Maleficent: A Review
We rarely watch television in our house. When I say “rarely,” I mean that the kids really watch only one show a day, mostly at bedtime, and always G or PG rated movies. Nothing that remotely hints at anything sexual or foul-mouthed or with scantily clothed teenagers. Nothing with brash jokes. It matters to me what my kids watch and listen to. Old-fashioned values still exist, particularly in our home. In addition, I don’t believe in scaring yourself just to have fun. We don’t do Halloween, we don’t do the haunted mansion at our favorite amusement park and we don’t watch things that might frighten us. If a film or show or song or activity might be described as “dark,” we usually skip it. After all, there are plenty of things in this world that are going to scare the pants off of you without you even having to try. If you just live long enough, trust me, inevitably, you’re going to find yourself in scary situations. And, once you do, your heart beat is going to skyrocket, you’ll feel unsafe and you’ll realize fear is not something to play with. This background is important because when the movie Maleficent hit theaters my seven-year-old daredevil daughter had her heart bent on seeing it. The trailer for this movie, however, featured a fire-breathing dragon and a woman with green steam rising out of her. It did not fit my description of “safe.” Then I watched interviews and read reviews. I listened as Angelina Jolie asked, “What would make a woman hurt a baby? What would make a woman do that, the worst thing you can possibly do, why would she have done that?” I watched more trailers and debated in my head over and over. I lectured myself about how safeguarding my children from all things dark might come back to haunt me–and, worse, them—one day. Then friends on my Facebook feed went and posted glowing reviews, even friends with young kids, which further served to pique my curiosity. Eventually, I decided that my trust in Disney was stronger than my trust in reviews from people I’d never heard of. Slightly nervous and fully prepared to have to walk out of the theater, we finally broke down and went to see this movie. In fact, we’ve paid the outrageous ticket prices twice to see it. After we left the theater, I had a few friends ask what I thought; they expressed the same uneasy feelings about taking their young kids to see this movie as I had felt. Thus, this: my first-ever movie review. I’m not going to spoil the ending because I want you to go see it but this blog post will include specifics, especially containing to one scene, because I don’t know how else to reassure people that their kids are not going to be subjected to graphic scenes inappropriate to young children should they see this movie.
The film opens in typical Disney beauty, showing us a magical world in which “every kind of wonderful creature lived.” Fairies live in this land. The strongest fairy of all is a young girl named Maleficent. She is a sweet, happy, strong girl. She has no malice in her, though she does want to protects her home from all invaders. A boy, Stephan, finds his way into the Moors, Maleficent’s homeland. He commits a minor sin, Maleficent compels (but not forces) him to correct. The two of them become friends. On Maleficent’s 16th birthday, Stephan gives her what he calls “true love’s” kiss; it is her first kiss. Meanwhile, back in the human world, the king has decided that he will invade and conquer the Moors, Maleficent’s homeland. He organizes a battle. Maleficent defeats him. The king is furious and declares that anyone who kills Maleficent will be crowned his successor to the throne. Stephan is overcome with greed and pride. You see him struggle momentarily: he knows he can use his friendship to defeat Maleficent but it causes him a moment’s stress. The allure of power, though, is too strong and Stephan goes to the Moorland to seek out Maleficent. The two of them spend a day talking. She forgives him for participating in the battle that already happened. You see the two of them sitting on a rock near sunset. Maleficent lays her head on Stephan’s shoulder. He hands her a flask, offers her something to drink. Maleficent goes to sleep. Then you see Maleficent laying on the ground (fully clothed). Beside her is an opened bottle with green liquid spilling out. You (and the kids) understand that he has given her a drink (a drug) to make her go to sleep. He is standing behind her. He takes his knife and prepares to kill her in her sleep. But he can’t kill the girl that has been his friend for years; the sword is thrown into the dirt, Stephan falls back to the ground. Maleficent is still asleep. Looking at her, he notices her powerful wings and decides that maybe he can have the crown without killing Maleficent by maiming — but not killing — her. He cuts off her wings.
The scene in which Maleficent wakes up is absolutely heartbreaking and convinced me a little bit more of what a wonderful actress Angelina Jolie is. She reaches behind her to find that her wings are gone and she starts to cry; shaken, she continues to cry until, finally, she tries to stand. When she does, she realizes that walking is hard. She takes a stick and magically transform it into a longer walking cane. She continues to walk, painfully. She isn’t angry here; she’s heartbroken by a betrayal she never thought would come. It’s hard not to feel really sorry for her in this scene because her pain is so raw and heavy. While still hurting emotionally, she notices a bird that has been captured. She transforms the bird into something else without making herself known, saving his life. The bird then dedicates his life to Maleficent. When the bird asks what she would like of him, she tells him that she needs him to be her wings.
Over the coming years, the bird flies back and forth from the castle to Maleficent, spying on Stephan. Finally, you see a new Maleficent, one that isn’t limping anymore; instead, she is out for revenge. When the bird tells her that Stephan’s baby has been born, the story progresses in the way that most of us are familiar with: Maleficent bursts into the celebration unannounced and unwelcome. Stephan begs her not to curse the baby. Because he gets on his knees to beg her, Maleficent changes the curse to include the possibility of redemption from “true love’s” kiss. But this is a play on Stephan’s words to her when he gave her his “true love” kiss. Maleficent does not believe true love exists so, in her mind, she is condemning the baby to a sleep as effective as death. Stephan gives Aurora to three silly but good-hearted fairies who take her to a cottage. Over the next fifteen years, Maleficent spends her days spying on them. She hisses at baby Aurora, who smiles happily back at her. She pulls pranks on the fairies. She keeps Aurora from walking off a cliff. Aurora sees her, even talks to her once or twice. Eventually, Maleficent tries to revoke the curse; she tries to stop it, but she can’t. The curse is too strong. The ending is the same, only with a unique twist. Aurora does prick her finger, then awakens, thanks to true love’s kiss, only to see her father burning Maleficent. Aurora helps Maleficent; Maleficent crowns Aurora as queen of Mooreland.
Surrounding this movie was a cloud of controversy regarding the scene in which Stephan drugs Maleficent and cuts her wings. The whispers said that Stephan drugs and then rapes Maleficent. Pretty intense controversy for Disney. Personally, I think the controversy stems not so much from the drink Stephan gives her that causes her to go to sleep (Disney has poisoned lots of characters!) but from the scene in which Maleficent wakes up and finds that walking is painful. As I said earlier, that is an intense scene because Jolie does an exceptional job crying and showing that she is hurting. My 7 year old leaned over and whispered to me, “It hurts her to walk because she’s never had to walk so much before.” So my daughter thought it hurt her to walk because she wasn’t used to having to walk so much. My 10 year old said, “The poison messed up her balance.” I put my girls’ thoughts in here now because they represent what most kids might see. Indeed, a friend of mine who watched the movie without reading any of the controversy or interviews thought Maleficent was just hurting from being knocked out so long, probably because she didn’t think Disney would make it anything more. None of my family read “rape” in this scene. I did because of the way Maleficent responds to walking; how she needs a cane to help. But I’m going to clarify again…. the movie does not show anything explicitly. Both Maleficent and Stephen always remain fully clothed in all the scenes. You only see Maleficent lay her head on Stephen’s shoulder, you don’t even see him kiss her. It never shows the two of them laying down side by side, even. Only Maleficent is laid on the ground, asleep, when he cuts her wings and when she awakens. There is nothing in any of the scenes to suggest he touches her at all. Both my daughters assumed that Maleficent became so angry at him because he cut her wings; my oldest understood that she was also angry because they had been friends until he tricked her. None of the other families with children I know personally have come away outraged.
But… what if… for argument’s sake, some 12 or 13 year old kid saw this movie and said, “she got mad because he raped her.” Would that be reason enough to keep said mature 12 or 13 year old from seeing this movie? What if… for argument’s sake… some 11 year old whose parents had already told her about the birds and the bees figured it out? Would that be reason enough to prevent the 11 year old from seeing this movie?
For eleven years, I was sexually abused; manipulated, deeply wounded and traumatized by someone I should have trusted the most. The physical act of rape is not the most damaging, or even the most painful, part of the abuse. What’s more painful than the act itself is the blow my self-esteem took. I could not understand why someone who was supposed to love me would hurt me that badly if I did not deserve it. I believed that all the problems in my parents’ marriage, in my school, anywhere related back to me. If only I was more obedient…. if only I was more understanding…. if only I wasn’t so quiet… if only I was stronger… if only… At first, every time I was violated, my world shook internally, having been turned upside down. I remember lying on the bed, my entire body shaking violently. I would curl into myself, roll my body into a ball, praying nothing was physically wrong with me this time. During the day, I walked on eggshells, trying to please the adults in my life, in part because I was trying to avoid “getting in trouble” and in part because their acceptance gave me a reason to believe I wasn’t trash, that some part of me was still worth loving. On the whole, I was a very lucky, very blessed, little girl. I had a mother and sister who doted on me and whose love for me I never questioned. I wasn’t one of those children we read about who had nobody to tell. From the time I was ten or so, I knew I could tell my mother. And I knew that she would make him stop.
I didn’t so much whisper a word to anyone. I didn’t tell. I kept this horrible secret bottled up inside me. It was like there was a rope tied around my neck, choking the air out of me, but I couldn’t loosen the rope myself. I was so busy surviving each moment of the day that I couldn’t dare take such a bold and dramatic step toward a different life. I was conditioned to blindly obey. I was groomed to believe I could not make a decision on my own, especially not one of such monumental weight. I had to have permission to do anything, even just to eat, and there was no one from whom to seek permission. Once or twice, there were outsiders who broke through a layer of the ice around my heart. A radio disc jockey who invited me to come meet him. An English teacher who took time to see the girl beneath the straight A papers. A man who showed me what it might feel like to be … someone. And yet, when push came to shove, there were no words. The little girl who had survived by writing novels with 2,000+ pages in them didn’t know how to say, “I’ve been hurt.” The word rape sounded like a “bad” word, a harsh word. I couldn’t even say it to myself, let alone out loud. Every time I thought I’d try, the words got stuck.
When I was around thirteen, I read a life-changing book called The Holocaust: A History of European Jews by Martin Gilbert. The unemotional, stark language of the book, written in such a matter-of-fact way and yet detailing horror stories of real people enduring simply unimaginable mental, spiritual and physical torture, took my wounded heart and cracked it. I had never fathomed such evil. The stories in that book, and all subsequent research I dug into as a consequence, changed my perspective. Suddenly, it wasn’t about me anymore. Whatever I was going through was nowhere near the same field as what Hitler’s victims endured; therefore, I didn’t have anything to complain about. I convinced myself I was okay because I wasn’t in a concentration camp. So whenever anyone asked me if I was in trouble, as one or two people did, I smiled brightly and said no until they stopped asking.
I had no springboard for a conversation about rape.
If I had been that pre-adolescent watching Maleficent struggle to walk, would I have made the connection to rape? I don’t know. But I do know that I would have hurt for her, I would have ached for her, just as I did when I watched it earlier this month. If I had heard rumors that the character had been raped, or if I had made the connection myself, I would have been in tears within the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Jolie’s stoic face, so carefully guarded by walls only constructed from a deeply wounded heart, would have haunted my thoughts for days. And maybe… just maybe… it would have given me room to say, I know how she feels. Maybe it would have whispered to a hurting teenage girl, Your pain is valid. This is a concentration camp and you the Jew and maybe such a shocking thought would have galvanized me toward asking my mother, or that teacher I knew cared, for help.
Think that’s an exaggeration? I write books about young girls who are abused. They are nowhere near as powerful as a visual representation, such as a movie, can be and yet I have received multiple e-mails regarding several of the books from readers who swear my characters served as a catalyst for changing their own lives, either by coming forward to tell or by gathering up the courage to spare their own lives. If words on a page can convince a hurting child to come forward, a movie most definitely can do the same. There are triggers inside each of us. Sometimes a carefully constructed sentence strikes one of those triggers just as an arrow might hit a target and shatters our resistance. Sometimes a scene in a movie that means nothing to you can rock the foundation of the person sitting beside you—young or old. And sentences or scenes that boldly state the truth, no matter how controversial, are more likely to open the door to revealing conversations than are sentences or scenes that are designed to be “safe.” The line in my book The Character that says, “..and then he stuck me, hard, where I pee-pee” might well shock a healthy, protected twelve year old who had never been inappropriately touched. But for the twelve year old who endured frequent rapes, that sentence might trigger the memory of the first time she was brutally violated, maybe it breaks through the lies she’s been repeatedly told and shouts instead, you were just a kid. And maybe that truth gives her the courage or the anger or the wherewithal to say “never again” for the first time in her life. Maybe the scene in which Maleficent can’t walk sparks outrage in a mother whose doing her best to safeguard her young daughter. But to the fifteen year old whose self esteem has been so battered by abuse she finds herself carving self-deprecating words into her own skin, the scene in which Maleficent can’t walk reminds her of the time her inner thighs were bruised and every step she took was a reminder that she meant nothing. Maybe seeing her own pain so depicted leads her to defend the movie others are criticizing, which leads to an outburst she can’t control in which truth finally gets said.
Unless we open the door to these types of conversations, children will continue to be raped. Because while many of them find words by the grace of God, most of them don’t know how to tell.
Did you know a judge recently let a rapist off without jail time and then added insult to injury by blaming the rape on the fifteen-year-old victim because she was dressed a certain way? Or that a college recently undermined the severity of rape by ruling that the three offenders, of whom they had video evidence, be banned from the university — but not until after graduation? In other words, these three college boys who raped a girl get to continue living on campus until they graduate. Did you know that there are people who will sell a young girl’s virginity to anyone who has the cash, then stitch her insides up again so that they can re-sell her as a virgin? Did you know that in a classroom of 6, 3 are abused every night?
I know the problem is a worldwide epidemic and I understand that the idea of trying to stop it is overwhelming. I have spent nights crying because somewhere in my own neighborhood a kid is being raped and I don’t know which house she’s in. But the thing is… part of the reason it is allowed to continue is because we undermine the severity of rape by not talking about it. Or we make jokes about it. Or we treat young boys who rape as “boys” who deserve to get off lightly “the first time.” We don’t want girls talking about it because then we have to deal with it. So the entire subject of rape, or abuse of any kind, is still taboo, even in civilized twenty-first Century America. So taboo that when a movie comes out and makes a subtle reference to it, a reference so subtle that most children, teens and even some adults, won’t catch, we keep our kids as far away as we can so we can better “protect” them. The best way to protect them is to teach them how to talk about issues the rest of the world doesn’t want to talk about. Conversation is the only way to teach self-respect and truth. It’s the only way to teach children that we matter. And sometimes it’s easier for kids, and teens, to open up while discussing a movie or a book then it is for them to discuss their own pain. Thus, compassionate and well-thought out movies like Maleficent should be welcomed in our theaters and our homes, not feared. Of course I would not recommend a movie in which explicit scenes of rape were shown. I wouldn’t watch such a movie and I wouldn’t let my girls watch such a movie either. But one that leaves open the possibility of dialogue is important.
In the end of the movie, Maleficent learns that revenge cannot heal a broken heart. She learns that revenge cannot undo the past, either. Maleficent is not your typical Disney princess: she is way stronger. Even before she is betrayed and hurt, she’s a powerful leader, defeating an entire army as a young girl. Even with the scene where she awakens and is devastated by a deep betrayal, it’s made clear that she’s not a helpless, insipid female victim. Instead, she’s got depth. The betrayal results in complex, lifelike emotions ranging from haunting pain to anger to indifference. She also never seeks to be “rescued” because the power to overcome lies not within the kiss of a prince but within the grace, self-sufficiency and courage that God deposits into our own hearts. She never actually forgives Stephan (which would lead to an entirely different blog whose question would be: should she?) but she does reach a point where she is emotionally ready and capable of letting the past, and the anger, go. She learns that love is more powerful than anger. Indeed, love is more powerful justice, too, for it isn’t Stephan’s destiny that brings new life to the Moors, it’s the presence of an open heart and true love. She learns that pride and greed serve only to breed unhappiness. When the credits began playing, I found myself aching with tenderness and replaying one of the movie’s final quotes that said, “…she was both hero and villain…” Haven’t we all played the parts of villain and hero in our own lives? It’s the condition of the human race, being possessed of both admirable and questionable traits and so we must decide: is that a beautiful thing or not?
What determines whether we fly with our own wings or not isn’t the presence or absence of a knight in shining armor but whether or not we ever learn to believe we can soar. I used to use my every flaw, every wrong decision, every sin, as proof that I was “bad” and therefore unworthy of love and affection. I used an invisible scale with my “villainous” traits on one side and my “hero-like” traits on the other to evaluate my own worth. Because there always seemed to be more villainous traits than hero-like ones, my self-esteem plummeted. I would never live up to Cinderella, whose grace was unparalleled, or Rapunzel, who was unfailingly loyal. I would never be as beautiful as Snow White or as innocent as Aurora. This has been an emotional blog post but not until penning those sentences did tears fill my eyes. We all ache to go to the ball, to see the lanterns, to find true love, to fill the shoes of a princess. But such flawless, villainous-free heroines are unreachable because we’re not fictional. We’re instead thrust here in the real-world where the line between right and wrong is often gray. If you keep trying to be one of those flawless princesses, eventually, you’ll “grow-up” and come to believe, as Maleficent did, that true love doesn’t really exist at all. If, on the other hand, you learn to accept yourself for who you are, flaws included, then maybe you’ll see that a real princess has depth and character, the likes of which can only come through true trial, mistakes, triumphs and failures. The real princesses, then, are those who leave a piece of their hearts unguarded, a tiny corner open to the world. The real princess is the Maleficent inside of us.