Saturday, May 31, 2014

Maleficent - A provocative conversation starter for adolescents and adults, not a movie for kids.

Last night my wife and I had the rare opportunity to go to a movie together without our kids (13 and 11). Perhaps because we are so well trained, we still ended up at a Disney movie. To my surprise though, this kids' movie didn't seem so great for kids, although I consider it an important potential  conversation starter for adults.
Advanced warning: for those who simply want to go and see the flick, this post contains spoilers. On the other hand, for parents thinking about taking their kids, I invite you to read on despite the spoilers.
I am glad I went to see Maleficent.
It is in the vein of movies (I guess started largely by the novel and play Wicked) that add complexity to and rewrite the story behind the story of our cherished villains. I found Maleficent an interesting movie and appreciate attempts to re-write our society's gender scripts. I also specifically enjoyed the power and majesty of the lead character Maleficent, and was interested in and rooting for her success in the long emotional journey to healing that she traversed over the course of the film.
That said, I would NOT take children under 14 to see the movie, and I would only take someone 14 or over so as to begin complex discussions, about, trauma, gender roles, crime, sympathy, healing, and, yes, rape. I say the latter because the turning point of the story is a clear metaphorical rape of the lead character. In her sleep she is horribly and viciously violated and permanently damaged in an outrageous act of cowardice that was for me almost inconceivable in its awfulness (though I know it happens), even given the film's explanation of the perpetrator's motives.
From the metaphorical rape on, the complexity of the movie is in a consideration of how and why the lead character deals with and is changed by the horrible, physical and emotional pain that was inflicted upon her. One piece of broader context is that NO ONE EVER DISCUSSES or perhaps even begins to understand her pain. For me this only deepens the violation as an apt metaphor for rape. From a Disney film standpoint - and for that matter a viewer standpoint - what we have in essence is a a convincing justification for the actions that have the protagonist, Maleficent, viewed as evil, and then we have her journey to healing. Pretty grown up stuff - stuff I believe we should be thinking through in fact. But it is also stuff that needs to be thoughtfully delivered to adolescents, and stuff that younger kids are not likely to be ready to intelligently process without taking away simplistic and harmful messages.
In contrast to the complexity around a victim's response to violation, the featured men in the film (basically all the villains) are just incomprehensibly evil. The simplicity of this part of the film was ridiculous. Several times I felt my face contorting in nothing other than basic confusion as I wondered, "now why exactly, is the King so hell bent on doing this," and then later on "now, why exactly is this NEW king so hell bent on doing this new stupidly evil thing?" The evil men were not only evil, they didn't even make sense in their evil. It was weird. Stepping back, as a viewer I then realized that, wait a minute, there are two kingdoms, the good kingdom of fairies without hierarchy and living in harmony, and the nasty kingdom ruled by men. Hmmm. OK, I guess that is not a totally unreasonable way to describe the world. But then again, I am trying to teach my kids (one boy, one girl) about how to live into and help create a better world, and this picture, well, it kinda messes it up for both sides in terms of the lessons they'd learn. 
In the end, though, I want to be clear. I like the movie overall and will buy it on DVD and watch it again. I will likely even build curriculum around it for my high school students. I will watch in large part as one more piece of fodder as I continually think through how to be an effective guide for young people, so many of whom, whether viewed as "fine" or as "behavior problems" are dealing with horrific shit that most people remain blissfully unaware of. From a curriculum development standpoint, I may use this film to start conversations that (I would hope) help young people I work with collectively and individually think through all these issues that I have pointed out are in play in the film. 

As a victim's advocate, as an advocate for healing after trauma, as a person who enjoys thinking through even those movies that are supposedly not so heavy, I say go watch the film. But I also say, challenge and question the film and explore what you agree with and what you find problematic. As a parent, I also say, go watch the movie. But leave your pre-teens and tweens at home.

No comments:

Post a Comment