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Review: 'Maleficent' on Blu-Ray

Joe Strike finally takes a look at Disney’s latest “reimagineering” following its release on Blu-Ray.

Well, it took me a couple of weeks but I finally got around to screening the Maleficent blu-ray the Disney folks were kind enough to send my way.

The Mouse Factory has been on a reimagining kick in recent years, keeping their Reimagineers busy coming up with live-action movies based on their theme park attractions (The Haunted Mansion, etc.), past fantasy classics (Oz the Great and Powerful) and now their animated features; down the road await a live-action Cinderella and a second Jungle Book movie after a 1994 attempt.

And at the moment, the live-action story of the real hero of Sleeping Beauty—that old spellcaster Maleficent. They couldn’t have chosen a better leading lady than Angelina Jolie. She carries Maleficent’s magnificent horns (second only to Tim Curry’s in Legend) quite elegantly, and her already formidable cheekbones have been enhanced into razor-sharp edges courtesy of make-up maven Rick Baker.

If I could wipe one overused sci-fi/fantasy trope out of existence, it would be the villain who’s a villain because he sounds like a villain (yes, I’m talking about you Darth); it’s much easier than coming up with an actual motivation for his villainy. The only film I can remember avoiding the gimmick is the first Kung Fu Panda, whose villain had a legitimate gripe against the good guys. (Sadly, Kung Fu Panda 2’s villain was a villain who’s a villain because…)

Linda Woolverton’s screenplay gives Maleficent a hell of a motive: her childhood crush Stefan has taken advantage of their relationship by de-winging her (you didn’t know she originally sported a pair, did you?)  and using his trophy to bag a bigger trophy: the king’s throne. The double-cross turns Maleficent heartbroken… and oh yeah, evil.

When Stefan’s daughter Aurora is born, Maleficent crashes the party to bestow her “gift” upon the baby. It’s a nifty scene, both for what it preserves from Walt’s original feature (almost all of Maleficent’s menacing dialog, word for word) and what it changes: she (and not fairy Merryweather) adds the possibility of “true love’s kiss” awakening the gal from her eternal slumber. It’s not a sentimental sentiment this time around, but a wicked irony; after Stefan’s betrayal, as far as Maleficent is concerned there ain’t no such thing as true love.

This is a good point to mention Maleficent’s version of Sleeping Beauty’s “three good fairies.” It might just be my imagination (back in the 1970’s I had the chance to ask some of Disney’s old-timers and they just looked at me funny) but am I the only one who thinks the three of them are affectionate ethnic caricatures: dressed in green Fauna a WASP-y schoolteacher, scarlet-garbed Flora a kindly Jewish grandmother and chubby Merryweather (the one in blue) an Italian mama?

No matter, for they’re nowhere to be seen in Maleficent; instead we have the female fairy version of the Three Stooges: Thistlewitt, Knotgrass and Flittle, a trio of clueless klutzes who spend more time in slapstick battles against one another than looking after Aurora. It falls to Maleficent to keep an eye on the “little beasty” she finds herself growing fond of. Unlike the animated version, Maleficent knows Aurora’s whereabouts from day one, thanks to her familiar: Diaval, a shape-shifting snoopy crow (played in human form by Sam Riley). The rapport between the two provides Maleficent with some pleasing human moments. (When he gives her a reproachful look after she pranks the fairies she responds “oh come on, that’s funny.”) Frankly, I’m a bit disappointed he didn’t provide the awakening true love’s kiss, but I won’t tell you who does. (Read the footnote at the end of this review if you enjoy spoilers—but you’ll probably see it coming on your own.)

After Aurora’s revived, it’s time for the grand Maleficent/Stefan showdown, an ass-kicking action finale in which she sheds her robes in favor of a skin-tight leather outfit that could’ve been worn by Diana Rigg back in her Avengers days. (The British TV series, not the Marvel movie.) It’s one wild ride of a character arc for Maleficent: from innocent fairy to wronged woman to vengeful villain to redeemed hero.

I guess I should mention Elle Fanning who plays Aurora, although IMHO she brings nothing in particular to the role beyond her last name. Oh, and as for the narrator we’ve been listening to throughout the film… read the spoiler footnote if you dare. (And again, you’ll very likely see it coming.)

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SPOILER FOOTNOTE: a) True Love’s kiss? see Frozen again; b) The narrator’s identity? The Road Warrior did it first.

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Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.