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In an unforgiving mood after a neighboring kingdom threatens her forest, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) places an irrevocable curse on the king’s newborn daughter, the Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning). But, as the child grows, Maleficent finds herself becoming fond of the girl. And, as the conflict between the two realms intensifies, Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land. (From Disney’s official synopsis)

 Maleficent
Following the success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and ABC’s Once Upon a Time TV series, big budget, live-action fairytale adaptations have become unexpectedly popular. Since the days of animation, Walt Disney Studios has always been at the forefront of any mainstream fairytale filmmaking. Aside from reinvigorating their ‘princess tradition’ with CG animated films like Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013), Disney does seem focused on bringing all of their classic cartoons to live-action, either on Once Upon a Time or in upcoming movies, like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, which should be released next year. Disney’s latest live-action smash hit, Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent (which was originally developed alongside Alice in Wonderland), slightly skews the formula by retelling a fairytale; in this case, Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the villain. Unlike Snow White and the Huntsman, another movie told partially from the villain’s perspective, it reframes the title character as a protagonist. This feeds into a long tradition of corporations turning their most beloved bad guys into good guys, including Marvel’s comic book incarnation of Venom, The Terminator, Universal’s Dracula Untold, Star Trek’s Klingons, Godzilla, and just about every villain to ever appear on Dragon Ball.

Maleficent is Stromberg’s first film as director. Following a long stint as a special effects artist/supervisor, he graduated to production designer on digital effects-heavy movies, such as Avatar (2009), Alice in Wonderland, and Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013). The fact that Disney hired him to front such a giant production without any previous experience behind the bullhorn gives you an idea of what they wanted from the project. For his part, Stromberg fills the role, ensuring that the CG-heavy feature, like Alice in Wonderland, is basically an animated film with actors and landscapes occasionally inserted. The effects are convincing and, despite a number of familiar elements, the production design is very attractive. Stromberg’s biggest strengths as a director lie in the film’s more majestic imagery – stuff like sweeping shots of Maleficent magically transforming the fantastical Moors environment. On the other hand, his action sequences are a bit over-cut/over-crash-zoomed and he seems pretty disengaged from the purely expositional scenes. Angelina Jolie’s performance tends to pull these shortcomings out of the fire, but any sequences not centered on her or spectacular visual effects are flat.

 Maleficent
In recent years, Disney’s most expensive live-action fantasies all seem to go into production without finished scripts or have scripts that are extensively altered during production. I suppose that the studio heads and producers are invoking the collaborative story successes of their animated output over the decades – not to mention Pixar’s think tank approach – but what works for cartoons doesn’t necessarily work for standard, live-action tent-poles. Despite memorable imagery and special effects artistry, movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (2005 – 2011), Tron Legacy (2010), Alice in Wonderland, and Oz: The Great and Powerful are grotesquely unwieldy and arbitrary on a narrative level. For all of its problems, Maleficent actually has a relatively homogenous story structure. The script is attributed only to Linda Woolverton, who worked on animated films that include Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, along with Burton’s aforementioned (and horrible) Alice in Wonderland, but, given the studio’s M.O. and the long gestation of the project, I’m going to guess that there were at least a half dozen script doctors as well. The writers follow a number of well-worn tropes through a generally competent retelling of the original animated film. A few of the specifics are left unexplained, most of them snuffed out during the unseen period between Stefan’s ascent to the throne and the birth of Aurora (I’m curious about what exactly happened between the ‘good’ fairies and Maleficent, and what the hell happened to them once Maleficent and Aurora start to hang out), but there aren’t too many blatant plot holes.

Unfortunately, pretty images and a coherent screenplay aren’t really enough to overcome the fact that the film never really finds a compelling reason to retell this story. After the 30-minute back-story, the strongest cornerstones of the narrative are beholden to the original movie’s plot and everything outside of those limits seems extraneous. The majority of the unique narrative elements could be cut out without affecting the overall structure. And this is particularly problematic, considering that the film is only 97 minutes long, including credits. Normally, I’d consider the brief runtime a blessing, but, in this case, the brevity only acts to highlight the listlessness of the entire second act.  The film doesn’t have much to say about its characters, either. Though her redemption is relatively potent (thanks in large part to Jolie’s presence), the title character fills an obnoxious ‘evil women are women scorned’ cliché, Aurora is a walking doll for most of the film, and her fairy godmothers are unfunny (often forgotten) clowns. King Stefan’s toneless, obsessive, and needlessly cruel hatred of Maleficent is the most dubious element, though, especially since he is allowed no redemption or tonal complexity. Even a gonzo Sharlto Copley performance can’t save the character.

 Maleficent
The colourful imagery (even the ‘sad,’ evil Maleficent-controlled Moors is flecked with neon and inhabited by adorable critters) and some sweet scenes between Maleficent and Aurora stave off the brand of bleakness that made Snow White and the Huntsman so astonishingly boring, but Maleficent still has its share of indomitable bummers. Some of these are overplayed to the point that they awkwardly undercut the film’s otherwise kid-friendly themes. Things start on the right foot with the charming budding of Maleficent and pre-King Stefan set against a proper fairytale backdrop. But, soon enough, war is breaking out, because that’s what all post- Lord of the Rings fantasy movies do now, and the more feathery charms are replaced with sad faces and dour proclamations, culminating early in a really uncomfortable scene where Stefan slips Maleficent a Mickey and cuts off her wings. The film never really recovers from this out-of-place date rape analogy.

 Maleficent

Video


Maleficent was shot with Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and post-converted into 3D for theatrical release. This 2D Blu-ray is presented in 2.40:1, 1080p HD and is just as colourful, crisp, and sparkly as you’d expect from a big-budget film with so much CG enhancement. Stromberg and cinematographer Dean Semler fight to find a middle ground between an animated film and a more grounded fantasy, like the Lord of the Rings movies, creating imagery that is cartoonishly garish and hyper-detailed at the same time. It’s not always attractive, but it certainly lends itself to a spectacular Blu-ray transfer. The crispness is the most noteworthy element, especially in the vast, computer-enhanced natural landscapes, where even the most minute details can be easily discerned to an unnatural degree (everything looks like it was shot on green screens, even the stuff that clearly wasn’t). The textural complexity of some shots is truly breathtaking. Even the clarity of the gloomy night-set sequences is impressive, though some of the darkest shots have minor over-sharpening effects along highlighted edges. The hue separation is absolutely brilliant, including a number of extremely eclectic images of the fairy kingdom and, more spectacularly, the practically monochromatic green, blue, and white environments, where a single contrasting hue (Jolie’s bright red lipstick, torches, and purple or green ‘magic’) appears cleanly punchy. Some of the smoother gradations have minor noise issues, but there are no notable banding effects. Black levels are particularly rich as well.

 Maleficent

Audio


The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is also as spectacular as we’d expect from an expensive Disney production. The mix is continuously teeming with activity. The action sequences, such as the big tree-people vs. human soldier battle that opens the film and the iron chains and dragon-infused climax, are the obvious highlights, but the more low-key scenes of the Moors blooming and fairy critters scuttling among the sparkling plants are incredibly immersive. Maleficent’s magic offers the sound designers an excuse to include more abstract elements that wash more sound into the stereo and surround speakers. Even the dialogue-heavy scenes feature pointed directional elements and, quite often, are thickened by a supernatural LFE rumble. James Newton Howard’s score is way, way over-the-top, which sometimes fits and sometimes grates. The music is a relatively constant presence, filling in a number of aural gaps during exposition dumps and big CG establishing shots.

 Maleficent

Extras


  • From Fairy Tale to Feature Film (8:10, HD) – Interviews with the cast and crew, who discuss the adaptation of the original animated story and includes some behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
  • Building An Epic Battle (5:50, HD) – Behind-the-scenes of the big man vs. nature fight from the beginning of the film.
  • Classic Couture (1:30, HD) – On the spectacular costume design.
  • Maleficent Revealed (4:50, HD) – A quick look at the film’s special effects processes.
  • Aurora: Becoming A Beauty (4:50, HD) – Concerning Elle Fanning’s role in the movie.
  • Five deleted/extended scenes (6:40, HD) – These include a lot of footage of the good fairies (apparently pixies) being unfunny


 Maleficent

Overall


I didn’t enjoy Maleficent very much, but I was also unconvinced by the concept. It’s certainly a pretty movie, Jolie’s central performance is strong, and the screenplay isn’t a mess, so I suppose viewers that were interested by the prospect of Disney retelling Sleeping Beauty from the point-of-view of its villain will be satisfied. Though, the weird tonal shifts might be too off-putting for younger audiences. Disney’s 2D Blu-ray looks incredibly sharp and the DTS-HD MA soundtrack is spectacularly smooth and busy. The extras are disappointing (not unexpected for a first-run Disney home video release these days), but do include some deleted scenes and brief behind-the-scenes footage.

 Maleficent
Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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