Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton
Stars: Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), Elle Fanning (Aurora), Sharlto Copley (Stefan), Lesley Manville (Flittle), Imelda Staunton (Knotgrass), Juno Temple (Thistletwit), Sam Riley (Diaval), Brenton Thwaites (Prince Phillip), Kenneth Cranham (King Henry), Sarah Flind (Princess Leila’s Handmaiden), Hannah New (Princess Leila), Isobelle Molloy (Young Maleficent), Michael Higgins (Young Stefan), Ella Purnell (Teen Maleficent)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2014
Country: U.S.Maleficent Blu-ray
MaleficentMuch like the smash Broadway musical Wicked, Disney’s Maleficent takes a familiar story—in this case, Disney’s own 1959 film version of the 17th-century fairy tale Sleeping Beauty—and attempts to turn it on its head by viewing the action through the perspective of the villainess. And, because it is meant to be, like Wicked, grand, easily digestible entertainment, we can be assured that the point of the film is not to enlarge the titular character’s evil and encourage us to revel in it, but rather to contextualize it, explain it, and eventually redeem it—in short, to humanize cartoon malevolence.

Returning from a four-year hiatus from the silver screen, Angelina Jolie gives Disney’s green-skinned sorceress flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional presence (unlike her fatal miscasting in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling [2008], she looks like she belongs in this world). The sickly colored flesh is gone, replaced by Jolie’s porcelain white complexion, offset by blood-red lips and subtle prosthetics that enhance her cheekbones and make them look like knife blades jutting out from below her eyes, which at various times in the movie might as well be weapons. Given her long absence from the screen, one might reasonably wonder whether Jolie can return and anchor a major special effects extravaganza, but she does exactly that, drawing our attention away from the rote fantasy wonderment cooked up by a massive team of CGI artists and reminding us that good ol’ fashioned screen presence—the kind that simply can’t be manufactured—is often cinema’s greatest special effect.

We first meet Maleficent as a young winged fairy (played by Isobelle Molloy), who flies joyously around the magical world in which she resides. Unfortunately, the magical world of fairies and trolls and other fantastical beings borders on the realm of the humans, and you know that they are always up to no good. Enter Stefan (Michael Higgins), a teenage thief who sneaks into the magical realm and strikes up a relationship with Maleficent, thus suggesting that there might be eventual peace between the two races.

Alas, that is not to be, as the king of the human realm wages war against his peaceful neighbors, and Stefan (now played by Sharlto Copley) gives in to his all-too-human desire for power by exploiting his relationship with Maleficent to murder her (she is the most powerful of the fairies, and thus the prime target for elimination). However, when the time comes he can’t quite go through with it, so instead he cuts off her wings and presents them to the king, who then bestows on Stefan his crown. Maleficent is so enraged by this betrayal that she becomes dark and embittered, surrounding the magical realm with a huge wall of thorns and striking Stefan’s newborn daughter Aurora with the infamous curse: Before her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep from which she can only be awoken by true love’s kiss. Maleficent adds that last bit out of a flash of pity, but also because she believes that it will make no difference because, in her mind, true love does not exist.

Stefan, in a desperate attempt to keep his daughter safe, sends her away with three bumbling fairies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple) who fly the infant girl to a remote cottage where they will raise her until a day after her 16th birthday, at which point she will be safe. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) introduces a new wrinkle here, suggesting that Maleficent, far from forgetting about she-who-will-be-Sleeping-Beauty (Elle Fanning), takes an active role in watching over her from afar. When Aurora comes across Maleficent in the woods, she mistakes her for her fairy godmother. Maleficent plays along, but a funny thing happens on the way to Aurora’s Sweet Sixteen: She begins to like the girl and regret the curse under which she has placed her, to the point that the film’s big climax is not a prince fighting the evil sorceress, but rather the sorceress racing to Stefan’s castle in a last-minute bid to undo what she has done. Of course, it’s never that simple, and we get all of the familiar beats from the animated classic, albeit with some amusing twists (the best being the bland, Justin Bieber-ish prince’s kiss, which, like the romantic kiss in Disney’s previous mega-hit Frozen, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be).

Given the enormous budget, it is not surprising that Maleficent looks great, with its soaring vistas, enormous sets, and elaborate costume designs. The film was helmed by Robert Stromberg, a newbie in the director’s chair who brings with him an impressive resume of effects and production design work on films such as Avatar (2009) and Alice in Wonderland (2010), both of which netted him Oscars for art direction. There is no doubt that Stromberg has a great eye for elaborate visuals, although at this point we’ve seen so many grand, three-dimensional fantasy worlds that they’re all starting to blend together. Too much of Maleficent looks too familiar, and as a result the film, despite all the careful craftsmanship that went into, feels undistinguished. The flow of the story is often problematic, as well, with overly obvious narration dolling out exposition and acting as glue between scenes that might otherwise not flow into each other (there were reports of clashes on the set and John Lee Hancock being brought in to shoot additional scenes).

But, whenever the film threatens to sink into CGI oblivion or narrative clunkiness, Jolie is there to save the day with her screen-grabbing presence. What makes her turn as Maleficent so good is that Jolie plays the character straight, like she would any other dramatic role. She doesn’t camp it up or turn her into a cartoon. Rather, she plays her as a tragic figure out of Shakespeare—a good fairy turned bad by the betrayal of what she thought was true love, and the film’s heart lies in the way she eventually reclaims her belief in love, albeit not of the romantic variety. The scene in which Stefan robs her of her wings is played with great, dark intensity, and many commentators are right to view it as a thinly veiled rape scene, in which Stefan lures Maleficent with false promises, drugs her into unconsciousness, assaults her, and leaves her to wake up alone and broken, shrieking in pain and anguish. Jolie’s performance here is particularly powerful (her grief-stricken cry looks just like the one she emitted as Daniel Pearl’s widow in A Mighty Heart), and it pushes the movie into a dark place that edges it well out of traditional “children’s film” territory and into the realm of the truly Grimm.

Maleficent Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD

Aspect Ratio2.40:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround 7.1,
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • “From Fairy Tale to Feature Film” featurette
  • “Building An Epic Battle” featurette
  • “Classic Couture” featurette
  • “Maleficent Revealed” featurette
  • “Aurora: Becoming A Beauty” featurette
  • Deleted scenes
  • DistributorWalt Disney Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateNovember 4, 2014

    They don’t look or sound much better than this. Disney’s high-definition presentation of Maleficent does full justice to the film’s broad visual scope, giving us a razor-sharp, highly detailed presentation of the story’s impressively mounted fantasy world. Colors are bright and bold, especially in the film’s opening moments, and when it goes darker the 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation impressively handles black levels and shadow detail without fault. The film isn’t always perfectly seamless in merging physical action with CGI effects, but to be honest the slightly unreal aspect of the film’s visual palette suits the material quite well. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1-channel surround soundtrack is quite a knockout, with immersive separation, a thundering low end, and a great attention to subtle detail that helps make the fantastical environment truly come alive.
    The supplements are, unfortunately, a bit light, consisting primarily of a half-dozen EPK-style featurettes that typically run between five and eight minutes in length: “From Fairy Tale to Feature Film” covers the work done in telling the story in Disney’s original animated Sleeping Beauty from a different perspective; “Building an Epic Battle” focuses primarily on the stuntwork involved in the battle sequences; “Classic Couture” is a very brief (like, less than two minutes) look at Maleficent’s magnificent headgear; “Maleficent Revealed” gives us a glimpse of a number of CGI effects shots in different stages of production; and “Aurora: Becoming a Beauty” focuses primarily on Elle Fanning’s experience making the film. Most of the featurettes include interviews with same principles, including stars Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning (Sharlto Copley is conspicuously absent), producer Joe Roth, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Also included on the disc are five deleted scenes, all of which were rightly excised with the exception of a scene between Stefan and the king that helps deepen and better explain his character.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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