This week’s major home video releases include an action spectacle starring Dwayne Johnson and a drastically revised version of “Sleeping Beauty.”
3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
In 1995, novelist Gregory Maguire created a sensation with “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.” This revisionist tome cast the villain of L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” in a brilliant new light. In Maguire’s world, the supposedly wicked witch is a misunderstood political activist, not the embodiment of evil. With “Maleficent,” Disney borrows Maguire’s trick, delivering a fresh and sympathetic look at the much-despised villain of “Sleeping Beauty.”
The danger in such a move – at least for Disney – is that it could backfire, convincing youngsters that the studio’s original animated film got it all wrong. But that’s doubtful. It seems more likely that “Maleficent” will reinvigorate interest in Disney’s 1959 classic, a fact underscored by the studio’s decision to reissue the film on Blu-ray.
In truth, “Maleficent” is a winner no matter how one feels about “Sleeping Beauty.” A viewer could conceivably enjoy the film without even watching the original, but it’s definitely more fun for the acquainted. Familiarity with the cartoon allows viewers to contrast pre-existing impressions of Maleficent against those generated by the new picture, and that makes things interesting from an academic standpoint. Like “Wicked,” “Maleficent” argues that point of view is everything, and it shames those who pass judgment with limited facts.
In “Sleeping Beauty,” Maleficent is presented as an unfeeling monster who thinks nothing of cursing King Stefan’s daughter, Aurora, to eternal slumber. In “Maleficent,” viewers receive a full accounting of the events leading to this drastic action, and – although they may not agree with Maleficent’s choices – they should at least understand her rage.
Most viewers, I think, will move beyond simple understanding and sympathize with Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), viewing her as a victim, not villain. Jolie is a pleasing screen presence, and she does a nice job in the title role. The actress’s striking cheekbones and confident stature offer a sense of nobility, and her acting chops assure that Maleficent is fully fleshed out.
There is evil in this version of Maleficent, and Jolie allows the darkness to creep onto her features. But it’s important to note that the evil is coaxed to the surface by powers outside her control. At the core, Maleficent is a good person, and Jolie is excellent at balancing both sides of the character.
Aurora (Elle Fanning), on the other hand, is one-dimensional. She is presented as the purest form of good, so Fanning doesn’t have much to play with. Still, the young actress’s angelic good looks suit the part perfectly.
Stefan – who plays a far larger role in this film than in “Sleeping Beauty” – is the juiciest male character, and Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) injects him with life. Like Maleficent, Stefan is complicated, and Copley digs into the role.
“Maleficent” is the first directorial effort by Robert Stromberg, best known for his work in visual effects, and he makes a solid transition. The film moves gracefully, paying homage to the original Disney film without becoming cloying. For adults, “Maleficent” would have been more fun if Stromberg took the material to a darker place, but that’s hardly fair criticism. Disney clearly wanted a family film, and that’s just what Stromberg delivered.
DVD extras are limited to a behind-the-scenes feature with Fanning. The Blu-ray release contains several more featurettes and a collection of deleted scenes.
Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity
Available on: Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, digital download and on demand
Anyone who follows the movie business knows the industry is driven by trends. It’s commonplace for film genres to wax and wane and for similar themes to emerge during the course of a season. This year, Hollywood had Hercules on its mind, as two major features were dedicated to the mythological hero. Sadly, neither is memorable.
Director Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules” came first, delivering a so-so take on the Greek demigod’s exploits. Director Brett Ratner’s “Hercules” hit theaters later and has the benefit of an A-list star (Dwayne Johnson). Ratner’s film is not, however, graced with an A-list script.
The good news for mythology fans is that each picture at least strives to be different. Harlin went traditional, introducing Hercules as a half-human, half-God hybrid with superhuman abilities. Ratner, on the other hand, paints Hercules as a mere mortal. Although he can be killed like any man, Ratner’s Hercules (Johnson) uses exaggerated stories about battlefield prowess to fuel rumors that he is a god and strike fear into enemies. This Hercules is unnaturally strong, but he owes much of his reputation to a small band of warriors who follow him into combat. This group includes his nephew (Reece Ritchie), a slight fellow whose main job is to awe audiences with tales of his uncle’s greatness.
Despite a reputation for heroics, Hercules and his friends live by wandering Greece and waging war as paid mercenaries. After a brief introduction, the group is offered a huge sum to help an aging royal protect his kingdom, and the plotting moves forward from there.
The decision to scrap Hercules’ demigod status is praiseworthy, but little else feels fresh. After a brief introduction, Ratner allows the film to fall into a predictable action-movie rhythm. The fight sequences are good but not groundbreaking. Viewers who have a Blu-ray 3D setup can watch the film in that format, but it doesn’t add much.
The one thing “Hercules” has over Harlin’s film is its blockbuster leading man. Johnson is a decent action star, and he gives a respectable – although simplistic – reading of the title character. The supporting cast is made up of terrific players, including Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell and Joseph Fiennes. Unfortunately, Ratner places the focus on stunts rather than character development, meaning the cast does little to elevate the bland material.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include a making-of feature.
Planes: Fire & Rescue
2 ½ stars
Rated PG for action and some peril
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
Disney’s decision to elevate “Planes” from a direct-to-video title to a theatrical release in 2013 was a solid business decision, as the film grossed more than $90 million in U.S. theaters. It also paved the way for a quick-turnaround theatrical sequel in the form of “Planes: Fire & Rescue.”
The theatrical success of these movies does not, however, change the fact that both pictures in the “Planes” franchise are second-tier efforts dressed up with first-tier marketing. The proof is in the plotting, which falls short of the work in better Disney/Pixar titles, like “Frozen” and “Cars.” It was the latter movie that inspired “Planes,” and characters from both franchises inhabit the same world.
Where topnotch Disney/Pixar efforts are inventive and occasionally even subversive, both “Planes” movies are riffs on established norms. This is especially true with the original film, which – as an air-racing feature – seemed like a thinly veiled “Cars” clone.
For “Fire & Rescue,” director Roberts Gannaway moves the action out of the racing world, giving the material at least a dash of originality. This shift is facilitated by the discovery that racing star Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) has pushed himself once too often, doing irreversible damage to his gearbox. Since Dusty is an older model, Dottie the mechanic (Teri Hatcher) can’t find replacement parts, meaning he must pamper his engine or face a life-threatening crash.
Unable to race, Dusty volunteers to become a firefighting plane, and he meets a host of new aircraft, including a tough-guy helicopter named Blade Ranger (Ed Harris) and a flirty firefighter named Lil’ Dipper (Julie Bowen). The career shift also propels Dusty into a high-stakes world where lives – not trophies – are on the line.
“Fire & Rescue” is colorful and well animated, and the reappearance of familiar characters should satisfy young fans. Older viewers will be less accepting because the film lacks panache. The plotting is straightforward and predictable, and the little in-jokes that make Pixar films so rich are largely (although not completely) missing.
In short, “Planes: Fire & Rescue” is good enough to take flight, but it never soars.
DVD extras are limited to a music video by Spencer Lee. The Blu-ray release adds deleted scenes, animated shorts and a couple behind-the-scenes features.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“The Sopranos” – The Complete Series: Just in time for the holidays, HBO rolls out an impressive Blu-ray boxed set packed with all 86 episodes of its popular crime drama. The late James Gandolfini stars as a high-level, New Jersey mobster struggling to balance family life with his criminal activities. Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael
Imperioli, Dominic Chianese and Steven Van Zandt also star. The series, which ran six seasons on HBO, won more than 20 Emmys.
“A Most Wanted Man”: In one of his final screen roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a German agent tracking a potential terrorist. Daniel Brühl, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe also star.
“A Five Star Life”: Italian drama centered on the personal dilemmas of a forty-something woman who makes her living as a secret shopper (Margherita Buy) inspecting high-end luxury hotels. Presented in Italian with English subtitles.
“Reno 911!” – The Complete Uncensored Series: Paramount releases every episode of Comedy Central’s long-running ensemble comedy about officers in a fictional Reno, Nev., police unit. Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, Kerri Kenney, Cedric Yarbrough, Carlos Alazraqui and Wendi McLendon-Covey star.
“The Newsroom” – The Complete Second Season: Nine episodes of the HBO drama about employees at a fictional cable news network. Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Dev Patel, John Gallagher Jr. and Alison Pill star.
“White Collar” – The Complete Fifth Season: The most-recent 16 episodes of USA’s drama about an FBI agent (Tim DeKay) who works with a talented con artist (Matt Bomer) to nab white-collar criminals.
Perry Mason Double Features: Raymond Burr made a series of Perry Mason TV movies in the 1980s and 1990s, and Paramount is releasing several on two-movie sets. “The Case of the Desperate Deception” (1990) and “The Case of the Poisoned Pen” (1990) are available on “Movie Collection Double Feature 7.” “The Case of the Defiant Daughter” (1990) and “The Case of the Silenced Singer” (1990) are available on “Movie Collection Double Feature 8.” “The Case of the Maligned Mobster” (1991) and “The Case of the Ruthless Reporter” (1991) are available on “Movie Collection Double Feature 9.”
“Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 13”: Acorn Media releases the final cases of detective Hercule Poirot (David Suchet). The five-disc boxed set includes the five feature-length mysteries that concluded the detective’s 25-year run on British TV. Fans also have the option of buying “Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Complete Cases Collection,” a massive boxed set containing all 70 of the detective’s TV adventures.
– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at email@example.com.