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Maleficent: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Review

Maleficent (2014) movie poster Maleficent

Theatrical Release: May 30, 2014 / Running Time: 97 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Robert Stromberg / Writers: Linda Woolverton (screenplay); Charles Perrault ("La Belle au Bois Dormant")

Cast: Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), Elle Fanning (Aurora), Sharlto Copley (Stefan), Lesley Manville (Flittle), Imelda Staunton (Knotgrass), Juno Temple (Thisletwit), Sam Riley (Diaval), Brenton Thwaites (Prince Phillip), Kenneth Cranham (King Henry), Sarah Flind (Princess Leila's Handmaiden), Hannah New (Princess Leila), Isobelle Molloy (Young Maleficent), Michael Higgins (Young Stefan), Ella Purnell (Teen Maleficent), Jackson Bews (Teen Stefan), Janet McTeer (Narrator)

Buy Maleficent from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD • DVD • Instant Video

Fifty-five years ago, Disney's Sleeping Beauty opened and flopped. The ambitious production was the studio's most expensive to date and its box office returns, while solid, were a far cry from the usual high standards.
Today, the film is regarded as one of Disney's crown jewels, an animated fairy tale whose artistry distinguishes it from the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. Like those of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty's initial commercial struggles are long forgotten. Thus, the 1959 film seems like a sturdy foundation for a pre-branded, big-budget live-action fantasy, comparable to 2010's lucrative Alice in Wonderland and last year's Oz the Great and Powerful.

Maleficent clearly belongs to that recent tradition, now a cornerstone of the limited in-house output of a company that has become altogether reliant on brands and increasingly on acquired ones like Marvel and Lucasfilm. Whereas Alice and Oz took advantage of the lighter competition of March, Maleficent aimed even higher, opening the weekend after Memorial Day with the summer movie season at full throttle surrounded by other big movies with more to come every week.

Though live-action Disney films once struggled to be taken seriously, Maleficent didn't arrive underprepared. Estimates place the film's budget between $130 and $200 million, a range on par with the other marquee attractions of the season, like Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Maleficent also boasts the star power of Angelina Jolie, whose A-list status is undisputed despite the underwhelming quality of her filmography.

Fitted with large, swirly horns and distracting prosthetic cheekbones, Jolie feels like inspired casting for the live-action version of one of animation's most iconic characters. But her Maleficent isn't much like the one that readers of this site ranked above all other Disney villains in an oft-cited 2004 countdown. The higher your regard for Sleeping Beauty, the more likely you are to be disappointed by this interpretation.

The Christening scene of "Maleficent" faithfully recreates an iconic moment from "Sleeping Beauty" with Angelina Jolie playing the misunderstood villain.

We open with Maleficent as a young, happy fairy girl (Isobelle Molloy). She is appreciative of the colorful universe she calls home and not greatly invested in the discord between her kind and the humans of a neighboring kingdom. She befriends a young human named Stefan (Michael Higgins) and gets her first kiss from him.

Even for its time, Sleeping Beauty is a slight film, leaving Maleficent screenwriter Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and the aforementioned Tim Burton Alice) and first-time director Robert Stromberg to do some padding.
Their earliest attempts at this are none too promising, giving us a look at a seemingly random conflict between armored men and Maleficent's friends, tree creatures that ride on giant hogs.

Before long, though, we come to the story we know told in a new light. Maleficent (now Jolie) is maimed by her first love, Stefan (now Sharlto Copley), a servant who doesn't have the heart to kill the fairy as instructed but still drugs her and takes her wings to inherit the throne. Devastated, Maleficent finds and rescues a crow named Diaval, whose form she can and often does change (when human, he's Sam Riley with a pointy nose) as he agrees to be her wings.

Maleficent crashes the christening of King Stefan and wife's firstborn daughter and places a curse on the infant that will make her prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a death-like sleep on her sixteenth birthday, a sleep that can only be broken by true love's kiss. Young Aurora is sent to live in the forest with three tiny fairies watching over her; for some reason, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather have been renamed Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple).

Here is where the film departs from the studio's animated adaptation in favor of some revisionism. Maleficent, one of cinema's all-time great villains, is reimagined as a misunderstood heroine. She knows of Aurora's remote hiding place and has nothing else going on her life to prevent her from constantly, secretly looking in on the child she cursed. When Aurora grows up (eventually becoming Elle Fanning), she mistakes Maleficent for her fairy godmother, a title Maleficent doesn't exactly dispute.

Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is just as thinly drawn a heroine in live-action as she is in Disney's animated "Sleeping Beauty."

One can appreciate the decision not to make the title character of a big summer aspiring blockbuster a wholly loathsome personality, but the dramatic makeover robs Maleficent of her wicked appeal, defies her name, and renders her kind of boring and ineffective. No one else assumes enough complexity to make up for that either. Aurora is somehow even more one-note than her animated counterpart. Prince Phillip barely gets a cameo. And King Stefan, developed into Maleficent's lifelong adversary, never compels or puts Copley to good use.

Jolie has the clout to hold down the title role, although looking over her résumé, and even just the fifteen years since she won a Supporting Actress Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, one wonders how with inane hits like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Wanted, and Salt. What she lacks is the humor the movie occasionally asks her to provide. Jolie is one of a handful of big name actresses repeatedly dabbling in action stunts, so inevitably there's a little bit of that in the climax, including a bizarre costume change. But that climax is brief and unfulfilling, more a summer movie requirement than a logical conclusion to the rather slow and dull narrative leading up to it.

You can easily surmise that Stromberg comes to directing from visual effects (Life of Pi, The Hunger Games) and production design (Alice, Oz, and Avatar). He ensures that Maleficent looks very nice most of the time, utilizing grand canvases and, of course, 3D (though it is lost for home video, the latest US Disney release to skirt Blu-ray 3D). The one glaring exception: the trio of comic relief fairies, who start and end the film in a creepy CG-aided inconsistent rescaling of the actresses. Stromberg lacks the panache of Tim Burton and Sam Raimi, although one wonders how much of that we'd notice in their recent Disney tentpoles without the passion of their extensive bodies of prior work.

The pixies, renamed Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple), are rendered in creepy, distorted motion capture animation. The underdeveloped King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) functions as antagonist in this retelling of the fairy tale.

In my book, Maleficent ends up somewhere between Alice and Oz. It's not the all-out mess that Burton's wildly profitable, soon-to-be sequelized film was, but it lacks the personality and entertainment that allowed Oz to surpass expectations.
Maleficent makes for a fairly enjoyable and sumptuous viewing that only disappoints in how it reconfigures Disney's take on Charles Perrault's fairy tale. The reverence it appears to hold for the source film, which gives the project a religious epic feel, proves utterly hollow, as it opts for something more at home in the millennial Wonderful of World Disney revival or on ABC's "Once Upon a Time" instead of the bold strokes of the animated masterpiece whose enduring popularity is being cashed in.

Since Disney adopted its current tentpole-driven strategy, there is little room for middle ground. With the exception of the rare mid-range release (e.g. Million Dollar Arm), everything is either a big hit worthy of a sequel or a big flop requiring lay-offs and write-downs. Maleficent's fate may rest heavily on international audiences, who have typically embraced Jolie's work (even The Tourist grossed over $200 M outside of North America). An obvious model for comparison is Universal's Snow White and the Huntsman, which opened on almost the exact same day in 2012 and like Oz, Alice, and this hailed from Joe Roth's Roth Films production company.

Disney probably would have been content with international-heavy returns like those of that not very good Kristen Stewart-Charlize Theron movie. But Maleficent did significantly better. Domestically, it narrowly bested Oz, but fell about $95 million short of Alice. Worldwide, it also stood between them, with foreign markets chipping in more than two-thirds of the $758 million global gross. That impressive haul puts Maleficent in a close third place for 2014 behind Disney/Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and king by a wide margin Transformers: Age of Extinction. Even domestically, this Jolie vehicle showed up much of its exciting competition, including X-Men, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The robust returns will only add fuel to Disney's belief in brands and this particular brand of big-budget CGI-heavy fantasy. A live-action Cinderella will open in March, with Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass to follow in May 2016.

Disney abandons their recently developed aversion to combo packs, a concept they originated back on 2008's Sleeping Beauty Platinum Edition, by treating Maleficent to a full-fledged Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack this week.

Maleficent: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 7.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Descriptive Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Extras Subtitled; DVD Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $36.99
Release Date: November 4, 2014
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in as standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

No slouch technically, Maleficent expectedly but gladly is treated to perfect picture and grandiose sound on Blu-ray. The 2.40:1 widescreen presentation is sharp, vibrant, and without even minor problems. The 7.1 DTS-HD master audio, meanwhile, flares and engulfs the way you expect a big summer movie to.

Elle Fanning says all the right things about liking the source film in "Aurora: Becoming a Beauty." Maleficent looks less menacing walking in front of blue screen in "From Fairy Tale to Feature Film."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's handful of HD bonus features begin with "Aurora: Becoming a Beauty" (4:53), which lets Dakota Fanning say all the right things about loving Disney's Sleeping Beauty,
being intrigued by Maleficent, and wanting to make them real for this movie. She also describes her experiences on the film.

"From Fairy Tale to Feature Film" (8:13) finds screenwriter Linda Woolverton explaining her ideas for the movie, with Jolie speaking highly of Sleeping Beauty, this revision of it, and getting to turn it into a family affair with her daughter.

"Building an Epic Battle" (5:48) looks at the creation of one of the film's obligatory effects-and-stunts-heavy combat sequences.

Watch screenwriter Linda Woolverton and Angelina Jolie in a "From Fairy Tale to Feature Film" clip:

"Classic Couture" celebrates Maleficent's millinery, a.k.a. her horns. The pixies look even more outlandish in this crude unfinished CGI state of this deleted Prince Phillip kissing scene.

In "Classic Couture" (1:34), Justin Smith discusses his design of Maleficent's "millinery" (horns).

"Maleficent Revealed" (4:45) briskly summarizes the film with a dissection of many of its visual effects shots, providing straightforward answers to viewers' "How did they do that?" questions.

Finally, we get five short deleted scenes (6:41) which are given context in title cards.
They include more of Stefan and more of the pixies (briefly in crude CGI).

In a move we've come to expect from Disney, the DVD included here (the same one sold separately) only includes "Aurora: Becoming a Beauty", leaving the other five extras as Blu-ray-exclusives, even though it has some disc space to spare.

The discs open with a promo for Disney Movies Anywhere, the glass slipper teaser for next spring's kindred Cinderella, and a trailer for 101 Dalmatians: Diamond Edition. The Sneak Peeks listing runs promos for Disney Movie Rewards, Disney Parks, "Star Wars Rebels", "Once Upon a Time", and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.": The Complete First Season. (The DVD then repeats the disc-openers, while the Blu-ray does not.) Maleficent's own trailers are, sadly but unsurprisingly, not included here.

The Blu-ray and DVD main menus settle on this shot of Maleficent of looking at a cloudy sky from the edge of a cliff.

The main menu attaches dramatic score to a striking location shot of Maleficent on a cliff's edge it settles on.

The two blandly-labeled discs are held in a side-snapped standard blue keepcase which is topped by an embossed, prismatic slipcover. An insert promotes Disney Movie Club while a booklet dispenses your unique code for Disney Movie Rewards, Disney Movies Anywhere, and plain old Digital HD.

The grown-up Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) makes her first appearance on a battlefield.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

A new live-action interpretation of Sleeping Beauty doesn't sound like a bad idea, but Disney's Maleficent mostly falls short dramatically. Though it looks nice most of the time, this big budget spectacle is far from epic and not even entertaining all that frequently. It's a movie you're compelled to see, not one you'll itch to revisit or even discuss.

Disney's Blu-ray combo pack provides the fantastic feature presentation you expect plus a passable half-hour of routine extras. Fans of Disney's original animated classic and those who appreciate big summer movies have probably circled this as one of the big must-own releases this holiday season. If they didn't catch and enjoy the movie in theaters, though, they're probably setting themselves up for mild disappointment.

Buy Maleficent from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Written by Linda Woolverton: Alice in Wonderland (2010) • Beauty and the Beast • The Lion King
Angelina Jolie: The Tourist • Salt • Kung Fu Panda • Kung Fu Panda 2 | Sharlto Copley: District 9 • Elysium • The A-Team
Sleeping Beauty • Frozen • Tangled • The Princess and the Frog • Brave • Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season
Oz the Great and Powerful • Enchanted • 101 Dalmatians (1996) • The Sorcerer's Apprentice • Mirror Mirror
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time • John Carter • Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1994) • The Hunger Games

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Reviewed November 5, 2014.



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