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Angelina Jolie in a scene from ‘Maleficent’, expected for nationwide release on May 30. (AP)
Jolie ‘flips’ script Wicked-style ‘Maleficent’ entertaining and bold

LOS ANGELES, May 29, (RTRS): With “Maleficent,” we may be getting the closest Disney will ever come to “Ms. 45,” Abel Ferrara’s bloody cult favorite about a woman (Zo Tamerlis Lund) hunting down and murdering the men who raped her. At the same time, it carries on in the “Frozen” tradition (no doubt coincidentally, since both films were in production at the same time) of liberating two-dimensional storybook characters from their shackles and allowing them to be as emotionally rich, heroic, and independent as their male counterparts. The premise of turning the memorably wicked witch from “Sleeping Beauty” into a protagonist might seem like a gimmick that would quickly fizzle out, but screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“Beauty and the Beast”), with a great assist from Angelina Jolie, offers a “Wicked”-style do-over that results in a movie that’s as entertaining as it is bold.

While the visuals fall prey to some unpleasant trends in modern moviemaking - several CG characters have an ugly misshapenness that recalls “Jack the Giant Slayer,” and the magical forest lands resemble a toilet-paper commercial - “Maleficent” throws out much of the original tale’s bathwater without losing the baby. It’s as a very young girl, in fact, that we first meet Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy, and then Ella Purnell as a teen). This winged, horned fairy lives in a magical, ruler-less kingdom where mythical creatures frolic, whereas the neighboring land is ruled over by the cruel and selfish King Henry (Kenneth Cranham). One day, a poor young boy named Stefan is caught stealing a jewel from the lake, and after Maleficent makes him return the stone, she befriends the boy, and over the years, they become friends and, in her eyes, romantically involved. (The fact that “maleficent” is an actual adjective with an actual definition is never mentioned in the film, even though the character is, at first, sweet-natured and kind.)

Adulthood
When Maleficent grows to adulthood, King Henry tries to conquer her land, but she and the other creatures (including walking trees) repel his forces. On his deathbed, Henry (who has a daughter but no sons) vows to bequeath his crown to the man who can deliver him Maleficent’s head. Grown-up Stefan (Sharlto Copley) visits her and slips her a mickey; too cowardly to kill her in her sleep, he nonetheless violates her person by removing her wings and delivering them to Henry. This evil act blackens Maleficent’s heart; she takes over the magical kingdom and surrounds it with thorns. And when word comes out that King Stefan and his wife have given birth to the princess Aurora, out comes the spinning-wheel curse.

Keeping a close eye on Aurora, with the help of her crow familiar Diaval (Sam Riley, “On the Road”), Maleficent winds up saving the baby’s life from neglect at the hands of her bumbling magical minders, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistletwit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Lesley Manville). Over time, it turns out not even Maleficent can hold a grudge for 16 years, but she’s made a curse so specific that not even she can unbreak it. Will this witch become the parent that teenage Aurora (Elle Fanning) has longed for her whole life, or will the sins of the past destroy everyone in both kingdoms?
 

If you’re expecting Jolie to deliver purring sarcasm in the pursed-lipped, raised-eyebrow mold of Agnes Moorehead on “Bewitched,” fear not - she absolutely does. Rest assured, however, that she offers up this character in many moods and modes, turning what was a striking but fairly single-minded villain into a fully fleshed-out woman. She has known pain and she has felt anger, yes, but she is also capable of love and compassion. The rest of the characters, granted, seem mostly along just to keep the plot moving, but if you’re going to build a film around one character and one performance, Jolie’s turn as Maleficent makes such a strategy seem like a good idea.

The aggressively unpleasant visuals certainly detract from the overall film, but “Maleficent” makes for a fascinating entry in an ongoing wave of projects that give “bad” women of literature a chance to present their side of the story. With Angelina Jolie on screen for the first time in four years, a classic story line with a twist and the mighty Disney marketing machine behind it, “Maleficent” is about to cast a potent spell on the weekend box office. All indicators suggest Disney’s live-action 3D update of its 1959 animated storybook classic, told from the perspective of Jolie’s Mistress of All Evil, is connecting with the same moms-and-daughters crowd that made “Frozen” a blockbuster.

It will conjure somewhere north of $60 million in its debut say the analysts, which should be enough to unseat the reigning No. 1 movie, Fox’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” and the week’s only other wide opener, “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” Universal’s raunchy Seth MacFarlane cowboy comedy should rustle up about $20 million over the three days. “When you have the world’s most iconic movie actress in a role she has such a passion for, it can make the movie feel like an event,” Disney’s head of distribution Dave Hollis told TheWrap. “It comes through in the performance and it comes through when she’s talking about the movie and stoking the coals. It’s given us the potential to tap into the cultural zeitgeist the way ‘Frozen’ did, and become that thing that everyone needs to see.”

Targeting
“Maleficent” is the first summer tentpole aimed directly at women, and it won’t hurt that there hasn’t been a major movie targeting that audience since “The Other Woman” in April. Hollis said tracking is showing “Maleficent” has some strength among men, and he believes it can connect as a date night option and with non-parents. It will have to in order to turn a profit. With a $180 million production budget and a proportionate marketing spend, “Maleficent” is a big bet for the studio. “Angelina is one of those stars that appeals to men and women,” he said, “and we think the spectacle of this film and the world created in it by Robert Stromberg is the sort of thing that will appeal to everyone, particularly in 3D and on IMAX.” Stromberg, who is making his debut as a director on “Maleficent,” was the production designer on “Avatar” as well as Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Oz: The Great and Powerful.”

“He’s taken it to the boundaries, and it’s breathtaking,” said Hollis, referencing the visual effects and look of the film. The movie’s trailers have highlighted Jolie’s unearthly visage and the classic tale, but also played up its spectacular battle scenes, which Hollis believes will resonate with males. Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley and Juno Temple co-star in “Maleficent,” which is produced by Jolie and Joe Roth, the man behind similar live-action films “Alice in Wonderland,” “Oz: The Great and Powerful” and “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

The update of “The Wizard of Oz” starring James Franco opened to $79 million in a less-competitive March slot last year, and went on to take in $235 million domestically and $493 million worldwide for Disney. “Alice in Wonderland” took in more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office for the studio in 2010. “Snow White and the Huntsman” opened to $56 million in June of 2012 and went on to $155 million domestically and $397 million worldwide for Universal. It starred Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, however, not Jolie.
The Oscar winner’s track record at the box office has been inconsistent and her last live-action outing “The Tourist” was a disappointment in 2010, but Jolie has several scores under her belt including “Wanted,” “Salt” and “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider.” Her biggest opening was the $50 million that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” brought in on its way to $478 million globally in 2010. Building a family with Brad Pitt, her humanitarian work and a high-profile double mastectomy last year have raised Jolie’s public persona into the stratosphere however.

Campaign
The campaign behind the film is in high gear, with the premiere in Los Angeles Wednesday night, and Hollis said roughly 35 percent of the marketing spend has yet to come. Advance sales are strong on Fandango and Movietickets.com and “Maleficent” is off to a fast start on Twitter and Facebook, where its 2.3 million “likes” are double those of the young-adult hit “Divergent” at a similar stage. “Maleficent” hasn’t been widely screened for critics, however, neither has “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” This marks the first weekend of summer in which both of the debuting films come in without most of the mainstream critics weighing in.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is MacFarlane’s followup to “Ted,” the raunchy talking teddy tale that took in nearly $550 million globally in 2012. The success of that film - and the prospect of making next summer’s “Ted 2” - made greenlighting the $40 million “Million Ways” an easy decision for Universal and MRC Capital.

Westerns aren’t as popular as they once were, but there have been some hits of late, including “Django Unchained,” “True Grit” and the animated “Rango.” None of those were what you’d call traditional Westerns, and the R-rated “Million Ways” isn’t either. The one-time Oscar host and “Family Guy” creator MacFarlane directed and wrote (with partners Wellesley Wild and Alec Sulkin) “Million Ways,” which co-stars Charlize Theron, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfriend and Neil Patrick Harris. Tracking has been in the same $20 million-$25 million range for weeks. The social media signs are trending up, but its Twitter and Facebook numbers were trailing those of another R-rated Universal comedy, “Neighbors,” three days before its release. “Million Ways” will be in 3,152 locations in North America and 22 foreign markets as of Friday.
“Maleficent” will be in 3,800 theaters, the majority 3D, in North America, and debut in more than 46 countries, representing about 75 percent of its eventual international rollout. It will open in China on June 20 and in Japan on July 4.
 

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