A different shade of evil: questions of ethics in Maleficent: this reimagining of one of Disney's most notorious fairytale villains asks us to reconsider the classic narrative dichotomy of good versus evil, facilitating important philosophical discussions in secondary classrooms

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Author: Adolfo Aranjuez
Date: Jan. 2015
From: Screen Education(Issue 76)
Publisher: Australian Teachers of Media
Document Type: Cover story
Length: 2,764 words
Lexile Measure: 1530L

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Notions such as love, truth and justice can prove difficult to define and explain, but it's nonetheless vital that individuals within a society--and even across societies--are able to grasp these concepts. According to cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, it is through narratives that we can communicate such complex ideas in a more universally understandable manner. (1) Similarly, philosopher Paul Ricoeur has posited that, when we engage with stories, we identify with characters' thoughts and actions, which act as 'models' for our behaviour and allow us to envisage new ways of thinking and acting. (2)

Fairytales, because of their familiar storylines and clearly defined characters, are especially effective at transmitting ethical ideas--and there are no better examples than Disney's film adaptations. But it's equally important that we equip students with the skills to evaluate such rigid notions of good and evil as those we see in Disney productions. This piece will explore the ethical ideas embedded in the recent film Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014) as a counterpoint to the 1959 film, Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi), on which it is based.


The fairytale behind Sleeping Beauty has had various incarnations--including versions by Giambattista Basile, published in 1634, and by the Brothers Grimm, published in 1812. (3) But it's the 1697 version by Charles Perrault that formed the basis for the Disney production. (4) In the film, a baby girl, Aurora (Mary Costa), is born to a king (Taylor Holmes) and queen (Verna Felton) who had long wished for a child of their own. In her honour, they hold a grand celebration attended by many--including three fairies who each wish to bestow a magical gift on the princess. Before the third fairy is able to give her gift, Maleficent (Eleanor Audley) arrives, disgruntled at not having received an invitation. When she learns that she deliberately wasn't invited, she inflicts a curse on Aurora, who, on her sixteenth birthday, 'shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die'. The third fairy then alleviates the curse so that it will take effect 'not in death but just in sleep' and can be broken by 'true love's kiss'. The rest of the animated film plays out in predictable fashion: the fairies raise Aurora in a cottage in the woods for her safety; Maleficent tracks the princess down anyway; Aurora pricks her finger and falls into a deep sleep; a prince named Phillip (Bill Shirley), whom she met in the forest, slays Maleficent; and he saves Aurora with true love's kiss.

Maleficent, a 'reimagining' (5) of Sleeping Beauty, fleshes out the backstory of the eponymous villain, played by Angelina Jolie. We learn that she was once a powerful winged fairy who watched over the other magical creatures living in the moors, and that she was betrayed by her childhood friend (and, later, lover), Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who eventually becomes king and the father of Aurora (Elle Fanning). The betrayal involves him 'drugging' her, cutting off her wings and bringing them to the incumbent king to prove his fitness for the throne. The film, therefore, focuses less on Maleficent's role as the harbinger of Aurora's curse and more on the figure who was '[d]riven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides'. (7) Although Aurora does feature prominently in the film, this iteration of the story presents her as an object of Maleficent's vengeance and, eventually, her affections. Maleficent curses the princess as well, with the fairies also raising her in a cottage to evade the villain. However, instead of the prince (Brenton Thwaites), it is Maleficent who saves Aurora with a kiss of motherly true love. In the end, Maleficent dispatches Stefan and crowns Aurora queen of both the human and magical kingdoms.


According to Jolie, who executive-produced the film, Maleficent is significant in that it allows viewers to 'learn more about [the titular character] and how she became evil'. (8) In this way, it follows in the footsteps of the play Wicked and the animated film Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee, 2013) as a text that reshapes a fairytale character we conventionally consider a villain. Most significantly, it throws into question the notion of evil as an immutable, inherent trait. In both the original and the reimagined story, Maleficent casts a curse on Aurora that causes her to fall into a deep sleep--an act we wouldn't hesitate to call 'evil'. But the circumstances in which the two curses are cast differ: whereas Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent casts the spell because she was not invited to the party (a seemingly self-indulgent and excessive act), the incarnation played by Jolie is given a more nuanced backstory that explains her vengeance.

In the scene immediately following the curse, the fairies in Sleeping Beauty discuss ways to counteract Maleficent's spell. One of them, Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen), suggests, 'She can't be all bad,' to which Flora (Verna Felton) responds, 'Oh, yes, she can!' From the outset, Maleficent is framed as a wholly evil character without any traits beyond being the antithesis of good. Later, Fauna elaborates on this characterisation: 'Maleficent doesn't know anything about love, or kindness, or the joy of helping others.' Other elements in the film bolster this depiction of Maleficent: she lives in The Forbidden Mountain, has a cohort of monstrous minions, and, upon the fulfilment of the curse, triumphantly calls herself 'the mistress of all evil'. In contrast, Aurora's father is referred to in voiceover as 'Good King Stefan', and Flora, Fauna and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy) as 'the three good fairies'. Together, these story elements paint a world where good and evil exist in stark opposition to each other, with characters falling neatly into either side of the dichotomy.

In Maleficent, however, the 'mistress of all evil' isn't simply one-dimensional; we see that the darkness in her personality has varying shades. Unlike her original incarnation, she doesn't curse the infant Aurora merely because she was excluded from a party; her revenge is rooted in her feelings of abandonment and betrayal, as her former friend and lover had chosen to hurt her in exchange for the crown. Of course, these factors don't mitigate the severity of her 'evil' act towards Aurora. But, in giving us the considerations that had informed her decision-making, Maleficent shifts its conception of evil from one that is intrinsic to a person and into something that is precipitated by events in a person's life. (9)

This more nuanced depiction of evil is even seen in the motif of the 'aura' that emanates from Maleficent's body whenever she uses magic. In both renditions of the story, her body emits a green aura upon cursing the infant Aurora, as well as during scenes in which she seeks to injure other characters. But in the 2014 film, we also see Maleficent emitting a gold aura--the magic she uses when we first meet her as a young fairy, in the early days of her relationship with Stefan and in the film's third act, when she has developed a fondness for Aurora. This visual representation alludes to Maleficent's internal transformations: she wavers between rage and vengeance (green) and loving calm (gold). The contrast between her two 'states' is most evident when she tries to undo her own spell against Aurora: green and gold auras collide--a visual representation of Maleficent's inner turmoil. In this way, the film emphasises that it is not Maleficent herself, but rather how she chooses to act, that is evil.


There has been a longstanding debate between 'ends ethics', which privileges the outcome of an action, and 'means ethics', which puts more value on how something is done over what it achieves. (10) Many events in the film pit means against ends, none more so than when Stefan procures Maleficent's wings for the king. The scene immediately raises questions about whether it's acceptable to use other people as 'tools' when we're doing so for (something we believe to be) a good result. But Stefan's overt preference for positive outcomes, without much consideration for the reasonability of his methods, can likewise be seen in his attempts to protect his daughter at all costs. First, he commands that the townsfolk's spinning wheels be destroyed, presumably without their consent. Then he 'entrust[s] the safety of the child to the magic of the pixies', seemingly disregarding how growing up apart from her biological parents could adversely affect Aurora. Most significantly, the film takes pains to show us how ill-equipped the fairies are to rear a human child--compelling us to consider whether Stefan knew this but didn't care, or had no evidence of the fairies' 'nannying' abilities yet left Aurora with them anyway. Safe or not, Aurora is later cornered into the unfavourable position of having to re-evaluate her idea of who she is and come to terms with her true parentage.

Interestingly, the fairies' incompetence impels Maleficent to secretly take care of Aurora with the help of her pet raven, Diaval (Sam Riley). But, at least initially, Maleficent only takes care of Aurora because she wishes to see her curse come to fruition. Unlike her counterpart in Sleeping Beauty, it's unclear whether this Maleficent wants to directly harm Aurora, or only does so indirectly to get back at her father. After casting the curse, the voiceover explains that Maleficent 'revelled in the sorrow that her curse had brought', yet, on finding Aurora in the cottage, Maleficent describes her as 'so ugly you could almost feel sorry for [her]'. Maleficent and Diaval feed her and put her to sleep, and on one occasion Maleficent saves Aurora from a deadly fall from a cliff. In this way, it is actually Maleficent who has safeguarded Aurora from harm. Notwithstanding her reasons for doing so, we are made to wonder whether this goes some way towards absolving her of her initial act of evil.

But perhaps the most important ethical issue that Maleficent raises is the nature of 'tit for tat', which it problematises through its vengeance-focused storyline. It has been argued that Maleficent is essentially a fairtyale spin on the rape-revenge subgenre, (11) in which a violated female protagonist seeks vengeance against her offender. Such a reading of the film resonates well with Maleficent's decision to take away something that Stefan holds dear in retribution for his breaking her heart and robbing her of flight. Yet, as with all films in this subgenre, the shaky foundations of revenge acts are highlighted in the suffering that characters--including the heroine herself--experience. 'Balance' may be restored when hurt is repaid with hurt, but do two wrongs make a right?


Fairytales about princesses sometimes involve a curse that can be broken when a Prince Charming character rescues her with true love's kiss--in the Disney canon, this includes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (William Cottrell et al., 1937) and The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements & John Musker, 1989). Even Shrek (Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson, 200l), which only riffs on fairytales, features a kiss, true love and a curse. This same formula is invoked in both Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent. But in the 2014 version, Maleficent adds a caveat that wasn't in her original curse: 'This curse will last till the end of time; no power on Earth can change it.' Later in the film, Maleficent also reveals that she specifically worded the curse that way because she believes true love doesn't exist--a hangover from her own experience of being spurned by her 'true love'. Yet, in the film's climax, Maleficent herself tries to save Aurora by bringing Prince Phillip to King Stefan's castle, where the princess lies in her 'death-sleep'. Maleficent's actions at this point in the narrative question how we conceive of fate: in attempting to save the princess, Maleficent takes the future in her own hands despite the spell being (to her knowledge) irreversible.

The film also interrogates the notion of true love. As Aurora was hidden away in the cottage, fiercely (if fumblingly) guarded by the three fairies, it is unlikely that she would have met anyone else--let alone her true love. And when she and Phillip stumble upon each other, Diaval and the fairies all assume that he is the foretold 'true love'. These scenes immediately play into our cultural understandings of 'love at first sight' and 'love that is meant to be' --but Maleficent demonstrates the naivety of these notions. In the bedchamber scene, after Maleficent has 'delivered' an unconscious Phillip to the castle, he awakens and says, 'This is where I'm meant to be,' immediately invoking the notion of fate. And when the fairies discover that he is a prince and that he has met Aurora, they immediately invite him to kiss her. Their enthusiasm--and desperation--implies that, where fairytales are concerned, it doesn't matter who the true love is; the meeting between princess and prince is bound to happen. And so, when Phillip fails, the fairies resolve to 'keep looking'--a statement that almost dismisses the authenticity of Aurora's so-called true love.


At the end of the bedchamber scene, Maleficent explains that Aurora 'stole what was left of [her] heart'; it is this declaration of affection, sealed with a kiss on Aurora's forehead, that ultimately saves the princess. Here, we see Maleficent as a truly multifaceted character--one who has experienced love and loss, who has lived for vengeance and regretted it, and who has learnt to care for another again. And in having the curser herself save the cursed, Maleficent demonstrates that it is we who are truly in charge of our destinies. Indeed, the film is a goldmine of material that can be used to teach students about good and evil, means and ends, and how these notions can themselves be problematic.


The Australian Curriculum places significant emphasis on the importance of general capabilities, which 'encompass the knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions that [...] will assist students to live and work successfully in the twenty-first century' and are 'addressed explicitly in the content of the learning areas'. (6)

In light of this, the themes outlined in this piece will need to be incorporated into or adapted for units in English or Humanities and Social Sciences (for example, as introductory lessons on philosophical ideas).

Relevant general capabilities include:

Critical and Creative Thinking

* Generating ideas, possibilities and actions

* Reflecting on thinking and processes

* Analysing, synthesising and evaluating reasoning and procedures

Personal and Social Capability

* Social awareness (especially Appreciate diverse perspectives')

* Social management (especially 'Negotiate and resolve conflict')

Ethical Understanding

* Understanding ethical concepts and issues

* Reasoning in decision making and actions

* Exploring values, rights and responsibilities (especially 'Consider points of view')

Adolfo Aranjuez is the editor of Metro. He has edited and written for a number of publications, worked with arts organisations and writers' festivals, and has degrees in media, philosophy, literature and education. Find him online at <http://www.adolfoaranjuez.com> and @adolfo_ae.


(1) Jerome Bruner, 'The Narrative Construction of Reality', Critical Inquiry, vol. 18, no. 1, Autumn 1991, pp. 1-21.

(2) Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1984.

(3) DL Ashliman (ed.), 'Sleeping Beauty', 2013, from Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts, University of Pittsburgh, <http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0410.html>, accessed 5 August 2014.

(4) Disney, 'Maleficent', press kit, pp. 2-3.

(5) ibid, p. 5.

(6) ACARA, 'General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum', <http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/GeneralCapabilities/Overview/general-capabilities-in-the-australian-curriculum>, accessed 7 August 2014.

(7) Disney, op. cit., p. 1.

(8) ibid, p. 6.

(9) It has been suggested that, in Maleficent, Stefan becomes the one-dimensionally evil villain. Devon Maloney, for example, argues that the king is 'a nuance-free caricature of bad [... who] never regrets his actions'; see Maloney, 'Maleficent and the Big Problem with Disney's Fairy Tale Reboots', Wired, 2 June 2014, <http://www.wired.com/2014/06/maleficent-fairy-tale-villains/>, accessed 7 July 2014. However, while Stefan indeed doesn't atone for his hurtful actions, nor does he show contrition at the film's conclusion, we are still offered valid (albeit selfish) bases for his actions--which thus frames evil as a product of choice rather than an uncontrollable inner force.

(10) For a primer on 'means ethics' (deontology) and 'ends ethics' (consequentialism), see Curtis Brown, 'Ethical Theories Compared', PHIL 1300: Introduction to Philosophy, Trinity University, <http://www.trinity.edu/cbrown/intro/ethical_theories.html>, accessed 10 August 2014.

(11) Monika Bartyzel, 'Girls on Film: Maleficent Is Less Progressive than 1959's Sleeping Beauty', The Week, 6 June 2014, <http://theweek.com/article/index/262679/girls-on-film-maleficent-i-less-progressive-than-1959s-sleeping-beauty#axzz34ATYF2dp>, accessed 9 August 2014.


[P] PRIMARY Foundation--Year 6



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Gale Document Number: GALE|A441157963