Monday, June 30, 2014

Disney's "Maleficent" in Allegorical Analysis

Note: this post contains major spoilers (in fact, it gives away the entire plot of the movie).  It is not meant to be a review that estimates the entertainment value of the movie, but an analysis and critique.  So don't read this to find out if you should see the movie; go see it, and then read the post.  Also, I need to give credit where credit is due...some of these insights were first developed by my mother while we were talking about the movie.  Thanks, Mom!

               I finally saw Disney's Maleficent last week, and was glad I did.  It wasn't the best movie I have seen recently, but it provided plenty of food for thought.  I had recently heard part of an interview on Issues Etc. where Pastor Ted Giese claimed that the movie, while borrowing "Christian capital" from the original source material, failed to build on that capital in the tradition of the Christian worldview.  Despite my great respect for Issues Etc., I'm typically skeptical of worldview-based movie reviews (which often seem to miss the point), so I went into the movie deliberately thinking about symbolism, worldview, metaphor, and plot archetypes in order to see for myself what the movie was really trying to say.
               As it turned out, I found Maleficent to be heavily influenced by the Christian narrative (whether consciously or subconsciously), and probably more of that narrative in Maleficent than in its source material.  The entire movie is elaborately symbolic of redemptive history and the atonement, even incorporating Trinitarian symbolism into its story. 
               Consider the parallels between the plot of Maleficent and the Biblical salvation narrative.  Maleficent, a powerful fairy and defender of the moor ("Faerie"; "the perilous land" according to Tolkien) forms a relationship with a boy (Stefan) from the neighboring human kingdom.  But as the boy grows older, he is captured by lust for power and gain and eventually betrays Maleficent when the king promises to make him his heir in return.  This is the "Fall" in Maleficent, quite similar to the narrative in Genesis 3 in which Satan beguiles Adam and Eve to betray their faithfulness to God with the promise of knowledge and power, saying "You shall be as gods."  This action provokes Maleficent to anger, bringing her curse upon the whole land and her wrath upon Stefan and his whole family, just as Adam's sin provoked God to curse all of mankind as well as His whole creation, as Paul writes, "For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now."
               As in the original story, Maleficent curses Stefan's (now the King) daughter to fall into a deep sleep after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel, and Stefan sends his daughter, Aurora, to be cared for by three fairies in the woods.  But the twist in the story comes when Maleficent actually grows to care for the child and takes her into the moor with her.  Aurora grows attached to her godmother and Maleficent comes to love the princess, who spends all her time in the moor and plans to live there permanently. 
               But when Aurora finds out about the curse, she ventures out of the moor into the King's castle, paralleling the incarnation, for although the princess obviously originated in the human realm, she had since become practically a daughter to Maleficent and a creature of the moor.  The curse is fulfilled, and Aurora falls into a "sleep like death."  Maleficent is grieved, and repents of her act of vengeance.  Her wrath has been poured out upon her god-daughter and her desire for vengeance is gone.
               The allusions to Penal Substitutionary Atonement in this section of the story are obvious, as are the Gnostic overtones to the narrative; it portrays Maleficent, a figure of God, as doing wrong in her anger, and Aurora as the example of good and love, similarly to the way in which heretics like Marcion portrayed the relationship of the God of the Old Testament to the God of the New.  But this, frankly, is to be expected in any human story that echoes the Christian narrative; because the characters are human, it would be unrealistic to portray them as perfect, even when they symbolize a divine figure in the context of the story.  In the movie Thor, for example, (SPOILER ALERT), the need for the hero to change and overcome his arrogance (as opposed to Jesus' sinless nature) does not diminish his status as a Christ figure at the end of the film (END SPOILERS).  Similarly, it is murdering the metaphor in Maleficent to gripe about the heresies it would imply if taken literally.
               The point is that we are still left with a storyline that eerily resembles the Christian redemption narrative; Stephan's sin provokes Maleficent's wrath, and Maleficent's metaphorical daughter, Aurora, takes the wrath of Maleficent upon herself in her symbolic death, making atonement for the wounded land.  When Maleficent finds Aurora unconscious, she repents of her wrath, is grieved, and kisses the princess goodbye, but "true love's kiss" awakens Aurora, just as God, having forsaken His Son on the cross, also raised Him up in love after He had atoned for all sin.
               Clearly, Aurora is the Christ figure in this story, while Maleficent represents God the Father.  Diaval, the shape-shifting raven who becomes Maleficent's "wings," could furthermore be said to represent the Holy Spirit (who is often symbolized by a bird and even appears in the form of a dove at Jesus' baptism) in that he carries out the work of Maleficent among men just as the Holy Spirit carries out the work of God among His church.  At the end of the movie, Aurora, having "risen," is exalted by Maleficent as queen of the whole realm.  Maleficent lifts the curse and the human and fairy kingdoms are united under the reign of Aurora.  Thus, the redemptive narrative of Maleficent is complete - except for one thing.
               This particular flaw in the plot falls between Aurora's "resurrection" and the subsequent happy ending.  When Maleficent and Aurora attempt to escape the castle, Stefan traps Maleficent and a battle scene ensues in which Stefan and his men attack the fairy.  The tide of the battle turns when Maleficent regains her wings (assisted by Aurora who releases them from their captivity), but Stefan presses the assault and is eventually killed.  Although Maleficent does not kill him in malice but causes his death in self-defense, which justifies her actions, the problem with this scene is not its ethical message but its place in the context of the story.
               Stefan, as a figure of Adam, is the one who falls into sin, betraying Maleficent and provoking her curse.  However, this metaphor falls apart when, instead of being redeemed, Stefan is killed at the end of the movie.  Whereas the story arc, having completed the allegorical atonement, should have ended with the redemption of the original offender, it inexplicably leaves him out of the redemptive ending.  Now, I'm not one to demand that every story containing an atonement metaphor follow it precisely the way it is described in Scripture.  That would not be fair on my part.  However, there are specific aspects of Maleficent that seem to demand Stefan's redemption, as follows:
               1.  One could justify Stefan's death with an appeal to justice, but justice has been done already, both externally with Maleficent's curse and internally with Stefan's obvious agony over his sin.
               2.  One could describe Stefan as typical of Satan rather than Adam, but, besides throwing a wrench in the allegory, it also runs contrary to what the audience naturally longs for and to how they perceive Stefan's character.  I mean, did anyone really want that cute little boy at the beginning of the movie to die a violent death?
               3.  If Maleficent has truly repented of her vengeful ways, and if her anger has truly been satisfied and swept away by love for Aurora, then it makes much more sense for her to forgive Stefan than to kill him.  Of course, she causes his death in self-defense only, but once Maleficent has relented of her anger, it only makes sense for the change in her to be played out in her relationship with Stefan.
               4.  Despite being the ultimate antagonist of the story, by the end of the movie Stefan comes across less as an evil villain and more as a pathetic character, driven quite literally to insanity by anger and repressed remorse for his deeds.  A pathetic character like Stefan begs to be redeemed, not to be killed.  And, while we're at it, his character is interesting and should have been developed more anyway.
               Finally, I simply believe that the story would have been much more powerful had Maleficent forgiven Stefan at the end and had Stefan been redeemed.  The death of Stefan is a letdown, in my opinion, and a rather anti-climatic ending to the story.  The arc of the plot absolutely begs to be fulfilled with an act of pure grace on Maleficent's part, an act that would seal her transformation and bring the entire movie full circle to the metaphorical "Eden" at the beginning.  Without Stefan's redemption, the ultimate resolution of the movie seems empty.  Even more powerful would have been a scenario in which Maleficent had Stefan at her mercy and Aurora stepped between them, interceding on her father's behalf and prompting her godmother's forgiveness, followed by Stefan and Maleficent both bestowing her with the crown of their respective kingdoms.  This would have further solidified Aurora's redemptive and Christ-like role in the story, emphasized her queen-ship (and the unification of the kingdoms) to a greater degree, and transformed Maleficent from a good but somewhat predictable and anti-climatic movie into a classic of fairy-tale adaptation.

1 comment:

  1. The ending ruined it for me. I don't believe Maleficent acted in self defense. When she had Stefan by the throat, she could have ended the madness, but she chose to throw him over the wall. She killed the father of the girl who melted her heart. Blah!

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