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Disney’s most iconic animated villain has returned to the big screen in a live-action fantasy that twists and soars as it fractures the original fairy tale upon which it’s based. At its simplest level Maleficent is an extended re-imagining of Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty (1959) with a focus on its well-known, dark-cloaked villain. However in presenting this alternative perspective, the live-action film dabbles in contemporary feminist, religious and ecological themes as it takes you through its fantasy world.

Courtesy of Disney (Film Poster)

Courtesy of Disney (Film Poster)

The story begins with Maleficent as a young fairy living in the Moors, a world of enchantment and peace. She eventually meets Stephan, an orphan human boy from the greedy human world. The story then follows them, through love, to adulthood as she becomes the strongest fairy and he pursues his dream to live in the castle. Stephan’s ambition eventually leads to a violent moment of betrayal which directs the film’s plot into the Sleeping Beauty narrative complete with the famous “Christening” scene. The rest of the movie faithfully follows the animated classic’s story but with a different lens, so to speak.

Maleficent is not a Hollywood or studio trend-setter. The film is simply another serving of a villainous character back story (i.e., Star Wars, Wicked, Oz the Great and Powerful). It also follows Disney’s somewhat misguided interest in revisiting their animated classics as live-action films (i.e.,101 Dalmatians, Jungle Book) or Broadway shows (i.e., Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King). Some work and some don’t.

Interestingly in 1959 Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was a critical flop. Walt Disney called it an “expensive failure” saying “I sorta got trapped.” Audiences expected the softer and safer Cinderella (1950) but got a more stylized design and a darker, more frightening villain. Due to the film’s failure, Disney would not to return to the classic princess narrative for another 30 years.

Courtesy of Disney [Promotional Poster 1959]

Courtesy of Disney [Promotional Poster 1959]

Fortunately over that period of time Maleficent became one of the most iconic Disney villains and arguably one of its most popular characters. Maleficent may have, in fact, helped to pull Sleeping Beauty out of obscurity and into the beloved canon of animated Disney films. It is no surprise that Disney chose to tell her back story.

Directed by Robert Stromberg, the production designer for Avatar (2009) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) and written by Disney Veteran, Linda Woolverton, Maleficent contains stunning imagery surrounding its decidedly feminist tale. Visually speaking the fantasy world has a hazy “story land” mystique without being cartoony or campy. The human world is murky and muted while the enchanted land beyond the moors is vibrant and mystical. The magical creatures are rendered with a fantastic realism that recalls the art of Brian Froud.

The most striking visuals are of Maleficent herself, who is portrayed to perfection by the talented Angelina Jolie. From start to finish, the film’s narrative rotates around her nearly to a fault. There are very few other elements, exchanges or characters whose screen presence command the same level of attention as Jolie. She makes this film. It is Jolie’s show and that manages to work because, after all, it is Maleficent’s story.

There were moments, however, that the film felt more like an explanation of the animated classic rather than a film in its own right. The plot moved from one moment to the next gliding behind the radiant Maleficent in very much the same way as the sleeping Aurora floats behind her on the trip to the moors. Many filmic elements get lost in her wake as the plot winks at the audience as if to say, “See that’s what really happened.”

That is not to say the film doesn’t contain any interesting sub-textual themes. Maleficent presents a number of complicated contemporary ideas. For example there is an Avatar-inspired eco-subtext winding through the plot. We cheer for the peaceful mystical moors and against the greedy human world. In this way, Maleficent could be considered an Earth Mother and Protector who violently avenges the pillaging of the land and eventually finds balances through the cycle of life.

The secondary characters are, with no exception, secondary or less than secondary. Like the narrative they live in shadow of Jolie’s Maleficent. With that said, Sam Riley as the Crow is a well-played, fascinating addition. The two most disappointing characters are Ella Fanning’s Aurora and Brenton Thwaite’s Prince Philip. Both are out of place in the earthy, magical realism presented by the rest of the film’s design. Aurora recalls her “unmemorable” animated counterpart. The film could have handled a stronger, grittier princess or an “Aurora unplugged.” As for Thwaite, his “boy band” appearance and glossy smile are better suited to a Disney Channel sitcom than a subversive dark retelling of a classic fairy tale.

Movie Still from Disney's Maleficent

Movie Still from Disney’s Maleficent

Overall Maleficent is very satisfying and fun to watch. It is worth the ticket price just to see Angelina Jolie capture the iconic character. The film contains battle scenes, dragons, tree guards and hairy human kings. But what is most engaging about this film and what keeps the narrative from sinking into obscurity is two yet to be mentioned themes.

From this point forward, this article contains spoilers. Do not continue reading if you have not seen the film and prefer to be surprised.

Aside from the Avatar ecological subtext, there are two other notable themes in Maleficent that cause the fairy tale to fracture. The first is the theme of the “fallen angel” and the second is that of the “anti-mother.”  Both have distinct feminist tones which, in recent years, Disney has been attempting to nurture.

Before going forward let’s get one thing straight. The story is not told from Maleficent’s point of view. The narrator is revealed to be Aurora. As the story opens, she tells us that we’ve been more or less “dealt a bag goods.” Here’s how it really happened…

The theme of the “fallen angel” is presented both visually and narratively from start to finish. Maleficent is a fairy with large feathered wings that drag on the ground and tower above her head. Near the beginning of the film, she flies up to the clouds, faces the camera and opens her wings. This imagery recalls an angel against the sky.

When Stephan performs the violent act of cutting off her wings, Maleficent is grounded. She becomes the “fallen angel,” a process that is further demonstrated by the darkening of the moors and the skeleton imagery behind her throne. Hatred and vengeance consume her as she becomes the dark queen with all the expected iconic trappings of a sorceress or devil character such as a staff, black leather cap around her horns, black clothes and a crow. She becomes the vengeful dark “fallen angel” or as she is called in the film, “witch.”

Only childhood innocence can penetrate through her hate. When she finally displays love again she earns back her wings. However, as demonstrated visually, she doesn’t simply return to her former self. At the end Maleficent retains her dark, gothic appearance, her crow familiar and her magical staff. Secondly, near the end of the film, she flies into the sky as she did at the beginning. Just before striking the angelic pose, she pauses in profile with wings outstretched which recalls the Winged Nike – a symbol of victory.

Maleficent is essentially driven to revenge not simply because she was scorned but because she was physically violated. Her body was cut and part of her life stolen. However she finds a new life through the love of a child and that is where Disney fractures another classically embedded fairy tale theme – the “anti-mother.”

Traditionally the “good” mothers are either biological grandmothers or, more often, fairy-god mothers. In Maleficent, these typical good mothers are absent or incompetent. The three “aunties” don’t know how to feed a baby or bake a cake – two common signs of the “good mother.” At times the three pixie women have more in common with the witches of Hocus Pocus (1993) than the three good fairies of Sleeping Beauty.

Movie still from Disney's Maleficent.

Movie still from Disney’s Maleficent.

It is the “anti-mother” or dark witch who actually cares for the child and keeps her safe. Where the fairies are tired of raising Aurora, Maleficent and the crow protect her and become her shadow guardians. In a complete reversal, the film turns the “anti-mother,” who is typcially jealous of youth, into the good or “godmother” as Aurora says.  In this way, the godmother and the fallen angel are one.

Becoming the good mother saves Maleficent from herself but, fortunately, does not transform her into something she is not. She remains the dark-clad, powerful gothic fairy. In doing so, the mother – daughter bond, typically absent from fairy tales and Disney animation, is rediscovered and allowed to thrive. This is punctuated by the film’s twist on “true love’s kiss” which was, unfortunately, predictable due to Frozen (2014).

If you add in the ecological subtext, Maleficent is a visually beautiful film with dynamic elements that circle around its spectacular title character. While the film could have explored relationship dynamics and narrative elements more in-depth, the film compensated with interesting themes, beautiful visuals and Angelina Jolie.

Just some quick updates on stories previously discussed here on The Wild Hunt.

More Discussion on Exorcism and Demonic Influences: Last week I took issue with Patheos Catholic columnist Fr. Dwight Longenecker, who made the argument that Aurora, Colorado killer James Holmes may have been demonically possessed. Now, Religion News Service has picked up the story, bringing this controversial view to a much wider audience.

“Longenecker dismissed the range of explanations for what might have motivated Holmes — a bad childhood, mental illness, social awkwardness, extreme political or religious views, or exposure to violent video games or to the Batman movie that was showing when he allegedly opened fire. The real culprit, he says, was spiritual, and malign.”

Meanwhile, other Catholics, like  About.com’s Scott P. Richert, are doubling down on the demonic “infestation” scenario, referencing Ouija board use in the 1973 film “The Exorcist” as an accurate portrayal of how possession begins.

Troubling Expansion of the Ministerial Exception? At the beginning of this year I wrote about the Supreme Court of the United State’s decision in in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissionwhich centered on the question of whether an employee of a religious organization could be fired without recourse to anti-discrimination laws if they were ordained within said faith. The ruling established that a ministerial exception from federal discrimination laws does exist. Now, Religion Clause reports on two linked ruling from the Kentucky Court of Appeals that says the exception applies even when faculty at a seminary aren’t even of the same religion.

“Because Kant’s primary duties involved teaching religious-themed courses at a seminary, his position was one that prepared students for Christian ministry…. Given his position as a faculty member teaching at a seminary, Kant’s personal views are not determinative of the function he served. Rather, we review the function of his position: teaching future Christian ministers primarily on Judeo-Christian subjects and culture. Kant’s personal faith and beliefs do not clash with the actuality that the classes he taught at LTS were for the purpose of preparing future church leaders of the Christian faith.”

So a Jew can be considered a “minister” of a Christian seminary, so long as his role supports the institution’s goals. One wonders how this interpretation could be abused by organizations who want to evade litigation over a firing. More on this particular story, here.

The Olympics and Religion (and those dualistic Greeks): I recently linked to two articles that looked at the ancient (pagan) history of the Olympic games, now underway in London. Now, USA Today spotlights an editorial by Pastor Henry Brinton that also looks at religion and the games, specifically the Christians history of the modern games, and how “muscular Christianity” saved us from the dualism of the ancient Greeks.

“Ancient Greeks are partially to blame. While they provided the inspiration for the modern Games, they also created a dualistic philosophy that included antagonism between the physical and spiritual. Christians embraced this approach for many years, until muscular Christianity came along and people began to reclaim the ancient biblical truth that human beings are created with a unity of flesh and spirit. […] As for the Olympics, perhaps the opening ceremonies should have had a celebration of religions as well as a parade of nations. Most of the world’s great faiths honor both body and spirit, and encourage health and vitality. This would correct the error made by the ancient Greeks, and would pay tribute to the religious leaders who made the modern Olympics possible. It could even inspire a few religious people to get off the couch and into the gym.”

I wish I could stamp a giant “citation needed” on these claims, because it sounds like revisionist triumphalism to me. Ancient Greeks may have believed in a physical world and a world of spirit, but that didn’t create an antagonism between the two realities. It sounds to me like Christians blaming Greek philosophy for their own shortcomings in how they adopted and adapted pagan thought. I’ll leave it to my philosophy and ancient Greece buffs to let me know if my suspicions are correct, or if Greek dualism really did create this antagonism Brinton claims.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Over in the Catholic section of Patheos, Fr. Dwight Longenecker explores the idea that James Holmes, responsible for 12 deaths in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting that happened last week, may have been demonically possessed. According to Longenecker, “demonic infestation is a rare, strange and terrible psycho-spiritual affliction” that “maybe” afflicted Holmes.

James Holmes in court.

James Holmes in court.

“What makes a mild mannered, promising young scientist decide to arm himself to the teeth, walk into a suburban movie theater and start killing innocent people at random?”

What a tempting idea, that an external evil took control of Holmes and instigated his actions. That it was an embodiment of Evil itself that guided the hand of the shooter, gunning down innocent people. However, this idea is pernicious, particularly within a Christian context, and only serves to prop up a system of abuse that targets anyone who steps out of line with a narrow idea of Christian morality and behavior.

The idea of spirit possession is not unique to Catholicism, or Christianity in general, most religious cultures have a version of it, and many also have rituals of exorcism or appeasement when a possession happens. In some religious cultures, like Haitian Vodou, possession is part of a larger religious structure (and generally seen as a positive force). Yet, the Christian conception of demonic possession is unique in how exorcism is used as a form of boundary maintenance, a social-political tool to hammer those who stray from  proper behavior. This is hinted at in Longenecker’s essay.

“The second level of demonic influence is obsession. At this level, there is still no sign of anything paranormal happening. The person starts to give in to the temptation. He may become reclusive and secretive as he becomes obsessed with the evil that he is entertaining. This evil may be in the form of occult activity, violent video games or movies, pornography, drug abuse, sexual perversion, sexual promiscuity, or obsession with power and violence.

In other words, if someone you love is gay, into kinky sex, likes to play video games, or is Pagan, they might already be influenced by demons (and, by inference, that can lead to terrible tragedies). This isn’t simply my interpretation, it’s an assertion that has been flatly stated by Catholic exorcists.

“Father Euteneuer does not speak as a theorist. Since 2003 he’s had extensive experience ministering to those possessed by demons … Father Euteneuer told mepossession is almost always a result of someone getting involved in some sort of occult practices, such as witchcraft, Wicca, tarot cards, and Ouiji boards. ”Harry Potter and these Twilight vampires glamorize the power of evil,” Father Eutenener explained, “and this has lead to many, many cases of possession among young people.” It may begin with a child or teenager simply “playing around” with the occult, but that seemingly harmless act is “opening a window” to possession.”

Of course, Father Euteneuer is embroiled in sex scandal, so the demons must have gotten to him, so lets turn to another source.

“A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous.  People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …”

That’s Catholic exorcist Father Gary Thomas, a Catholic exorcist who was featured in the book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” (adapted into a feature film starring Anthony Hopkins). So he’s probably the most famous Catholic exorcist currently making the rounds. Thomas is also believer in Ritual Satanic Abuse, despite the fact that the moral panic that held sway during the 1980s and 90s produced no credible proof of a underground network of Satanic abusers. This is because exorcisms are tied to upheaval and crisis within a religious body, not to any definable war in the spiritual realm.

“Portable manuals detailing ever more elaborate and standardized rituals of exorcism proliferated during the papal schism of the 15th century, when two men claimed to be the rightful pope. The manuals surfaced again during the Protestant Reformation. “In general, exorcisms are associated with these turning-point moments when the church [feels] challenged in some way and tries to centralize power and clarify the delegation of authority from God down through the hierarchy,” [historian Nancy Caciola] says. The challenges now confronting the Catholic Church in the United States are legion: the sex abuse scandal, a secularizing society, and a restive flock that, studies show, loses one out of three adult Catholics, to name just a few.”

The reality is that when these exercises in centralizing power, and casting out heretics, is imported to other cultures the results can be catastrophic. When missionaries inserted Christian triumphalism and a spiritual warfare dynamics into traditional African beliefs about malefic magic, they created deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand.

Missionaries have commonly responded [to witchcraft accusations] in two ways, said [Robert] Priest [professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School]. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be “post-Enlightenment rationalists” with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.

The result is that traditional witch ideas are fused with Christian theology, which obscures the social consequences: Accused witches are often destitute or outcast, and thus socially defenseless. Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. “The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world.”

Again and again, we are shown that Christian exorcism and spiritual warfare, when applied to pluralistic or non-Christian cultures, spread a madness that can result in false imprisonments and death. If Catholics want to exorcise other willing Catholics, fine. Likewise, every religious tradition is free to negotiate with the numinous in whatever fashion works best for them, but when you start using these technologies as an external weapon, a dangerous line is crossed. No matter how reassuring it might be to think that a minion of Satan used a mortal form to slaughter those movie-goers, that this is why Holmes snapped suddenly and without warning, it does nothing but muddy the waters and push us further from what may have actually been going on in this man’s mind leading up to that fateful day.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker‘s essay is irresponsible and does more harm than good in an already tragic circumstance. He peddles the beliefs that fuel ex-witch narratives, passing it off as a possible explanation for those asking how this could have happened. The truth has always been that humanity needs no external spiritual help to do gross and inhumane things to one another, for reasons that can seem as opaque as this current case. We should collective reject any attempt to place a demonic possession narrative, especially a Catholic possession narrative, on these killings and instead focus on practical prevention and using our faith(s) to comfort those affected. Anything else is cynical, self-serving, and unneeded.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Design by Jeff Leiboff.

Design by Jeff Leiboff.

Actors portraying Angela Sanford and Joel Levya.

Actors portraying Angela Sanford and Joel Levya.

  • Angela Sanford, a Wiccan who killed Joel Leyva in what some media described as a ritualistic sacrifice, has had a request for a reduced sentence denied. Sanford has been sentenced to 20 years under a plea agreement, her story was recently dramatized on the show Fatal Encounters.
  • The Pagan community has been in the process of having a debate/discussion over the issue of obesity. It started with a post by Peter Dybing, and has been raging ever since. Notable responses have come from Star Foster,  Iris Firemoon, and  Kitsune Yokai at the Fat Pagan blog, with Margot Adler, Crystal Blanton, and Shauna Aura adding their voices in the comments of Peter’s blog. The most recent commentary on the question of health and obesity comes from T. Thorn Coyle: “There is some real dialogue, some hurt feelings, some anger, and some derision. Bottom line is this: we all have ways in which we do not walk our talk. Bottom line is this: we cannot know what another’s life looks like on the inside, by observing it from the outside.” As this conversation  no doubt continues, I hope we can steer clear of judging bodies, and instead focus on building a more supportive community for everyone.
  • At The Revealer, Alex Thurston writes about syncretism in Islam within the context of Mali and the destruction of Sufi shrines. Quote: “The alternative – and the greatest challenge to Ansar al Din’s program – is not to assert Islamists’ hidden love for the things they say they hate, but to assert the reality, the desirability, and the possibility that there is more than one way to be a real Muslim. Timbuktu in 2012 is not Mecca in 630. African Muslims are Muslims, full stop. And the loss of shrines in Timbuktu is a loss not only for world civilization and for locals, but also for Islam.”
  • PNC-Minnesota recently published two interviews, one with M. Macha NightMare, and one with Lady Yeshe Rabbit, who will be appearing at Sacred Harvest Fest. Quote: “I am bringing an open mind. I am interested in learning and sampling from you all the regional flavors of your community. I am bringing my own classes and rituals that I will be leading. One is a project that has been dear to my consciousness, called American Sabbats. It is looking at the secular, bank holidays of this country and their history, and the amount of energy that is generated within them. How the energy of those holidays, which many of us celebrate in addition to our Pagan holidays,  might be channeled toward the greater good of our country. There are many changes needed in our country in order to be healthy. I am curious to go and sample what the opinions and thoughts are of all of you who have a unique experience of America from your vantage point in the Midwest.”
  •  The US Dept. of Justice is supporting Native American inmates in their quest to have a South Dakota ban on using tobacco in religious ceremonies lifted. You can read the DOJ’s supporting brief, here.
  • Nicholas Campion, author of “Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions,” shares an excerpt of his book at HuffPo’s religion section. Quote: “The ancient zodiac signs survive in the modern West because, uniquely, in an age of aggressive consumerism, media-overload and scientific materialism, they encourage people to reflect on themselves and their inner worlds; their hopes, fears and secret motivations. In mass culture, astrology replaces the remote scientific language of relativity and light-years with stories of love and luck. In an era when we are now aware that we live on an insignificant planet on the edge of a minor galaxy, astrology restores each individual to the center of their own cosmos. According to its practitioners it provides a sense of personal meaning and purpose and, sometimes, a guide to action. Both astrology’s advocates and its critics find rare agreement on this point. This has nothing to do with the truth of astrology’s claims, but it does explain its survival in the 21st century.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.