by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, September 29, 2014


"In any event, we know what's really going on in the scene.... It's a symbolic assault with sexual overtones, specifically an attack that occurs after a woman has passed out. Maleficent doesn't just lose her wings; they're stripped from her, against her will."
  — Matt Zoller Seitz,

"[A]fter the brutal attack, Maleficent quickly retools itself, heading into a whirlwind of tones while ignoring the darker implications of its opening story. In a brisk 97 minutes, decades of narrative are distilled into boilerplate genre elements: The chills of a rape revenge fantasy, the mirth of slapstick, and the adrenaline of action."
  — Monika Bartyzel, Girls On Film

"[W]elcome to Walt Disney's I Spit On Your Grave."
  — Drew McWeeny,

So intoned the critics of Disney's Maleficent, which (so far) has managed to gross over $756 million since opening May 30th. Many reviews, as a matter of fact, touched on this rape-as-metaphor idea in some form or another, to the dismay of many moviegoers/overprotective parents who outright refused to believe that the Mouse House would sneak such subversively sinister material into one of their patented family entertainments. Never mind that Angelina Jolie herself admitted as much during interviews ("The core of [the movie] is abuse, and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people," she told the BBC on June 10). The cold hard truth is that, from Hans Christian Anderson to Charles Perrault to the Brothers Grimm, even our fondest fairy tales have always been metaphors for something. What matters is how those metaphors are presented to the eyes and ears of anyone old enough to comprehend them.

Most fairy tales, when they were first initially published, were overtly sexual in nature. The earliest versions of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, end with the Big Bad Wolf asking poor oblivious Red to strip off her clothes and climb into bed with him - right before eating her alive. In the 1812 edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales, Rapunzel is impregnated by the prince during one of his many trips to her tower; once it's discovered, she is banished to the wilderness by her mother and the prince is blinded by thorns (a warning, perhaps, against the dangers of premarital sex?). And in Giambattista Basile's telling of Sleeping Beauty (Sun, Moon and Talia, 1634), the princess is raped by "the hero" in her sleep - and gives birth to twins! (In this version, it isn't True Love's Kiss that wakes her, but one of her babies, who sucks the poisoned flax from under her fingernail.)

So why should Maleficent be any different? Sure, it came as a bit of a shock that its makers would revisit some of those themes and innuendos for their big-budget reboot/prequel/hybrid, after decades of sanitizing our beloved folktales, literary classics, even Greek mythology for the sake of "entertainment." I'll admit I had my reservations - not just as an avid admirer of Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty but as a parent as well. What sordid life lessons did the movie have in store for my kids? What sort of havoc would the "rape scene" play in their cute little heads? What conversations would we have about it afterward? Was it even appropriate for them to watch? Or was this a case of the critics making too much out of nothing at all? Well, having finally broken down and taken my nine-year-old daughter to see the movie (for what potentially could have been the most awkward daddy-daughter date in the history of man), I can safely say that the metaphor is absolutely there if you're looking for it, and if you're not, it's not. (For the record, Savannah was simply too immersed in her popcorn to give any of it much thought.) And while I wouldn't call what happens in the scene an actual "rape," per se, it is a violation, plain and simple, and Jolie's agonized reaction will no doubt resonate for anyone who's experienced a similar trauma.

Still, it's what happens after the scene - and for the rest of the movie, in fact - that's been impossible for me to shake. This is an ugly, embittered film on many levels, not the least of which because of how its characters use and abuse other, and again I have to wonder about the filmmakers' intentions. What is it, exactly, that we're supposed to take away from all this? That evil begets evil (begets evil begets evil) until someone finally takes a stand and puts a stop to it? Or that love - romantic love, the kind you read about in fairy tales - exists merely as a tool to be exploited for personal gain? Either way, that's a bitter pill to swallow, especially for a movie marketed squarely at precocious preteens (at a time when PG-13s are handed out like candy, Maleficent's PG rating is a joke).

Almost every character here, from the leafiest tree creature to the sprightliest sprite, acts as a pawn in someone else's insatiable quest for power. There's Maleficent, of course (a role tailor-made for Jolie if there ever was one), whose bitter betrayal forces her to make everyone's life a living hell; Diaval (Sam Riley), her loyal slave subservient sidekick, who can be shape-shifted into a bird, wolf, or dragon to suit her every whim; Aurora (Elle Fanning), plucked from the lap of luxury and never allowed to make a single independent decision in her entire life; Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites), reduced to a walk-on and then literally tossed aside once he's no longer deemed necessary; and finally the three good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple), so stalwart and resolute during Walt's original masterpiece, here turned into bumbling, irresponsible oafs instead (so that Maleficent can raise little Aurora all on her own).

The one exception is King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), whose egomania and greed sets the entire story in motion, and who treats all the women in his life like pieces on a chessboard (in the film's ugliest scene, Stefan sits in a room conversing with Maleficent's severed wings, for crying out loud, while the queen dies needlessly, off screen). But even he's forced to grovel at Maleficent's feet, much to the disapproval of his magistrates, while he pleads for his newborn daughter's life. Even a king, it seems, must answer to his people:

I call this an ugly movie on many levels, yet it's actually quite lovely to look at. The director, Robert Stromberg, worked as production designer for Avatar and Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, and he certainly has an eye for sumptuous storybook compositions (Dean Semler did the splendid cinematography). Watching the film unfold, however, it's clear that Stromberg was hired for his strong pictorial sense rather than his ability to choreograph his actors during any given scene. Nowhere is this more apparent than the fairy sequences, in which Stunton, Temple and Manville simply stand in place, slapping each other silly, as if Stromberg had no idea how to move them around within the camera frame (they're like The Three Stooges without the comedy).

Odd, too, how so much of this $200 million production is devoted to so many scenes of Aurora frolicking through CGI forests and glens, while Maleficent watches silently nearby. Are we meant to feel Maleficent's mental anguish at this point, her longing for a child that was rightfully hers to begin with? Or is she simply biding her time, making sure Aurora grows up happy and healthy until the curse can take hold? What is it about Aurora that steals Maleficent's heart anyway? The screenplay never says, though I get the sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers couldn't make up their minds about it either.

Suffice it to say Maleficent does nothing to dispel the legacy of its cartoon counterpart. There's no vertical-line aesthetic, for one thing, no lush Tchaikovsky score (James Newton Howard, I'm sorry to report, is no Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky), and the gender roles have been reversed - here it's Maleficent who rides (too late) to the rescue on her trusted steed, finds out firsthand what True Love's Kiss really means (in a twist strangely similar to Frozen's), and, at the climax, even gets to wear pants! I'd be tempted to call this a feminist fairy tale if everyone didn't treat each other so equally shamefully.

And how does it compare to the folkloric fantasies of old? Well, let's just say there's a reason these stories have been revamped and reinvented so many times over the centuries - not simply to appeal more to children but so they could be passed on to their children's children as well. Fairy tales are meant to be shared. Like Snow White & The Huntsman or Alice In Wonderland, Maleficent is most definitely a movie of the moment – it satisfies a certain craving, I guess, to turn dainty Disney heroines into action stars. But its tone is so lurid, and the characters so despicable, that it's just not very fun. Somehow I doubt even the Grimm Brothers would approve.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment will release Maleficent on Blu-Ray, Digital HD, DVD & On-Demand on November 4th, 2014. Don't say I didn't warn you.


  1. I agree with the point about you see it if you look for it. My 7-year-old daughter went with us (now 8) and it didn't phase us that the scene could be compared to a rape scene... we just saw her hurt by someone that was supposed to care for her. We were going for the entertainment. The 3 Stooges-like fairies were different, but fit since we were just going to be entertained. Yeah, it may not make it to our Disney movies shelf, but it is a movie I may watch again when it gets to Netflix.

  2. That’s also how I tried to approach the movie when I took Savannah to see it, purely as entertainment. Surely critics had been wrong about this sort of thing before, what made this any different? But the “rape scene” in question isn’t what bothered me (sure, Jolie flat-out played the scene as a “rape,” but that works as a METAPHOR). It’s that all the characters are so awful to each other and the tone is so one-note that the movie’s “message” seemed deliberate (and off-putting). Hardly the sort of thing I’d expect (or want) from such a high-profile “family” summer blockbuster.