Maleficent’s traumas

Spoiler alert: this discussion requires me to give away a bunch of plot points, so if you haven’t seen this film & want to, don’t read this OR don’t complain if I give it all away.  


One of the roles I play is the concerned parent figure for the kids in my life, watching children’s films to ensure they’re safely watchable.  The violence in Maleficent is a bit beyond the current little ones for whom I’m caring, so they’re not going to be allowed to see it anytime soon.  Yet someday I do hope they’re able to watch this.

There are aspects of this story that are way beyond what you’d expect in a Disney film. The brand seems to be in another reinvention, given the upcoming Star Wars installment, likely to give them a colossal boost at the box office, if not also in credibility.

This time? we revisit a story known from fairy-tales, indeed from Disney’s own canon. Sleeping Beauty was adapted in the 1950s, including a remarkable step-mother I remember fearfully from my own childhood. In that version there was no mistaking her as anything but the villainess.

But in revisiting this tale Disney give us a fairly sophisticated second look at the circumstances of the story, a rationale for the nastiness that seems so inexplicable in the story. How can we reconcile ourselves with the cruelty of Maleficent? Perhaps if there’s more to her than meets the eye, a back story and a history to justify a nasty curse.

The main character is portrayed by Angelina Jolie, a role with disturbing resonances with her real life persona. See if you see any similarities.

Maleficent is a mother figure. And Jolie is a mother figure, indeed possibly the most remarkable mother figure in the popular imagination, both as the mother of her own offspring and as an adoptive parent.

Maleficent is violated, as she is betrayed by her lover, left crippled by an act of shocking cruelty, waking up with her two wings cut off. Is it just a coincidence that Jolie endured a double mastectomy? I was devastated watching the horror of her violation in the film, and thinking about the horrible parallel to her life. I can’t help wondering if the film-makers were aware of this. We watch Maleficent cope with her emotions, and then see someone who is virtually disabled, arising from her injuries and remaking her life thereafter. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone go through something like this in a children’s film.

I had to confirm for myself that I wasn’t saying something horrible that would upset people, so I googled “maleficent jolie mastectomy”, finding that Melissa Kort in Ms Magazine saw the same thing I saw. Yes of course, this is a violation, but it’s also an epic recapitulation of Jolie’s mastectomy. I know that when the parallel hit me I started crying uncontrollably. I never expected the plot of a film that is so superficially beautiful might take me to such a deep place.

And of course there’s a kind of miracle in the relationship of Aurora and Maleficent that reminds me of the comparable relationship we see in Frozen, another tale from Disney where it’s not the boy-girl pair but an unexpected relationship that is offered up as the example of true love.

This is no kids film, though, given the profound violence onscreen. I’m not comfortable letting a child see so much killing and violation. It will have to be later, when they’re a bit older.  A happy ending doesn’t compensate for so much trauma, although I feel healed by the end.

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