MovieBob - Intermission
I May Have Been Wrong About Maleficent

Bob Chipman | 13 Jun 2014 12:00
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Maleficent wings

Specifically, I wanted to see how they reacted to the end of the first act "inciting incident," by far the most talked-about and symbolically loaded part of the film: Maleficent (at this point an adult human-sized fairy) is contacted by Stefan, a human with whom she'd shared a quasi-romantic friendship in childhood. They reminisce and snuggle chastely under the stars... but it's a trap: Stefan has slipped her a drug, and she awakens to discover that her "friend" has sawed off her wings as a trophy to the human's greedy dying king - an act which will make him (Stefan) the successor to the throne.

Even beyond the description, the entire sequence is layered in lurid, unmistakable symbolic cues: the tiny vial of sedative (for real - he literally spikes her drink), Stefan's impotent inability to "finish the job" with a dagger, Jolie's confused/horrified realization and awkward attempts to walk immediately after and so forth. There's just not much room to "miss" the metaphoric conflation of Maleficent's betrayal with domestic/sexual-assault - right down to the perpetrator being a "nice guy" friend she thought she could trust.

I was among a number of (mostly) male critics for whom the immediate point of reference was the "wronged woman's payback" genre of films, typified by exploitative fare like I Spit On Your Grave. It's easy to see how we got there, even setting aside the obvious added attention being able to put "Disney's Rape/Revenge Retelling of Sleeping Beauty" in a headline: So called rape/revenge movies or shock-value TV series like Law & Order are the main prisms through which a lot of us (male movie critics) regard that sort of violence or the threat thereof; whereas statistics (and, y'know, reality) bare out that it's (unfortunately) simply a much more immediate presence/concern to female audiences.

At my showing? The younger kids were universally freaked-out by the sequence, but where I'd have typically expected to hear a chorus of reassuring whispers from the moms (or dads for that matter, but this particular sample was fairly female-heavy on the grownup side) there was... silence. An audience of wide-eyes and rapt attentions. I'm no facial-reading expert, so I could only begin to guess at the emotions at play: Shock at how grim this Disney "kid's" movie just got? Sympathy? Familiarity? This felt an awful lot like what my concerns had been about my own possible myopia here: I saw that scene and thought of cheesy movies - were there people in this audience whose thoughts were closer to "Yup, that's what that's like."?

What I can be sure of is that a lot of the subsequent stuff that read, to me, as tonally inconsistent or simply odd for odd's sake registered in a similarly potent way. The film's second act is partially dedicated to twisting the knife on the rest of the Sleeping Beauty mythos and fairytale conventions in particular. King Stefan? Sleazebag. (I hope Sharlto Copley enjoys being kicked in the shins by generations of young children...) The kindly old fairy ladies charged with taking care of Baby Aurora because "hey, sweet old ladies?" Sputtering idiots, not fit to look after a goldfish. The Prince? Well-meaning, but so useless he spends Act 3 being (literally) dragged around to his appropriate place like a boy-shaped balloon... and then can't actually do the one thing it's assumed he's there to do.

Maleficent baby

I enjoyed the audacity of a lot of this, to be sure, but I also found myself pulled out of the movie - watching the machinery of revision do its thing instead. But the audience? Enthralled, especially at the various left-turns in the (clearly familiar to them) story. Glamorous, notably-single Maleficent is actually better at taking care of the baby than the "perfect homebody grannies?" Constant laughs. Prince Charming pointing out that it would be more than a little inappropriate to kiss Sleeping Beauty without her consent? Cheers. Vivienne Jolie-Pitt as the younger Aurora meeting Maleficent for the first time? Swoons. That's the one that made me say "I should probably do a serious re-think on this," because while "OMG CUTE BABY!!! didn't really "work" for me as a back-from-the-dark-side moment for Maleficent, I was clearly in the minority.

(Also, possibly anecdotal: Not that it's something I would've previously kept track of, I don't think I've ever heard so many younger female voices shouting variations on "Kick his ass!!!" than I did when Maleficent gets jacked back up to full power just in time for a Boss Fight against Stefan - they wanted blood!)

Digging through film analysis of a more specific variety than straightforward review afterwards and the obvious buzzwords on social media seemed to further confirm what I was sensing: My technical opinion on the film and what it was attempting to do thematically was largely unchanged, but I had rather definitively ignored and minimalized what those attempts would mean to audiences who were, well... not me.

To use the most obvious example: I saw what Angelina Jolie herself now confirms was a deliberate rape metaphor and thought "Well, that's a weird place for Disney to take this." But many others saw the start of a powerful feature-length meditation on enduring, surviving and moving on from sexual-assault. I saw Disney straining for a Wicked to call their own and winding up with a gonzo dark-fairytale hodgepodge, but to others it's the (re?)birth of a different kind of iconic Disney woman.

So, was I wrong? In approach, maybe. I've never been one to pretend that "X doesn't work, but Y makes up for it" isn't a perfectly valid personal summation of a movie; and I probably should've taken more time to consider what Maleficent's "weird" digressions would mean to an audience that would relate to them more viscerally. My criticisms remain, but my opinion as to whether it's an "important" or likely to be "enduring" film have substantially changed. It's healthy, in my opinion, to make considerations like this more often.

I'm not re-watching that new Spider-Man again anytime soon, though.


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