Maleficent almost feels like a Disney version of alternate history, where the Sleeping Beauty villainess is no longer the antagonist but instead a wronged heroine herself. As such, it's kind of fascinating and as refreshing as any live-action attempt from the studio since at least Enchanted. We may have never had quite as unique a spin on one of the classic Disney animated features as this film. By building a whole movie around a perceived villain and then shading in motivations and background to radically change the light we see her in, Maleficent playfully disturbs generations' worth of conventional wisdom. It also, one can cynically observe, gives Disney yet another opportunity to revisit some of its tried and true material.
The big get from a marketing standpoint was probably having Angelina Jolie step into the role of Maleficent. She lends the character immediate credibility, never strays too far over the top and even has one particularly affecting scene of true, honest to goodness emotion that's affecting enough to almost feel out of place in a movie like this. For those not completely up on their classic Disney lore, the character of Maleficent was responsible for cursing Princess Aurora into a deep sleep from which she could only be awakened by a kiss from her true love, in the 1959 feature Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent is regarded as one of the truly great Disney villains, owed in no small part to the bold and striking animation used. So flipping things into revealing her side of the tale might have been a somewhat risky move.
It's rare to even consider the idea of motivation behind evil acts in this landscape so that in itself is intriguing. We're not accustomed to really spending time with the villainous characters. They're somehow designed to be largely self-evident. Their existence is necessary in the black/white, good/evil nature of these worlds. Little questioning exists. Maleficent manages to address this slight as it builds an entire story around the character. Beyond the specific motivations against Aurora (played here by Elle Fanning), we also get an origin story on Maleficent and an illuminating alternate version on some of what was seen in Sleeping Beauty.
The three fairies who made such a dynamic impact in the animated classic return here in live-action form. Played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville, the little do-gooders have been transitioned rather perfectly for the film by using some sort of delightful computer wizardry. The actors' facial features are retained, only now they appear in magical pixie form. It's a highly successful merging of live-action and modern effects. The rest of the film often has a bit of a false ring to it visually, having been clearly created with computers. There's a slickness that deprives the setting of any sense of naturalness, even if we are dealing with a fairy tale. The increasing reliance on such effects in modern film might help to cover up some of the distraction in this instance but clear-eyed observers comparing it with Sleeping Beauty might prefer the more painterly and lush compositions of the animated version.
Held together well by director Robert Stromberg and convincingly anchored by Angelina Jolie, Maleficent carries its ambitions about as triumphantly as one could hope. It's short - just over an hour and a half - and generally to the point. The plotting connects the character's beginnings to her climactic change in attitude and her third act friendship with Aurora. Whether you take Maleficent for a villain (as the film's marketing sort of seemed to have teased) or you accept her as a triumphant example of empowerment, Disney has largely covered its bases. Indeed, part of the appeal in the film is how it fills in details more than strictly altering the established canon. Maleficent now exists as kind of a rebuttal to Sleeping Beauty but in a positive way. It's a fun rejoinder, fifty-five years after the fact.
Disney/Buena Vista Home Entertainment is offering Maleficent in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack stateside. This North American release being reviewed contains one each of BD and DVD and a code for a digital copy.
The film here is presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The wide frame looks outstanding and crisp in high definition. It's a delightful transfer without any significant negatives. Colors are strong and tight. It is, as to be expected, minus any real flaw of note.
Audio is strong as well, registering across all channels. The default track is an English 7.1 DTS-HDMA mix with robust energy and volume. It's a balanced, immersive listen. There are also dubs in French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital and an English 2.0 Descriptive Audio option. The included DVD has all of these save for substituting the 7.1 track for a 5.1 Dolby Digital one. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish.
Bonus features are up to the usual Disney standard. There's a small selection of five Deleted Scenes (6:41). These are completed scenes not in the final cut and there's even an indication of where each would have gone had it been included. The featurette "Aurora: Becoming a Beauty" (4:53) finds actress Elle Fanning discussing her role. "From Fairy Tale to Feature Film" (8:13) is a somewhat self-explanatory piece on the transition undertaken from the original cartoon.
The featurette "Building an Epic Battle" (5:48) goes into some detail on a scene depicting Maleficent's fight against the kingdom's forces. "Classic Couture" (1:34) is a brief look at the costume design for the picture. Special effects take center stage for "Maleficent Revealed" (4:44).
Sneak Peeks are also included, with highlights being the original 101 Dalmatians coming to Blu-ray and a teaser for next year's live-action Cinderella.