Disney's Maleficent is director Robert Stromberg's re-imagined fairy tale told from the perspective of, and with much empathy for, the sorceress who put the "Sleeping" in Sleeping Beauty. If this is the beginning of a trend - one in which the studio, in effect, remakes its animated classics so that their evil villains are no longer evil or villainous - I can't wait to see what's in store for us next. A baby Scar who seeks vindication after other lion cubs make fun of his unfortunate birthmark? A young, svelte Ursula the Sea Witch driven to malice and gluttony when her sister is turned into caviar?
Maleficent, meanwhile, offers an explanation for why its title character would cast a hideous spell on an innocent newborn at the child's christening, and it turns out - wouldn't ya know it? - that she did it because of a guy. For a time, according to Linda Woolverton's script, all was well with the horned and winged fairy Maleficent (inevitably portrayed by Angelina Jolie). She ruled happily over an enchanted land of impish, saucer-eyed CGI critters and excessive CGI foliage; she protected her terrain from vicious attacks by a neighboring kingdom; she even fell in love with a visiting human named Stefan. (The charming Michael Higgins plays Stefan as a child, while the far less charming Sharlto Copley plays him as an adult.) But Stefan, it turned out, was a major jerk. One night, motivated by greed and the promise of the king's crown, he drugged Maleficent and cut off her wings, and returned to his kingdom as heir to the throne. Consequently, when the wingless Maleficent awoke, she vowed understandable revenge, and before too long - with the birth of the new King Stefan's daughter Aurora - she landed on the perfect opportunity. You can guess what happens next.
In this version of Sleeping Beauty, however, you really can't, and part of the initial fun of the film lies in waiting to see just how Stromberg, Woolverton, and Jolie are going to make the monstrous figure of Maleficent pitiable and sympathetic even after she proclaims that the prick from a spinning wheel will kill Aurora on her 16th birthday. Yet they do this, I'm sorry to say, by cheating. Those acquainted with the original fairy tale will probably recall that baby Aurora is attended by three pixies (played here, as adorable dumplings, by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple). Two of them, at the child's christening, offer Aurora the gifts of beauty and grace and such, but before the third can follow suit, Maleficent interrupts the proceedings to bestow her curse. After she leaves, the third pixie then alters Maleficent's spell so that Aurora will merely sleep, not die, upon pricking her finger, with the added caveat that the girl can eventually be awakened by true love's kiss.
That's kind of what happens in Stromberg's movie, too, but with a crucial difference: It's Maleficent herself who curses Aurora with sleep, rather than death, and who also grants the princess that "wake up with a kiss" exit strategy. (Strangely, while the third pixie is duly interrupted before her gift-giving here, she's completely forgotten about after Maleficent's exit, and never actually gives Aurora a gift.) We're told that because Maleficent doesn't believe in true love, this is equivalent to her cursing Aurora with eternal sleep. But it still seems a rather namby-pamby form of retaliation against Stefan, and this sad de-fanging of her character becomes even more egregious once Aurora grows into a teenager (played by a vacuously grinning Elle Fanning) and Maleficent becomes something of a merry prankster, causing thunderstroms to erupt in the pixies' forest cottage and such.
Jolie's natural imperiousness and suggestions of perversion - to say nothing of her intimidating prosthetic cheekbones - prevent her from ever turning lovable, thank God, and she performs wonders with her dry-comic retorts, as when Aurora greets Maleficent by saying, "You're my Fairy Godmother!" and Jolie takes the tiniest of pauses before deadpanning, "What?" But it's still a depressing sight to watch her turn all warm and gooey (in her way) as she and Aurora gradually bond, and by the time the title character is desperately trying to recant her spell, standing teary-eyed over the girl she's practically adopted as her own, you begin to sense how flawed Maleficent's very premise is. The movie, intriguingly, invites empathy for a monster, but does so by removing nearly every trace of her monstrousness; it seems almost designed to soothe the smallest of children terrified - as they should be - by Maleficent's presence in the 1959 cartoon, and for the rest of us, that isn't necessarily a good thing.
Despite the occasionally supple imagery, as when an unconscious Aurora floats behind Maleficent through the forest, the effects in Stromberg's movie are routinely cheap-looking, the sets and battle sequences are underwhelming, and Brenton Thwaites, the pretty young actor who plays Aurora's prince, is almost comically bland; he appears to have won the role in a contest for empty-headed Gap models. The exact nature and specifics of Maleficent's supernatural gifts are also left annoyingly unaddressed. (I understand that iron is her Kryptonite, which is why she can't properly lay waste to the king's armored guards. Yet if Maleficent's powers can transform a crow into a human and then into a wolf, why is her trek to the castle dependent on finding a horse to carry her?) But while I didn't much like Maleficent, I certainly can't begrudge its popularity, given that its heart - its Wicked-esque desire to bring psychological nuance to a formerly one-dimensional baddie - is clearly in the right place. And if the film had to exist, at least it had the good sense to exist with the supremely charismatic Angelina Jolie in the lead. Not for nothing, after all, does Maleficent rhyme with "magnificent."
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST
A Million Ways to Die in the West is a genially crude slapstick by director/co-writer/star Seth MacFarlane, and the highest possible compliment I can pay the man is that it resembles something Woody Allen might've come up with during his "early, funny" period; this inventive, frequently hysterical movie is like Sleeper or Love & Death with more bodily-fluid jokes and fewer references to Kierkegaard. Set in 1882, but with MacFarlane and most of his co-stars (to the movie's enormous credit) not even trying for period affectation in their line deliveries, A Million Ways, in truth, is little more than a two-hour compilation of throwaway gags and subverted genre clichés held together by a mere wisp of a plot. Yet until it began running out of steam at roughly the 90-minute mark, I'm not sure I ever stopped smiling at MacFarlane's follow-up to 2012's Ted, and I know I laughed with greater consistency and fervor than I have at anything since The Lego Movie.
There are riotous bits involving the unsmiling figures in old-timey photos and the Stephen Foster song catalog and the means by which gentlemen procured the affections of women. ("I can buy her wrapped candies. Can you buy her wrapped candies, Albert?") Though it's a recurring theme throughout, there's a brilliant three-minute segment in which MacFarlane's cowardly sheepherder details all the reasons why the Old West sucks, and some terrifically surprising, terrifically gory deaths via an errant bull and a large block of ice. There's Giovanni Ribisi as a virginal shoe repairman and Sarah Silverman as his prostitute girlfriend - characters who vow not to have sex with each other until marriage because "we're Christians" - and Neil Patrick Harris as a foppish dandy with a handlebar mustache. (Only Amanda Seyfried, here, has nothing to offer comedically, although she's certainly well-cast when on the receiving end of the insult "How can you be so blind with eyes that big?") And best of all, A Million Ways to Die in the West is endearing even when it's not sucker-punching your funny bone, because MacFarlane and Charlize Theron - who are also awfully funny in the film - actually treat us to a grown-up romance that's smart, sincere, and emotional even amidst the madcap clowning. They may not be Allen and Keaton, but they're damned close to the next best thing, and the ever-ravishing Theron earns extra credit for honesty when insisting that MacFarlane date her to make his ex-girlfriend jealous. "When she gets a load of me," says Theron with a smile, "she'll be intimidated as f---." Aren't we all, Charlize. Aren't we all.