. That this joke (along with others) was missed hurts my self-esteem. However, in the spirit of our Strong Female Lead, I forgive those who have wronged me.

    Good to see you on TIC, Josh.


  5. One more takeaway for me was in how Maleficient and her wanna-be King betrayer displayed a Peter v. Judas response to their own wicked actions. Both had the opportunity to repent and attempt to make right their terrible sins, and Maleficient chose well and was empowered to experience and convey true love again, while the King was supposedly continuing his viciousness out of his love and desire to protect his daughter. But sin makes you stupid and even when it became obvious that maleficient was able to save the daughter, the King was locked into his sinful path to his violent end..I saw similarities to the way Peter repented through his bitter tears, while Juda clung to his despair. The pattern of life exhibited by Maleficient was one very common to many of us..the innocence of youth, the detachment of young adulthood, the desire to for true romantic love and the sometimes lack of solid discernment in that pursuit, the resultant experience of betrayal and hardening of heart sometimes to the extremes, and the later recognition of the waste that bitterness, hatred, and revenge seeking brings, with the rounding out experiences of turning back to a love for innocence with a desire to protect the innocent, particularly the young. The only remaining motive in one’s life then becomes to do right, make right what you have made wrong, to seek the good no matter what may. I saw this pattern behind the character Maleficient, and I saw the hope for a cleaner path for the girl and the young male prince at the end with no hint that the darkness of the previous generation was necessarily to be followed as if all men were bent and untrustworthy. Fact is that in certain times and places good men are hard to find, and women too, this is why cultural influence is of vital importance. To live in times of a culture of death we should appreciate how difficult it is to raise our young in the ways of virtue when all around them is confusion and weak adult role models and teachers.

  6. I saw the film, and I do not think Tolkien would have approved. I had two sizable problems with it. First, artistically I found it to be rather a mess. Some beautiful sets, and a fine performance by Angelina Jolie, but otherwise a mess. There’s no character development at all of anyone but Maleficent. The king and his motivations are a caricature (with clumsy political overtones); the fairies are unpleasantly ridiculous. The story lurches rather than flows. Aurora’s falling asleep and waking almost instantly to true love’s kiss is not lesbian; it’s wildly anticlimactic. The only thing I found compelling about the movie was Jolie’s performance. She manages to rise above the film’s flaws to a certain extent and she can be moving, but her performance is undermined by the film’s clumsy story and execution.

    Second, and more seriously, I would never show this film to a child, because the film seriously confuses good and evil. Now, I love a complex story and a complex character. But this is a fairy story for children, and this film doesn’t present complexity to a child in an understandable way. Instead, it presents a muddy mix. The imagery surrounding Maleficent is very dark and at times disturbing. And there is no clear delineation imagery-wise between the “good” Maleficent and the “evil” Maleficent. Take her horns, a classical image of evil, present both when she’s good and when she’s evil. Now, someone might turn around and object – aren’t fairy stories about not being deceived by appearances, etc., etc., etc. Yes, but this is no story of someone who is visibly deformed or ugly or the like hiding a heart of gold. This isn’t a story about being deceived by appearances. For this story to work for a child, the repentance and transformation need to be much more complete. Yes, Maleficent is won over by her love for Aurora, but it’s unclear how much she repents of besides her curse. Evil Maleficent in this film is a powerful, disturbing, and dominating force. Good Maleficent pales in comparison, and the delineation between good Maleficent and evil Maleficent is far too cloudy.

    Finally, as to Tolkien’s points: First, I suppose you could say that this fairy tale takes place in a genuinely secondary world, in that exists apart from the real one, but it is an imperfectly realized secondary world at best. The presence of some clumsy political overtones make it all too reminiscent of this world. It’s also a somewhat incoherent world, hardly to be compared with Tolkien’s completely realized reality with its fully developed structure. It also can’t be compared to Rowling, who, while not Tolkien, presents a fully realized and fully coherent world. As far as inspiring belief in the watcher, well, that’s a matter of how you take it, but aside from a few moving moments with Jolie, I found it improbable and clumsy, and really occasionally ludicrous.

    When I first read Rowling, I was interested in seeing if the magic was as dangerous as some said. I found it wasn’t dangerous at all, precisely because, as an excellent First Things piece and as this writer state, magic is not occult in Harry Potter; it is scientific. It’s a neutral thing, much as science is, that can be used for good or ill. Magic in Tolkien has some scientific aspects, like Harry Potter – a ring can be created for good; a ring can be created for evil. It also has a certain association with divine and demonic supernatural power, with the ultimate edge clearly given to the divine. The power of the elves in Tolkien is implicitly Christian. It’s a kind of inherent grace. I would not call Maleficent’s magic occult – it is, as the writer states, inherent – but it is used for both good and evil, at times quite disturbingly so, and with an insufficiently clear delineation between the two.

    Long story short, I think the movie is artistically weak if not a failure, and more importantly, if we’re considering films to form the moral imagination of children, this one should not be on the list.

  7. It’s not a direct reply to this or the original post concerning this movie, but a “goes with” comment concerning the point said of recent movies harkening back to better character development and strong fairy story hero building and virtue-based story: On the Edge of Tomorrow. You have Tom Cruise, who is usually a hero from beginning to end, start the movie as a weak, quick talking coward. But by the end his quality is tested and improved, so much so that he is willing to engage in the ultimate action of love: sacrifice.

    The “romance” is not a mushy additive, but a developed appreciation of the virtue, tenderness, quality, and character of the other person. There is little to no obscenities, and NO sexual scenes. One innuendo is referenced and there is a shot of Emily Blunt exercising that makes the viewer look at her because of her beauty. Everything about this movie is great: good vs. bad, deciding to make decision to save others, deciding not to give up, deciding to protect, to serve, to learn, to grow, to save the day. it is a movie that does not disappoint.

    I was utterly disgusted that the cynical, teen-angst drama, Fault in our Stars outshone this truly dazzlingly movie.

    I would love to read an article that goes into the depths of incorrect reasoning and logic titled The Fault in John Green, or The Fault with our Teens. The books was terrible in its points, but well-written, which is more than can be said of Divergent – but, I digress.

    Thanks for sharing a different perspective on Maleficent. Our family doesn’t support Disney as best we can, but it’s nice to know there may be a shift in Hollywood.

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