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How MALEFICENT Fails Children: When Villains Become Heroes
By Ben Kayser and Ted Baehr, with Tom Snyder
The Disney reimagining of the classic 1959 fairy tale SLEEPING BEAUTY stormed theaters this past weekend, and while earning a PG MPAA rating and being heralded as a movie for the whole family, MALEFICENT follows some current storytelling trends that should and will concern parents.
Last year, Disney, with good intentions, attempted to re-launch the beloved western THE LONE RANGER, but failed at keeping it child-friendly, along with inserting some politically correct content. This and some poor storytelling led Disney to a major loss of money.
While MALEFICENT doesn’t follow the exact path of THE LONE RANGER in its failures, it presents a new one by introducing the anti-hero to children.
MALEFICENT retells the well-known story, but from the perspective of the villain, Maleficent, and her journey from being a happy fairy to a broken-hearted, bitter villain. Made popular again by edgy adult television shows like THE SOPRANOS and BREAKING BAD, Disney is seeking to cash in on the current fad of making the protagonist an anti-hero.
Why is this wrong?
For discerning adults, this isn’t necessarily a problem. We see the conflicting themes in MALEFICENT, the internal struggle of the anti-hero, and the father so blinded by anger and hate. We see these things, discern them and understand it’s not normative to real life. However, for the child to see these conflicting images, it can be quite damaging.
If the hero is both good and bad, what are children supposed to strive towards? What is the movie teaching them?
If fathers are continually shown as villains, how are children to honor and respect their own father?
Some may notice that this is nothing new to Hollywood, but it’s more important than ever that we understand what is being taught through movies. At one point, Hollywood taught children to follow what is good, to do the right thing. Now, they are taught to follow their heart, no matter where it leads. Anyone who truly knows himself or herself should know that their heart is anything but pure, so that’s why we need to strive after something greater. For this to be communicated to children, stories need to reflect clear ethics and unarguable morals. Morally ambiguous decisions don’t work as well.
What about the conflicted hero?
In addition to showing children a right moral path to strive towards, it’s equally important for them to know that they’re not perfect and will make mistakes. A hero’s journey is full of ups and downs, but what’s right and wrong is never in question and their identity isn’t in who they are, it’s in what they can be. To put it simply:
A conflicted hero makes mistakes, but strives towards heroism.
An anti-hero can do good, but stays a villain (this is the 21st Century, some people say, and, apparently, we are never supposed to judge anyone).
Which hero do you want your children looking up to – the flawed hero who strives toward heroism and always doing the right thing or the anti-hero who doesn’t?
Why is Hollywood presenting such negative heroes?
Contrary to popular belief, Hollywood isn’t full of people who hate children. Too many people there just don’t understand the cognitive stages of development in children, something Movieguide® has been teaching for decades.
What’s happening with dark retellings of popular fairy tales like MALEFICENT and THE LONE RANGER seems clear. Instead of telling a wholesome, clean story so well that children and adults alike are enchanted, they’re telling children stories for adults in ways that they hope won’t freak out the children. If anything, 2013’s FROZEN has proven that that isn’t necessary. Tell a good story that the whole family can enjoy, and the $1.2 billion FROZEN earned is proof that people will watch it and love it for ages.
MALEFICENT has many good and bad themes that will bring up good discussion for older teenagers and adults. What it doesn’t do is give children a clear picture of the difference between good and evil in characters that are easy to grasp. The movie’s negative father figure and politically correct environmentalist themes are too confusing, especially morally.
For Christians, our identity isn’t wrapped up in anything we do, it’s focused on Jesus Christ, who has done a miraculous work in us. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether a movie inspires children to do the right thing and be more like Jesus or to follow their sinful desires and be more like man?