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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Angelina Jolie nails it as Maleficent in this respectful, modern spin on Sleeping Beauty.

Mother Goose, Brothers Grimm and Uncle Walt

Angelina Jolie is excellent as Maleficent.
Angelina Jolie is excellent as Maleficent.

As the movie begins, a voiceover sets the stage by saying it’s time to tell an old story anew. How well do you know that original story, the audience is asked?

Well, the original take on the Sleeping Beauty tale dates back nearly 300 years now. Even Disney’s beloved animated version is 55 years old. It’s fair enough, then, to give that old tale a fresh coat of paint.

Who better to tackle the tale than screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who wrote Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland (with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter)? Enjoyed by many and decried by a few, the fresh take on Alice was a colorful, vibrant story of girl power and Woolverton takes that theme even further with Maleficent.

Sympathy for the Devil

Maleficent. The name that plays on the word “malevolent” and the character that still strikes fear in children watching Disney’s classic.

Everybody has a back story and Maleficent is no different. As Goose and Grimm would have it, she was nothing more than a fairy who didn’t get invited to a party. Woolverton’s tale has something more substantial as its foundation.

Here, Maleficent is a loving and well-liked winged fairy, a guardian of the beautiful country that lies under the towering presence of a castle and a village of humans.

As a young fairy, this embellished and complete character befriended a boy, Stefan, who exhibited chivalrous traits in the early going, only to be betrayed by him as he fell prey to greed during his formative years.

True love, this jilted Maleficent learns, doesn’t exist as Stefan (Sharlto Copley, District 9) ascends to the throne of the nearby kingdom. When Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning, Super 8) is added to the family, Maleficent ushers in that famous curse to help soothe her broken heart. Aurora would prick her finger on a spinning wheel at her 16th birthday and fall into a deep sleep. To temper her vengeance, Maleficent offers the cure: True love’s kiss.

In other words, the kid is doomed.

Girl Power

In keeping with the style of Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent is lavishly mounted by first-time director Robert Stromberg, who was a production designer on Burton’s Wonderland. With oodles of visual effects work to his credit, Stromberg is right at home in this colorful world of forest monsters, water creatures and flying things. The IMAX part of the presentation is grand, but (not surprisingly) the 3D conversion disappoints.

The 3D aside, Maleficent benefits from the depth of its heart. This isn’t a simple retelling of the same old story, nor is it merely a back story that leads up to the events of Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent is a wholly-realized retake on the fairy tale.

And it has a major plot twist that’s sure to ruffle the feathers of more than Mother Goose.

As pulled off here, the twist deserves more than a knee-jerk reaction. It’s thoughtful, substantial and still very much in keeping with the morality plays that were the foundation for Goose and Grimm alike.

Holistic Fairy Tales

At play in Maleficent is more than a tale of a girl and a curse.

The king’s greed leads to a life of anger and paranoia. For her part, Maleficent doesn’t gain much solace in having brought down her legendary curse. Instead, it’s the innocence of childhood that gets a fresh day in the sun.

Maybe the biggest surprise to be had in Maleficent is that it’s a PG movie — one that dares to steer away from the constant drumbeat that seems to want to shorten and devalue the most basic notions of childhood itself. There isn’t even a single bit of potty humor. Egads!

In this fairy tale there is, however, one cold bit of modern reality. Boys are... merely okay. They’re not the end-all pursuit, the sole target of a girl’s ambition. Actually, they’re not to be trusted and they’re even a little on the wishy-washy side.

Fair enough. And rather refreshing, actually.

Topping it all off is Angelina Jolie. With her exaggerated cheek bones, she looks just like the classic Disney Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty and her performance alone makes Maleficent worth seeing.