"Maleficent" (PG) ***1/2 (out of four)
Angelina Jolie soars as the wickedly beautiful title character in "Maleficent," an alternate take on "Sleeping Beauty" that finds Walt Disney Pictures once again mining inspiration from a classic tale and retelling it from a decidedly different perspective.
Billed as the "untold story" of the legendary animated movie villainess, "Maleficent" begins by tracing the childhood origins of the sorceress fairy and her relationship with the future King Stefan. Despite living in different worlds, the duo's friendship is amicable until adulthood, when the grown-up Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is forced into maiming his mystical childhood friend to secure the throne because the king perceives Maleficent as a threat to the humans' kingdom. Seeking revenge on her betrayer, Maleficent curses Stefan's newborn daughter, Aurora, dooming her to fall into a prolonged sleep on her 16th birthday.
Hauntingly atmospheric yet not too dark for kids, the powers that be at Disney have effectively managed once again to convert familiar animated fare into a new, vibrant live-action story and maintain crucial plot points. True, that approach isn't entirely original, but it does show some thinking outside of the box.
While production designer and visual effects artist Robert Stromberg – who previously won art direction Oscars for "Alice in Wonderland" and "Avatar" – makes an effective directorial debut with "Maleficent," the film ultimately succeeds because of Jolie's majestic portrayal of the conflicted character. Better yet, as dominant as the Oscar-winning actress is in the role, she never overpowers Elle Fanning, who glows in her portrayal of the teen Aurora. "Maleficent" certainly could have used a bit more edge, but in the end, it remains a fast, fun and family friendly film for all ages.
"A Million Ways to Die in the West" (R) ** (out of four)
After working for years behind-the-scenes as a writer, director and voice-over artist on TV ("Family Guy") and film ("Ted"), Seth MacFarlane has finally trotted into leading man territory with "A Million Ways to Die in the West." The film is sure to please fans of McFarlane's irreverent brand of humor -- yet for a gunslinger comedy set in the Old West, "A Million Ways to Die" comes off more like a game of Russian roulette where only some jokes hit the target and the rest of the chamber shoots blanks.
MacFarlane directs and stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer in the 1850s who hits the skids after his longtime girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), dumps him for the town's suave banker (Neil Patrick Harris). Luckily, Albert's life takes an unexpected turn when the mysterious Anna (Charlize Theron) shows up in the dusty, old town, and vows to help the lonesome loser win Louise's heart back. Not surprisingly, sparks eventually fly between Albert and Anna, which presents a huge problem since she is married to a notorious gunslinger (Liam Neeson) making his way into town to take back his bride and make everybody's lives a living hell.
MacFarlane is not hiding the fact that he's trying to make the next "Blazing Saddles" with "A Million Ways to Die in the West," and while comedy falls fall short of those aspirations, you have to at least give him credit for not being afraid to be politically incorrect, a la filmmaker Mel Brooks and his 1974 cowboy classic. The sad thing is, since we now live in the "don't offend anybody" age, MacFarlane's moments of political incorrectness elicit gasps more than giggles – leaving the writer-director-actor to rely on one-note sex jokes and gross-out antics like body functions to solicit some laughs.
While MacFarlane won't be able to ride off into the sunset with his head held high, he earns points at least for kicking people off their moral high-horses and going places most other filmmakers wouldn't dare.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11”and various Twin Cities radio stations.