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The Maleficent Gospel | A Theological Reflection on Disney’s Maleficent

MaleficentDisney did it again. They made a movie that excited me both artistically and theologically. Disney’s Maleficent is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale that has inspired me to write a review in a similar way that I felt compelled to write a review of Frozen.

Maleficent captivated me in three areas of my passions: as a visual artist/animator, as a storyteller, and as a theologian. I will comment briefly on the first two categories, but my main purpose for this review is to reflect on some key theological themes that this movie touches upon that, I believe, are necessary for our world.

First, let’s geek out about the artistry of this movie. It is not a musical, so all the parents across the country can rest assured that your children will not be repeating the music ad nauseam as they twirl  around your living room. In fact, I would not recommend bringing small children to this film. It is pretty dark in places. This is a well told story rich with breathtaking, realistic animation seamlessly integrated with live action.

SPOILER ALERT!!! If you have not seen the movie, don’t continue reading. I have to give away the ending in order to reflect on the themes I want to engage. Go watch the movie, then come back and compare your thoughts with mine.

Did you see it? Good. Let’s continue…

The animation was amazing. The ability for film makers to seamlessly integrate fully animated characters with live action characters has unleashed the storytelling possibilities for film makers with a budget big enough to hire the army of animators needed to make this happen. Disney can do it, and they do it well.

The magical creatures of the Moors are a wonderful cast of earthy characters that live in harmony with the natural habitat. They are not cute, fuzzy-bunny characters, but, in my opinion, represent the actual slimy, prickly, furry, lumpy, warty creatures that inhabit the forest. Maleficent is especially magnificent as she represents the strength of an eagle and the grace of a wood nymph.

The storytelling was equally well-crafted. It is actually a slow-paced movie, which I found refreshing. I love the way they have expanded the story of Sleeping Beauty to show the broader context of the world that framed the tragic events of Aurora’s curse. It was fascinating to watch the storytellers merge the back story with the beloved original Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. There were enough twists and turns in the plot that even I was duped until the very end. By the very end, I don’t mean the fact that Maleficent was true love’s kiss (I’ll get to that in a moment). Rather, I mean the voice of the narrator. They did such a good job of making you think that Maleficent was telling the story that I was pleasantly twisted when we find that Aurora is telling the story all along. That makes the whole story even better!

OK. Enough about the art. Let’s get to the theology.

(Quick note…it gets a little confusing when the movie is titled with the same word as the name of the main character. So, when I am referring to the movie as a whole I will say “it” or “the movie.” When I am referring to the character, I will name her: Maleficent.)

I have no idea from what theological perspective the creators of this film view the world, nor do I assume that they think in overtly theological terms when creating films. They are simply making good, entertaining art. I am a Christian theologian, so I see everything through Christian, theological lenses. Forgive me, I can’t help it! Whether the creators intended it to or not, the movie presents some theological themes that are very helpful for our current cultural situation.

A New View of the World

I love the way the movie reframes the classic fairy tale and our notions of how the world works. (see more about frames and reframing here) It blurs the lines between good and evil, right and wrong, and, more importantly, who—or what—is the real villain in the story. Some of my theologian counterparts may see this as a terrible heresy, a sign of the apocalypse, and further evidence that Disney is the Devil. I, however, do not agree. I believe it is a necessary corrective to the destructive powers of the modern era.1 Part of our task as late/postmodern theologians is to reimagine a more integrated, holistic universe, in which God is actively present, bringing all things into God’s promised and preferred peace. This movie gives us some helpful analogies to discuss the contrast between the modern and late/postmodern worldviews.

The Modern Tale

The original Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was made in the mid-twentieth century and was built upon the foundation of rationalism and a dualistic universe.2 The modern worldview believed the world was divided between good and evil, period. It was a black and white universe with no shades of gray. Maleficent was evil. That’s it. She wasn’t a person, she was evil. She cursed Aurora because Maleficent hated goodness and beauty and wanted nothing more than to make everyone miserable. She was the devil and she needed to be eradicated, without question. Philip was good. He wasn’t really a person either. He was simply the vessel for true love’s kiss. The characters were flat. They lived on opposite sides of the dualism, and the solution—or Gospel—was a simplistic, quick fix. (more on that later)

The Postmodern Tale

The new version of Sleeping Beauty, portrayed in this movie, paints the tale in a postmodern tone. The movie begins by contrasting two realms that exist side by side. The first is the realm of the humans that is ruled by a king and looks much like any typical feudal state in Medieval Europe (the inhabitants, oddly, have Scottish accents). The second is the realm of the Moors. This is a magical place that is integrated and holistic. Everyone and everything lives in harmony in the Moors. They trust each other and need no king or queen to rule over them. The creatures are wonderfully diverse and there is no clear dividing line between animate and inanimate objects. All things are living creatures and intrinsically related to each other.

Some critics may see this to be yet another form of dualism, but one that favors the “liberal agenda” of Hollywood this time. There is the “good” world of eco-friendly fair-folk on the one side, and the “bad” world of power-hungry white guys on the other. I don’t see it that way. I believe the contrast between the Moors and the human kingdom presents a helpful way to explore what Charles Taylor calls the buffered self of modernity. Taylor says the modern man believes he is a separate, detached observer of the physical universe, and therefore is “buffered” from the mysterious and “enchanted” world that cannot be explained through empirical observation and the scientific method. This leads the modern man to navigate life through violent power struggles and the belief that “might makes right.”

The humans in the movie represent the “buffered self” and see the world through the old, modern, dualistic lens. The king believes that the magic of the Moors is automatically evil (because he doesn’t understand it), and that the only thing worthwhile about the Moors is its natural resources. He orders the men to hunt down Maleficent and destroy the Moors.

The Moors represents the enchanted world of premodern times. It also represents a very different picture of the world that, in my opinion, is more true to the complexity and interdependent nature of the universe as God has created and is continually creating it.3 Taylor would call this the “porous self” that is open to and integrated with its environment.

There is a tension in our current culture between philosophies that are driven by science and rationalism–the buffered self–and those that are driven by emotionalism/spirituality–the porous self.4 This is not a dualism of right and wrong however, like that of the modern world. Nor is it a dualism of two separate substances and completely different realities. Rather, it is a continuum of two equally valuable aspects of reality that are interconnected.

The proposal that the movie is not presenting an alternate dualism is evident in the fact that there is good and evil in both realms. The young Stefan begins good and softens the young Maleficent’s prejudice against humans. Stefan and Maleficent bridge the two realms with their friendship and eventual romance. There is good in both realms that is found in their coming together. Then, the power of greed overtakes Stefan and he betrays Maleficent by stripping her of her majestic wings (a symbolic rape) and leaving her violated and betrayed. She now has “the knowledge of good and evil”5 and it grows a root of bitterness in her heart that overtakes her and plunges the Moors into a season of darkness.

Evil has spread to both realms. It is the destructive force of greed and power in the human realm and the power of bitterness and vengeance in the Moors. Both forms of evil plunge both realms into a season of darkness that drives a seemingly impenetrable wedge between them.

A New View of Salvation

Eros Dethroned

One thing that has always bugged me about the original, modern telling of fairy tales is that one simple kiss on the lips from a man to a woman was what it took to break the curse of evil. Really? Two people meet in the woods, have a dance, and call it true love? Seriously? That is the biggest bag of lies we could possibly sell to our children. This movie wonderfully addresses that fallacy. I absolutely love the scene when the fairies push Philip to kiss Aurora and he says, “But, I barely know her.” I almost wanted to shout, “Amen!” right there in the theater. Of course, his kiss fails, and, to the modern romantic,6 all seems lost.

Why did we try to sell that bag of lies in the 20th century? I believe it is because the modern world of the “buffered self” had no room for anything “supernatural”, thus had no room for God’s love in it. In the Greek language, in which the New Testament was written, there were four words for love. Two of them are important for this discussion. The love of God is the word agape. It is a selfless love that transcends the natural human ability to love and is a sign that a “supernatural”7 force is at work in a human’s life. The word for romantic love between humans is eros. It is where we get the word erotic in our language. When the modern, buffered world exiled agape (because the supernatural doesn’t exist, remember), the only love left to save us was eros. This god of erotic love was placed on God’s throne and lauded as our only salvation.

How did that work for us in the modern era? Did Eros save us? I don’t think so. Our sexuality is whacked because of it. We human beings run to each other’s arms for salvation, and find ourselves disappointed again and again. When “traditional” marriage didn’t work—as evidenced by soaring divorce rates and a new generation who has practically abandoned institutional marriage altogether—we moved to alternative forms of eros, desperately looking for salvation through eros/love. The more we misuse eros, the less meaning it has, and the more lost we feel.8

Agape Restored

This movie gives us a glimpse at what true love really is. It is not the love of boys and girls symbolized by a kiss on the lips. It is the deep, deep, self-giving, parent-like love that is voiced by a promise of eternal faithfulness and symbolized by a kiss on the forehead. When Maleficent bent down and kissed Aurora on the forehead it brought me to tears. There it is, I thought. There is agape creeping its way back into mainstream culture.

Let me make the theological move here. This has to do with our understanding of salvation and what we mean by the Gospel (Good News). We need to make an important distinction about modern eros and agape. It has to do with direction and complexity.

First of all, let’s talk about direction. In the modern version of salvation it was a simplistic, one directional transaction.9 Humans are cursed and asleep. The personified evil must be destroyed. The only thing that can save the sleeping beauty (sinful humans) is the kiss of a hero who is basically a stranger who swoops in and saves the day. That is how we have perceived the work of God, through Jesus, in the sinful world. It is one-directional from the pure agency of Jesus giving the eros kiss to the completely helpless sleeping beauty and then violently destroying the evil Maleficent.

I think this movie depicts a more accurate picture of agape as its works out our salvation in the world in a multi-directional, complex way. Evil has corrupted everything, but hope still persists. The King is consumed by selfishness. Maleficent is consumed by bitterness and vengeance. Aurora is consumed and victimized by the curse that she didn’t bring on herself (a tragic image of the millions of suffering children today, by the way). Maleficent received her salvation slowly by observing the innocent love of the human child of her enemy.10 Maleficent was convicted of her sin and tried to undo the curse in her own power and couldn’t do it. When she stood next to the sleeping beauty, Maleficent was fully aware that it was her own selfish, sinful, destructive attitude and behavior that caused this pain. She was broken and repentant. She was saved from it by admitting it and letting it go. Then, in a selfless act of faithfulness to Aurora she demonstrated true love, and that agape kiss saved Aurora. This is not a one-directional kiss of a hero to a helpless victim. Nor is it a one-time act of salvation. This is the circular-flowing, life-giving power of God’s love—agape—healing people from the inside out, as they realize their destructive behavior, repent, and reach out to each other in forgiveness and reconciliation in an ongoing, unfolding manner.

The sad thing is that it doesn’t work for everyone. Maleficent tried to reconcile with Stefan—the one person who deserved to be punished. She even repented of her need for vengeance on his heinous crime against her. He would not receive her forgiveness and ultimately destroyed himself.

The Gospel and salvation is far more complex than the modern church has tried to make it. We live in a complex, interwoven, porous world where sinful, selfish attitudes and behaviors have corrupted all of us. Evil does not reside in a being, or a nation, or a religion, or a group of people. There is not an “us and them” in God’s world. Evil is everywhere and we all need salvation. Salvation is not just a quick-fix, where we say a prayer, let the shining hero kiss us on the lips, and we live happily ever after in another place. Salvation is difficult. It is only possible through agape. It was demonstrated through Jesus’ selfless death on the cross and his forgiveness to those who murdered him. The power of his resurrection gives us hope that there is new life. When God’s love circulates through the world—through the power of the Holy Spirit—and everyone realizes how culpable we all are for the curses we have placed on each other, then, perhaps, we can release our pride, admit our faults, and reach out in selfless love to each other, through God’s power, not ours.

Final Thought

Again, I have no idea what the movie makers intended. It is just a movie and I’m sure that I have created as many logical problems as I have addressed in this short reflection. Regardless, I enjoyed this movie and thank the creators for giving me another opportunity to reflect on God’s amazing love for this wonderfully complex and porous world in which we live. May we all dwell in agape and join Maleficent in her path of salvation.

  1. note that I said the destructive powers of the modern era, not the modern era as a whole. Many good and wonderful things came as a result of modernity. It would be foolish to paint in such broad strokes. []
  2. see my historical review of how we got to this point here. []
  3. the theological term for this is relational ontology, or the fact that the very essence of our being is that all things are first connected in relationship, and then, through the relationship our individual selves are recognized []
  4. for a fun read that explores this tension, check out Neil Gaiman’s Interworlds []
  5. I believe this is what is meant by the phrase in Genesis 2-3. When Adam and Eve lied to God and each other they now had the first hand, experiential knowledge that they were capable of betrayal. That knowledge led to fear. Fear leads to paranoia, hatred, self-protection, violence, war, famine, poverty, and death. []
  6. I have slipped in the term “romantic” here. Romanticism was the reaction to rationalism that sought to find meaning through the subjective pursuit of knowledge. This is simply the other side of the modernist coin that gave rise to the god Eros. []
  7. I place the term supernatural in quotation marks because the modern thinker did not believe there was anything outside of the natural world. This was a substance dualism that simply denied the existence of the other substance. []
  8. This sparks a completely different conversation regarding the healthy use of eros. Erotic love is a gift from God, intended to bind humans together in a bodily/spiritual way. But, it is not our salvation, nor is it the end-all of our existence. Maybe I’ll write about that another day. []
  9. I was raised in a baptistic, fundamentalist tribe and this is the Gospel frame to which I am primarily referring. I realize that this was not everyone’s experience of the Gospel. It was mine and I think many, many Christians function within this frame today. []
  10. Notice how Maleficent’s prejudice is challenged, yet again, by the behavior of her enemy that does not fit her view of reality []

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