Walt Disney Pictures
Did you walk out of the theater after taking in Disney’s latest mega-hit, the villain-centric Maleficent, feeling just a bit uncomfortable? Perhaps because the PG-rated “family” film is, in no uncertain terms, a story about rape, abuse and what happens to victims of crimes rooted in power, control and sexual politics?
The Angelina Jolie-starring film is all about humanizing her eponymous heroine ‐ a powerful fairy who loses both her gentle spirit and her (emotionally and physically important) wings after someone she trusts and loves (Sharlto Copley, whose bonkers-bad performance should be discussed at length another time) cuts them off. In the middle of the night. After he’s lulled her with sweet words. And drugged her. If the subtext isn’t clear enough in the initial act, the aftermath of it drives it home spectacularly (and quite devastatingly), as Jolie’s Maleficent wakes to find her wings gone, realizes what has happened and reacts in a way that’s akin to mourning. Even removed from the situation, it’s a very upsetting sequence, one that seems out of place in an ostensibly family-friendly film.
Really, though, what’s most out of place in Maleficent is the entire subplot that leads to that wrenching moment (the most emotionally interesting one in an otherwise muddled and choppy feature), and although reading it as something different (or at least something not so jarringly un-Disney) is possible, it’s also wrong. Says who? Jolie.
Although the debate about what really happened in Maleficent has been at a surprisingly low level since the film hit the big screen two weeks ago, Jolie herself has now sounded off on the meaning of both the scene and the actions that follow. The actress took to the BBC Radios’ Woman’s Hour (via US Weekly and Cinema Blend), and shared:
We were very conscious, the writer [Linda Woolverton] and I, that it was a metaphor for rape. This would be the thing that would make her lose sight…The core of [the film] is abuse, and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people. The question was asked, ‘What could make a woman become so dark? To lose all sense of her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness?’”
So, to parse this ‐ Maleficent, a Disney film about a perennially popular villain that seeks to clarify why she took her anger out on a tiny baby, is really a story about a woman who is raped and then acts out by being evil to innocents around her. Maleficent’s personality and actions are defined by an act of abuse ‐ she is a battered woman, that’s the extent of her origin story ‐ and everything she does afterwards is in reaction to the loss of “her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness.”
On one hand, it’s gratifying to hear Jolie giving major credence to the clear subtext of the film, a topic that has not been discussed as much as it should have been (again ‐ kids film, rape, Disney), but her take on the material feels problematic and unsettling.
The basic idea of humanizing Maleficent (but still keeping her recognizable) isn’t that compelling as a whole, and the disconnect between crafting a “new” Maleficent but still retaining some of her signature qualities is on full display in the film, especially during the christening speech scene, which is lifted from more traditional Sleeping Beauty narratives and feels jarringly unlike the rest of the film. Disney, however, seems intent on keeping up with this kind of revisionist history thing, and they’ll next tackle the origin story of the puppy-killing Cruella de Vil.
Sure, it’s an entry point into existing material that could occasionally lead to some insightful features (although that doesn’t mean that no one is launching wholesale remakes of other, similar properties ‐ quite the opposite really, what with that new Beauty and the Beast and the battling Jungle Books), and Maleficent’s financial success will likely spawn more of these kind of films, but if the best we can do to explain why a woman is “dark” and abusive to other people is because she was abused herself, that’s not a good thing. That’s a simplistic, dangerous thing that doesn’t do much to make abused people feel more understood or somehow humanized ‐ it villainizes them.
Maleficent is a monster because someone else was a monster to her. Is that really the best we can do?