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Monday, November 3, 2014

MALEFICENT Not Quite Magnificent, But Jolie Is

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Maleficent' on Blogcritics.

Disney’s Maleficent, a re-telling of the classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty with a twist, comes to Blu-ray and DVD this week. Starring Angelina Jolie (Salt, Mr. & Mrs Smith) in the title role, this film seeks to give layers to what has often been a one-dimensional villain, unspooling the story from a different perspective. It’s one that mostly works. I admit to having relatively low expectations going in, despite a friend’s defense of it, which means the enjoyable result is a pleasant surprise.

Maleficent begins with the titular fairy as a young girl (played by Isobelle Molloy, EastEnders). She’s innocent and bold, loving life and the world around her. One day, Maleficent meets Stefan (Michael Higgins), a human. Despite his bad traits, such as a penchant for stealing, the two hit it off. Little does the girl know, though, that Stefan will grow up to be a manipulative man (Sharlto Copley, District 9) who will betray her in order to become king.

This is when Maleficent turns dark, somewhat early in the running time. After her wings are stolen in a moving sequence, her need for revenge is understandable. That she takes it out on an unborn child makes less sense,  but even this wronged version of the character is not one who will murder or maim, so perhaps it’s done in an empty-threat, kick-the-can-down-the-road sort of way. Once Aurora (Elle Fanning, Super 8) is born, though, and sent to live with three inept pixies (Harry Potter‘s Imelda Staunton, Fleming‘s Lesley Manville, and Killer Joe‘s Juno Temple), Maleficent can’t help but be drawn to the child, whom she comes to like and protect, which makes the fulfillment of the curse somewhat complicated.

While not normally a huge fan of Jolie, I don’t think the movie would work in practically anyone else’s hands. The role is perfect for her. Jolie captures the coldness and danger lurking beneath Malefient’s exterior, but also the vulnerability and magic of the part. She plays this evil-looking, yet still gorgeous, witch in a way that never feels scary, and that pairs nicely with the perpetually-sweet Aurora. Make no mistake about it, Jolie is the number one reason to watch this film.

The story itself isn’t bad. It’s a tad simplistic and predictable, while also weak in logic periodically. Yet it’s cohesive and plays out in a way that makes sense for the characters. Fast-paced enough to hold a child’s interest, the material is deep enough for adults to engage with, too, striking that rare balance in a movie that the whole family truly can enjoy.

Maleficent does push the boundaries of the PG rating. There is no cursing or sex, but there is plenty of violence, including some Lord of the Rings-esque battle scenes, which tend to be required for this type of movie these days (though they’re mostly unnecessary in this case). The humor, mostly delivered by the three pixies, who are well-cast with three terrific, somewhat underused actresses, is more silly than edgy, which may be a good thing for the target audience.

The visuals of Maleficent are mostly stunning as presented in 1080p high definition. There are some moments where certain characters are noticeably digital renderings, rather than actors, but the creatures that populate Maleficent’s moor, as well as the world the movie is set in, are beautiful. The pixies are done by blending the actresses’ actual features into animated creations in a very cool way. I only wish a 3D version were to be officially released in the U.S. (Amazon does have a region-free version listed) as this movie practically begs for that added depth, but it’s still a very good presentation. The audio levels are mixed in such a way that action scenes are a LOT louder than dialogue ones, so you do have to keep a hand on the remote. However, the clarity in the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix is crystal and music and voices coexist nicely when combined.

Maleficent does have a decent amount of extras, too. There are deleted scenes. The ones featuring the pixies better round out the characters than how they are shown in-film, so I wish they hadn’t been cut. There’s a featurette on Aurora, having Fanning talk about her part, which should appeal to young fans. For the older crowd, we see how the movie is made, the creation of the battle stuff, a look at the visual effects, and Maleficent’s costume elements.

While Maleficent is far from perfect, with Stefan making a forgettable villain, it is well-made and much more enjoyable than I expected it to be. It’s definitely worth a watch for the effects and Jolie’s performance, which are both excellent.

Maleficent
arrives on Blu-ray and DVD November 4.

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