I 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.
The 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.
In 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.