Why Maleficent is Morally Boring (and other spoilers)

I’m certainly glad I saw Maleficent in 3D in the theater. It allowed me to enjoy the best of what the movie has to offer; the visuals were enchanting. But otherwise, the movie is a bore. In particular, there was nothing morally compelling in the film, no ethical tension and therefore, no real plot to speak of.

Let’s start with the premise: The bad guy is actually the good guy or has good reasons for becoming so bad. In the post Severus Snape universe, this is not just a well recognized plot twist, it’s a tired one. What makes this reiteration particularly tiresome is that the narrative doesn’t extend the kindness of ambivalence to the other main character, Stefan. We meet him as a young boy, caught in the act of stealing. The narrative offers no moment of counter point to suggest that his character is other than avaricious. The ring flinging in the next scene doesn’t directly contrast (the ring belongs to Stefan) and is therefore ineffective. Additionally, when Stefan discovers that he can’t kill Maleficent to secure the crown, the moment of indecision is not depicted as internal conflict, but rather cowardice. Any regret he may have about maiming Maleficent is not sustained for longer than a scene. By the time Maleficent confronts him at the christening, Stefan is affronted by rather than (even slightly) apologetic at her unlooked for appearance. By the end of the film, Stefan runs completely off the rails, plunging into an abyss of madness and revenge. Meanwhile, Maleficent giveth curses and taketh curses away, asking us to believe that she is an essentially good person in a particularly challenging circumstance. Paired with the unmitigated condemnation of Stefan, the movie is not able make her character register on the Severus Snape Character Conflict Scale. Not even a tremor.

Equally disappointing, the movie does not offer believable motivations for decisions of conscience. As mentioned above, Stefan’s initial act of thievery is never challenged by a contrasting act. In the whole friends-to-more-than-friends montage, we are not given a single reason why we should believe that Maleficent should particularly trust Stefan. The narrative doesn’t endorse his character in any way. In fact, it continually reminds us what a bad person he is. Seeming as Maleficent is presented as more than an empty headed fairy, it seems less than plausible that Stephen would be able to secure her affections so easily. Then there is the relationship between Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty, Aurora. When Maleficent curses the baby princess, she is consumed with anger and revenge. However, within a couple of scenes, she’s saving the dizzy toddler from diving off a cliff. I realize that, within the film, a couple of years pass between these two scenes, but the movie gives us not even an inkling as to why our hero turned villain is suddenly waxing heroic again. Not even a “I did that so my plans can come to fruition, but no not really, Diablo don’t look at me with those knowing beady eyes.” We’re just supposed to accept it as a matter of course.

Contributing to the lack of motivation, the character of Sleeping Beauty is stunningly underwritten. I suppose this is understandable given that Aurora’s traditional function is to serve as an object of rescue, but it’s a really bad move in a movie claiming to be a non-traditional retelling of a classic story. But as Maleficent indulges in a relationship with her (Why? Ummm, we don’t really know why), we are asked to believe that the delight of watching Auora pet fairies and coo at pixies is enough to convince Maleficent to not only attempt to lift the curse, but undertake a dangerous attempt to break it. Aurora is nice. Maybe nice was all Maleficent needed, but the movie can’t get away with asking us to believe that Maleficent is at once morally complicated enough to handle the bad/good tension and the kind of girl that falls for puppy videos.

Lastly (and this is less an ethical gripe) like everyone else, we are still detoxing from Frozen overload in my household. I did enjoy the movie and I found the act of true love reveal completely believable and refreshing. Maybe Maleficent was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it’s own attempt to critique “true love” came off like a copy. If anyone is glad we are moving on from the Prince Charming model, it’s me. But coupled with the tiredness of the plot “twist” and the general lack of motivation, it was really hard to believe that Maleficent and Aurora are headed to happily ever after. Or maybe it was easy to believe, but only because that’s what happens at this part in those kinds of stories. You know, the kind of stories Maleficent wants us to believe it is reshaping.

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