I watched Maleficent. If you haven’t watched it then stop reading now. Seriously. Stop because I am about to unload two piles of spoiler filled mad on this movie. The first consists of its merits as a movie. The second consists of the thematic elements that made me want to throw my popcorn at the screen and my head at a wall in a way few movies have lately. I saw this philosophical facepalm days ago and I am still a bit pissed.
Point One to get the boulder rolling. Movie Review. Maleficent is the Sleeping Beauty tale as told from the titular villain’s point of view. Angelina Jolie was, for the most part, very good in this role. She hit her best strides as Maleficent at her villainous peak. She delivered some very good lines and looked the part. Good stuff. She was weakest when Maleficent was the cliché fairy flying about the magic land of blah blah blah. I’m not slamming those parts per se. I went to the movie to see one of my favorite childhood villains, if you get me. The effects were pretty good, as were the creature designs. Sharito Copely as King Stefan was a complete waste of screen time, unless of course he was directed to play a weak predictable abusive cliché psychopath drama-queen with no redeeming qualities at all - opposite of everything King Stefan was in the original Disney telling. He’s the reason Maleficent turned dark and evil in case you missed my subtle hint. Elle Fanning as Aurora wasn’t bad. What at first seems over the top acting makes sense given her character was magically altered as an infant to feel happy all the time. Think about that. She was not the person she was born to be. She was changed by magic into a something not quite human. Perhaps that was for the best considering she was entrusted to the care of three non-humans who lacked of any real idea of how humans work, or seemingly any desire to learn. Aurora mentions in passing a time the fairy trio tried to feed her spiders. Another awesome choice by the aforementioned King, yes?
Where was the Queen, you ask? The woman who carried and birthed Aurora was of no importance to the film or any of the characters. Zip. Zero. None. Forced to lose her only child (at which point she disappears entirely from the film), married to a crazy abusive husband, and doomed to live out her days alone until illness ushers her into the mercifully arms of death off screen. The queen, in my opinion, is the real victim in this tale.
Here’s where the movie started disappointing me. I kept hoping for a sudden twist revealing we were being sold a bill of goods; that the story from Maleficent’s view point was nothing but a lie weaved by the Arch Villainess year after year to devastating effect in her plot to take over Stefan’s kingdom. But no. She spends years caring from afar for a little girl fathered by her abusive first and only love. The caring bit made for a decent redemption vehicle but it was largely unneeded. The child was cursed to die by a very specific age in a very specific way that no power on Earth could stop. Throwing her off a cliff would not have killed her per the very plot event fueling half the movie. But why bring the story itself and logic into the story. If you are looking for the traditional tale brought to life then don’t bother seeing the film. The trailers lie. Per the new standard, they are far more evil than Maleficent ever was. Keep reading.
Point Two. Thematic Elements. What the hell is with reworking villains or monsters into little more than victims lacking coping skills? Can we think of nothing better than taking established tales and giving them the ‘bad is good and good is bad’ Opposite Day treatment? Retelling a story from the view point of the villain can be interesting and thought provoking when done right. It was not done right here, it rarely is. I blame the popularity of John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel for a lot of this. Grendel is the Beowulf tale as told by the misunderstood Grendel monster. It drank deep from the well of the late 60’s. It is deeply stacked ’Who am I?’ angst, anti-establishment, and anti-authority wrapped around a vein of existentialism. You can view this yourself in the 2007 film Beowulf. Also an Angelina Jolie film, interestingly enough. Grendel’s attacks on Hrothgar’s hall result largely in part from his sensitive hearing. (Should have called him Grinch, not Grendel.) He’s also the bastard child of the king so there’s the rejected child angle, as well. Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. “Incrediboy” becomes murderous Syndrome. Jason Voorhees becomes, er, Jason Voorhees. At least Anakin became more likeable.
Evil is birthed from circumstance. No one is truly bad. They are only victims. Perhaps then King Stefan is merely misunderstood. Maybe he has a story justifying his actions. I can only assume something bad must have happened to him in that barn he was living in as an orphaned child. Evil is made, remember. Think about the message that sends. It pushes aside the responsibilities of choice, civility, adaptation, and perseverance from the individual. Reducing villains/monsters and their actions to the status of a misunderstood victim is paramount to declaring the world is evil. Evil because it lets bad things happen that turn people evil against their will or choice from which they are powerless to change. Life is twisted into a blind dealer of injustice (real or perceived) which grants the victim the implied sanction to act in any manner he or she wishes. I was hurt, therefore I can and will hurt others becomes the norm. Watch the news and try to tell me this narrative does not already have roots.
Pruning the concept of evil from the landscape of ideas has another awful side effect. Take away villains and monsters and you take away heroes. Joseph Campbell’s work on the Hero’s Journey is top notch. Please read it! Put simply: the journey is a voluntary transformative event enabling growth in strength and wisdom in order for the hero to overcome an initially stronger and deadlier threat. Removing obstacles and threats removes the need for growth and change. Remember that, because all too often in daily life these challenges are internal. A hero sometimes is that man or woman who fights the monster within themselves. Evil doesn’t always wear a hockey mask. The more often evil is renamed or excused away in all its forms, the less important or necessary it is to fight it. It’s all relative, right? “My behavior isn’t so bad. I’m only human. Who are you to judge me?” Why struggle to bring forth the best in you when society’s bar is set so low becomes the question. On cynical days I wonder if this trend is not on purpose, this lowering of the bar. Evil is easy. Good requires work because you don’t get whatever you want to, like a spoiled two-year old. Humans need examples of great Evil and great Good. They help us learn what to avoid and what to emulate.
Conscious, active, and willing evil is real and no amount of smearing the moral color pallet into a dull grey stain will make it go away. There isn’t always another side of the story. Some humans are simply bad as proven by their actions. And we need to stay alert for them. The majority of us, though, are on a path. We have choices. We can choose right from wrong, good from bad, but only if we know what those words mean and how they shape us.