Seven years ago I may have hated Maleficent and would have been nervous about some themes of How to Train Your Dragon.
I would have thought: Why do these stories attempt to show that “evil” isn’t always evil, or what we think is good isn’t always good? Why is mankind seen as bad and nature seen as good? Are these stories trying to subvert traditional concepts of right and wrong?
Some stories do attempt this.1
But thanks to Biblical theology, I no longer have that objection to all such stories.
Because I believe that in the real world, between pure good and worst evil lies a third party. If our view of the True Story includes only God (good) and man (bad), we’ll be confused when stories explore how this third party — the creation itself — plays in the story.
On May 30 Disney released its latest live-action fairy-tale adaptation, this one based on the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty and starring another version of that film’s famous villainess.
Movieguide didn’t like it. Spoilers ahead:
The movie will confuse viewers about who the villain is. Although Maleficent has put a curse upon Aurora, her heart is changed, but she still uses magic. Then, toward the end of the movie, the villain becomes Stefan, the father, who wants to take down the forest and kill Maleficent. This leaves viewers confused on who’s the real hero.
Well, this viewer is not always the brightest smartphone screen in a darkened theater, but even I understood who the real heroes were. It sounds like Movieguide’s reviewer expected a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, not a different story with similar characters.
But I can understand not knowing what to “do” with a traditional villainess who suddenly gets a new and more-redemptive journey. What are they trying to pull?
The solution is this: the story recasts Maleficent from a plain witch to a forest guardian. She protects the natural realm of Faerie, a paradise of mostly CG gnomes, tree-beings, and sparkling unknown air-spirits. When a young boy who wanders into the forest and repents of trying to steal a precious stone, Maleficent befriends and later falls in love with him. But the boy becomes a power-seeking man who naturally betrays her love — for reasons many viewers did not get but Christians familiar with “total depravity” will comprehend. And Maleficent, now a strong yet feminine queen (portrayed dazzlingly by Angelina Jolie), wars against the armies of man’s kingdom who seek to despoil the forest.
Or as Movieguide oversimplifies:
There’s an environmentalist message to the movie where mankind is the problem, destroying the forest and bringing in iron, which hurts the fairies.
Does the story imply that man is the problem and nature is good? Not if you pay attention. Yes, Maleficent represents an icon of nature. But in her anger against man she herself turns the forest dark and frightens the gnomes and fairies — and later regrets her vengeful curse on Princess Aurora. The story is more complex. Both man and creation must be redeemed.
‘How to Train Your Dragon’
On Monday Rebecca LuElla Miller posted an updated article about Dreamworks’ smash 2010 hit film, whose sequel will release this Friday. She cautioned viewers not to consider any story “safe.” Amen! If you go into this story expecting binary categories of right and wrong (man is good/bad, dragons are good/bad), you will be confused.
Who is the story’s “bad” — man, shown by the Vikings? If so, why do we love these heroes, especially spunky dragon-trainer Hiccup? Who is the story’s “good” — the dragons? If so, why are the wild dragons genuinely dangerous? And in either case, why does victory come after estranged father Stoick and son Hiccup both admit their human wrongs and reconcile, and when Hiccup rides his new dragon Toothless into a spectacular battle against a gargantuan, fire-breathing, traditionally evil dragon?
In How to Train Your Dragon, man and creation must reconcile. By the story’s end, Vikings and dragons have learned to work together and find redemption. Yet man has not simply become “at one with nature,” as if wild nature is superior. Instead man has stopped sinning against nature and become a better nature-steward. The meaning is right there in the title: it’s not “how to be trained by your dragon,” but “how to train your dragon.”2
Echoes of groaning Earth
I don’t know the intentions of the Maleficent or How to Train Your Dragon creators. But I do know their subversions of traditional “villains” like an evil fairy-witch or dragons need not be seen as attacks on Biblical morality. In fact, they echo the Biblical truth of creation’s redemption.
- Mankind sins against God (Gen. 3). It’s man’s fault.
- God curses the ground (Gen. 3: 17–19). But it’s not creation’s fault.
- Ever since, mankind has had a love/hate relationship with creation.
- Jesus Christ comes to redeem His children.
- And someday even “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
Until that day, “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:22). Groaning creation lashes back at mankind. Evil Faerie queens weep with rage at our betrayal. Dragons in ignorance or fear blast our homes and even kill us. But just these stories end in hope — the evil fairy redeemed and reconciled with man’s kingdom, the fearful dragons now friendly and tamed — so Jesus Christ will make His redeemed world where man’s and creation’s groaning turns to singing.
- If they do, a disciplined Christian can see them for what they are and even subvert the subversion by showing how the evil-thing-isn’t-really-evil stories still show that something is absolute evil. Such stories always do. ↩
- The film’s sequel may challenge the concept of “training” a dragon, versus a sort of Jane Goodall-style living-among-dragons practice. Anyway, if I was writing the sequel, that’s what I would do. ↩