MALEFICENT – Blu-ray review

Hell hath no fury like a woman (or, apparently, Baby Boomer) scorned.

Disney’s live-action “Maleficent” has irked and annoyed more than a few of the generation that saw the studio’s animated “Sleeping Beauty” in theaters when it was released in 1959. That’s because the evil fairy Maleficent was Disney’s first larger-than-life villain, someone everyone loved to hate.

Now the haters are angry that in reworking the material for a live-action feature, Disney went the “Wicked” route, offering up a completely sympathetic portrait of a Disney villain so that she’s really no longer recognizable as a villain. She’s both villain and hero, as the character Aurora proclaims.

Some will insist that Disney can’t have it both ways, arguing that they spoiled a perfectly good villain by giving her a heartbreaking backstory and making her more of a softie than you’d ever have imagined possible. I mean, this IS quite a turnaround, since the original animated Maleficent was a truly menacing creature who enveloped the screen in fire when she turned herself into a dragon and tried to keep Prince Philip from reaching the sleeping Aurora to bestow that all-important kiss. Even when she spoke softly or stroked her pet raven, you could hear dead silence in the theaters because people were holding their collective breath, dreading what might happen. She was a storm that could erupt at any moment.

But in 2014, Maleficent is the protagonist, not the antagonist. As Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman did with the their Broadway musical reimagining of the Wicked Witch of the West (from “The Wizard of Oz”), Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton and director Robert Stromberg decided to tell the story from the maligned character’s point of view, taking a similarly revisionist approach. In this, I think they were hugely successful. They give Maleficent a context so that she’s not villainous, but rather a protector of the fairy world against encroachments from warlike humans. They give her a motivation for the curse she bestows on King Stefan’s newborn daughter, something more significant than the petty reason offered in the animated version: not being invited to the christening. They even tweak the story so that we see how she regrets the curse and wishes for a way to take it back. What’s more, it all feels logical.

It’s clever, really, how the filmmakers are able to turn such a menacing character into a victim, and the fun in watching Disney’s “Maleficent” comes from seeing the gradual steps they take to completely transform the horned fairy and flip this fairy tale on its head.

And the casting? I really don’t see this working without Angelina Jolie, who has the same angular face as Disney’s villain and who’s able to be both menacing, when she needs to be, and sympathetic, when a scene calls for it. There’s a harshness and beauty in her face that perfectly suits the character. Sharlito Copley, meanwhile, does a nice job of handling Stefan’s own transformation from an idealistic young man to a self-serving one, and finally a bitter old man filled with hate. And Elle Fanning dishes up a large serving of sweetness and naiveté as the teenage Aurora.

Sam Riley does a decent job of acting the part of a human transformed from a raven, and it’s worth mentioning that the actors who play young Maleficent and young Stefan (Isobelle Molloy, Michael Higgins) are charming as can be. If there’s a weak link, it’s the three fairies that fans will remember as Fauna, Flora, and Merryweather, renamed here as Knotgrass, Thistletwit, and Flittle. There are hints of humor, but not the all-out comic relief that we got from the three fairies in the animated version. It’s almost as if the director couldn’t tell how he wanted them to play it—straight, or comic—because once the three take Aurora to a cottage in the woods to hide her until she turns 16 and is no longer in danger, it’s as if those fairies had become superfluous to the plot, and it doesn’t matter HOW they play it. In fact, they disappear altogether for quite a while, yielding the spotlight to Maleficent and Aurora.

My only other complaint is that toward the end of the second act Disney gets a little too sugary in their attempt to candy-coat Maleficent’s evil-doing.

But those are relatively small issues, especially if you consider how much CGI eye candy Disney animators serve up. In essentially turning a fairy tale into a fantasy, Disney creates a realm that rivals Middle Earth, with a broad array of creatures and fantastic plants and other details. The action is tremendous as well, with seamless effects that are eye-popping, whether in large-scale battles or small actions like the “butterfly effect.”

If it wasn’t for those fairies and the awkward limbo they found themselves in, trapped somewhere between humor and fantasy, I’d give this accomplished and ambitious film an 8 out of 10—and not just to spite those irritated Baby Boomers. But the fairies, played by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple, annoyed my son enough for him to voice that as HIS only complaint. When a teenage boy embraces a fairy story apart from that single complaint, you know there’s a lot more going on than the typical fairytale account, and he did like this a lot better than the original animated feature. So did my teenage daughter. So if Disney’s goal was to reimagine “Sleeping Beauty” for a new generation, you’d have to say it’s mission accomplished.

“Maleficent” is rated PG for “sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images,” and has a runtime of 97 minutes.

Video:
“Maleficent” comes to 50GB Blu-ray disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode that appears flawless. Presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the film is visually astounding. Colors and creatures have real pop and presence, and animated sequences blend seamlessly with live action and real backgrounds. The level of detail couldn’t be stronger, with perfect black levels and a phenomenal amount of detail.

Audio:
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 7.1 that really delivers an immersive experience. Mid tones have just as much to say as the treble and bass elements, and the distribution of sound across the speakers has a natural feel and flow to it. Additional audio options are available in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, and an English Descriptive 2.0, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

Extras:
This combo pack comes with a DVD and Digital HD Copy. Several deleted scenes are also included, along with five featurettes:  “Aurora: Becoming a Beauty” (with Elle Fanning giving her take on the character), “From Fairy Tale to Feature Film” (reimagining Maleficent for a new generation), “Building an Epic Battle” (creating the clash between Maleficent and King Henry’s forces), “Classic Couture” (Malificent’s “look”), and “Maleficent Revealed,” which explores the special effects. All are quite good, though not as long as fans might wish them to be.

Bottom line:
Critics were split, mostly because of the Baby Boomer factor, but audiences loved “Maleficent.” The film grossed more than $750 million worldwide, which put it ahead of “Guardians of the Galaxy” by $17 million and ahead of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” by $36 million. Only “Transformers: Age of Extinction” drew more people to the box office in 2014 ($836 million). “Maleficent” soars—a visually exciting film that’s clever in its revisionist impulses.

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