I saw the Maleficent sequel yesterday and loved it. At several points in it, John 15:13 came to mind: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Assume spoilers for this blog post, since I will talk about plot twists. The story has many angles to it, chief among them that our choices define us. Our words matter less than our actions. Though at different points, Maleficent and Aurora have harsh words for the other, their ultimate actions and choices define them as “heroines.” Aurora has the power to convince Maleficent to forsake vengeance for forgiveness, because she affirms her adopted mother by saying, “This is not who you are.” It reminded me of a similar scene in Disney’s Moana, when the heroine approaches the volcano goddess, tells her the same, and restores her “heart.” She morphs back into the earth goddess, revealing the restoration of her heart to be the center of her goodness. Aurora does the same for Maleficent. She has so much hope, love, and conviction in her belief in her innocence and inner goodness, despite the havoc Maleficent is wreaking, that she can transform rage into love. This is a visual embodiment of the power of divine love and restoring grace.
Aurora is not perfect. She tries too hard to conform to “the world”—she leaves the Moors, enters the castle, and tries to please her prospective mother-in-law. But she feels guilt and shame for not being true to herself. “It feels like I am losing who I am,” she tells Philip. This tight-laced, obedient and compliant girl is not the Queen of the Moors. She turns her back on Maleficent, she shames her (by asking her to hide her horns, to make Philip’s parents “more comfortable”), and she believes the worst of her, with no proof other than others’ accusations.
This reminded me, very much, of the struggle young people face, in maturing and going out into a world determined to shape them into something else, to convince them to give up the virtues their parents instilled in them. It can ask them to give up their sobriety, virginity, or belief system. But as Aurora found out, there is a hollowness in turning you back on what you hold most dear. Fortunately, she redeems herself by being true to herself, loyal to her mother, and still playing the role of a would-be-queen.
The themes of anger and resentment are strong; Maleficent and Ingrith are bitter about the wrongs done to them by “the other side.” Ingrith hates the fey and wants all of them dead, because she believes they profit off human suffering. Because human soldiers raid the Moors and carry off faeries to experiment upon, Maleficent assumes the humans are antagonistic toward the fey and intend to kill them. She is not far wrong, but must decide (again, our choices define us) between the way of violence and peace. All the heroes in the story are peacemakers who want to find reconciliation, tolerance, and unity between the Moors and the mortals.
One could say the Dark Fey attempting to influence her, are symbolic of the angel and demon mythology—the idea that everyone has two voices over each shoulder, one that prompts them to do good, and the other that urges them to do evil. In this story, one of them is a voice of reason and goodness, the other wants to use the missing fey folk as an excuse to attack humans.
I realize the filmmakers intended this as a barb at nationalism in favor of globalism, but it is close to Jesus’ suggestion we act as the mediators and peacemakers in an increasingly hostile world. Emotions are running so high about everything from gay rights to inclusivity to politics, the world could use a few more wise, tolerant believers to find common ground and promote harmony.
The film also addresses forgiveness and illustrates why God said not to let the sun go down on our wrath; when we hold on to hatred and bitterness, we not only harm others but also ourselves. Forgiveness is as much about the person offering it, as the recipient—after all, the recipient may not ask for it. It is a gift you give yourself, the ability to move on free of the weight of resentment. Anger often turns to violence, as we see throughout the stories in the Old Testament, and humans are good at justifying attempting to kill off “lesser” individuals. In a harrowing scene reminiscent of the gas chambers in the Holocaust, the villain tries to do just that to the faeries.
And that leads us to the final, most powerful illustration in the story; there is no greater love than to sacrifice your life for your friends. Fey do this repeatedly, to protect each other and Aurora. A tree creature sacrifices himself to protect Aurora’s fairy godmothers; a fairy bids her friends farewell and sacrifices herself, to stop the spread of poison; a Dark Fey takes an arrow for Maleficent, and finally (SPOILER) she takes an arrow for Aurora. She disintegrates into ash, breaking her daughter’s heart… and then, literally, rises like a phoenix from the ashes. In sacrificing her life, she defies death.
Sound like anyone Christians know and love?
Though Hollywood screenwriters have their own reasons for framing stories as they do, there’s often a deeper element at work in fantasy stories. The tropes they indulge in, of heroism, courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice, come from our deep convictions about goodness. I believe “all truth comes from God,” no matter what the packaging.