A Million Ways to Die in the West Is a One-Note Jokefest, Maleficent Is Modern Disney Magic

Seth MacFarlane is not quite ready for the big screen, but Angelina Jolie rules over a Sleeping Beauty spinoff.

UniversalUniversalSeth MacFarlane finally appears in the flesh in A Million Ways to Die in the West. Unfortunately, the flesh is weak.

As he has demonstrated in the long-running Family Guy and his phenomenally successful 2012 film Ted, MacFarlane is an overflowingly talented comic writer and voice actor. Here, though, stepping into the spotlight and directing himself in a parody western he cowrote (with longtime collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild), his anachronistic joke-cracking persona seems too small-screen to anchor a full-scale movie.

As for the jokes, they're "edgy" in a familiar MacFarlane way—out-of-the-blue gags about black people (a fairground shooting gallery uses metal simulations of runaway slaves as targets), Chinese laborers and American Indians ("Do they get their tickets from scalpers?"). And since militant atheists are among the most evangelical of religious sects, he lobs passing pokes at hypocritical Christians and the cruel god they foolishly worship.

All of which is fine, and sometimes funny—in a hyper-sensitive age, why shouldn't these groups be milked for laughs? But 40 years after Richard Pryor and George Carlin dive-bombed the proprieties of American comedy (and Mel Brooks first savaged the traditional western in Blazing Saddles), MacFarlane's wisecracks, delivered with standard "just kidding" faux-innocence, hardly qualify as bold.

The story—a clothesline for all the one-liners—has a mild theme: the wretchedness of life in the Old West. The year is 1882, a time of humorless rectitude, primitive medicine, and murderous gunslingers. ("Everything out there that's not you wants to kill you," we're told.) The setting is an Arizona frontier town called Old Stump, where a timid sheep rancher named Albert (MacFarlane) has just been dumped by his prim girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried). She quickly moves on to the slickly mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), prosperous owner of a wax-and-mirror emporium called the Mustachery. Meanwhile, Albert, cowering amid the uproar of a set-piece saloon brawl, makes the acquaintance of a mystery woman named Anna (Charlize Theron, giving the funniest performance in the movie), who's newly arrived in town. Unfortunately for Albert—a thoroughly modern coward—Anna is actually the wife of the notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), who soon gets word of her dalliance, and is not amused. Intent on helping her new friend to man-up, she teaches Albert how to shoot. (After loading a pistol and lining up a row of tin cans for practice, he quips, "I'm about to shoot a full load on your cans.")

For a writer so famously clever, MacFarlane relies heavily here on that mustiest of comedic wheezes, the fart joke. (Workers down in the local silver mine are dying of their own broken wind.) And as a director who's apparently been given free rein by his admiring producers (of whom he's one), he blithely pads out the movie with over-extended scenes—a generic horse chase, an unnecessarily long barn dance, and an even longer psychedelic dream sequence triggered by some sort of peyote potion administered to Albert by veteran Hollywood Indian Wes Studi.

MacFarlane has also mixed in a half-cocked subplot involving a prostitute named Ruth (Sarah Silverman) and her virginal fiance, the town shoe salesman Edward (Giovanni Ribisi). Although Ruth makes her living at a barroom bordello, servicing up to 15 men a day, she refuses to have sex with Edward until they're married. ("Because we're Christians," she more than once explains.) These two good actors are kind of funny on first acquaintance, but increasingly less so on reappearing.

As an actor, MacFarlane comes across as a clean-cut nice guy. But he's a little doughy for a romantic lead, and he's not really an action man, either. His jokes are the real star of the movie, but as an effort to deconstruct the traditional western—especially in the long shadow of Mel Brooks—they blaze no new trails.

Maleficent

DisneyDisneySo it's come to this—even the great Disney company is now plundering its fabled film archive for remake material. Let's not ask what's next.

Whatever the case, Maleficent—a live-action take on the studio's 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty—is an honorable enterprise, an often-gorgeous kids' movie featuring two strong female characters and dominated by Angelina Jolie in a performance of wonderfully silky restraint.

In the manner of the Broadway musical Wicked, which was based on novelist Gregory Maguire's reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, Maleficent adjusts its old French fairy-tale source to fill in the backstory of the evil fairy queen who cast a curse on the virtuous Princess Aurora. Now we learn that as a child, little Maleficent (played by Isobelle Molloy), was a sweet forest sprite sailing on magical wings through her enchanted domain (classic Disney cute-a-rama: capering butterflies, huggable mud ogres and so forth). Then she met Stefan (Michael Higgins), a little boy from a nearby kingdom whose ruler (Kenneth Cranham) longed to conquer the fairy domain and bring its happy denizens under his grim control.

As years pass, we see the king mortally wounded in one of these assaults (a very up-to-date CGI battle). Stefan, now played by Sharlto Copley, is determined to ascend to the throne. He returns to the forest to exact vengeance for the dying king, and in a scene with unsettling real-life resonance, he amputates both of Maleficent's glorious wings, leaving her earthbound and bitterly mocking the possibility of true love. Stefan becomes king and soon has a baby daughter to dote on. At a natal celebration, three comic-relief fairies (digitally diminished Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville) offer gifts of beauty and happiness to the infant. But then the uninvited Maleficent appears and bestows her curse—that at the age of 16, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep that can only be ended by a kiss of true love.

The story opens up inventively after Stefan, fearful for his daughter, assigns the three good fairies to take baby Aurora to a cottage deep in the woods, where they'll all live together until the girl's fateful age has passed. But Maleficent and her aide-de-camp, the shape-shifting Diaval (Sam Riley), discover Aurora's whereabouts, and watch attentively as she grows up. (She's briefly played, at age five, by Jolie's own daughter, Vivienne, before the role is taken over by Elle Fanning.) In a beautiful scene on a moonlit woodland night, Maleficent and Aurora come face to face, and the girl impetuously embraces the startled forest queen, and soon begins to call her "my fairy godmother."

Fanning's dewy sweetness borders on cloying at times, but it helps make Aurora's deepening relationship with the chilly Maleficent unusually moving, especially as we see Maleficent's maternal instinct begin to blossom under the girl's simple adoration. In the Disney tradition, first-time director Robert Stromberg, an Oscar-winning art director (for Alice in Wonderland and Avatar), leaves not an inch of the screen unpopulated by animated wonders, from the lush fairy land to the moody shadows of Stefan's imposing castle. There's plenty of action (a fire-spewing dragon puts in an appearance toward the end), and the foreordained happy ending is a clever twist on the original tale.

It's a movie filled with enchanting imagery, and its most special effect is Jolie, who glides through the story with an air of timeless serenity. Fitted out with spectacular gowns (modeled on those worn by the cartoon Maleficent in the 1959 film) and prosthetic cheekbones sharp enough to open a vein (courtesy of veteran makeup master Rick Baker), she infuses the tale with a dark, melancholy spirit using the most minimal means—a cocked eyebrow here, a smoldering over-the-shoulder glance there—and she manages to be witty in the most understated way. The narrative may be familiar (although not in its clever inflections—and possibly not to many children), but Jolie makes the magical heart of it new.    

Find this and hundreds of other interesting movies at the Reason Shop, powered by Amazon.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • LynchPin1477||

    phenomenally successful 2012 film Ted

    Really?

  • KL||

    Made half a billion bucks worldwide...

  • LynchPin1477||

    Huh. I never saw it. I assumed any live-action movie with a wise-cracking talking stuffed animal would be a flop. What do I know?

  • Almanian!||

    PT Barnum was right.

  • ||

    I enjoyed Ted. Very much so, in fact. I have no problem suggesting it'd be worth your time and you'd get some great laughs.

    This movie however looks just awful. I hate how Seth McFarlane and Sarah Silverman are often considered this generation's "brave" comic. It's a truly pathetic point on how close together the gaurdrails are these days.

  • Juice||

    I thought it was ok. It wasn't the super hilarious laugh fest I was promised, but it wasn't bad.

  • Suicidy||

    I just hate Sarah Silverman. Just a nasty progressive bitch. I lost any tolerance for her presence when she was on Bill Maher's show with Andrew Breitbart a few years back. She reached over and touched his shoulder with her finger proclaiming 'sleazy!' in a smarmy voice.

    So fuck that coawrdly progressive traitor bitch. I hopoe she and every one of sycophantic follower traitor progressive friends dies horribly.

  • Brandon||

    Sarah Silverman is sneaky hot, but yeah, she's a fucking moron who doesn't know she's a fucking moron, which is incredibly aggravating.

  • LynchPin1477||

    overflowingly talented comic writer and voice actor

    Really?

  • MJGreen||

    Not sure about talented writer, but he is a great voice actor. His voice work on American Dad is consistently impressive.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I'll give you that.

  • LynchPin1477||

    The story—a clothesline for all the one-liners

    Now that I believe.

  • ||

    I can't stand the sight of MacFarlane's shit-eating grin. He's as insufferable as Brian the dog.

  • MJGreen||

    I read the perfect description of his face the other day: "he has the featureless face that an alien shapeshifter would have when approximating human form without a specific subject to reference." Plus the dead eyes of a sociopath.

  • ||

    Srsly - he looks like Donny Osmond with less personality.

  • Almanian!||

    I really, really dislike everything with Seth McFarlane in it. Thanks, Seth, for making avoiding this movie so easy by being in it!

  • Duke||

    Allow me to join in the chorus of hating McFarlane's work. And put me down for not watching anything with Angelia Jolie in it too.

  • Warren_28||

    I've only seen the long trailer for Maleficent but it looks like a movie about the imagery of "Angelina Jolie". To the point each shot was a little distracting. Is it a story, or a vehicle for the actress to show off her versatile looks. Elegantly evil this time around. I know, I'm being totally unfair based off the trailer.

  • R C Dean||

    The words "Angelina Jolie" and "silken restraints" should appear together more often.

    That is all. Carry on.

  • Steve G||

    And since militant atheists are among the most evangelical of religious sects

    ouch. Although since when did skewering religion make one 'militant'?

  • R C Dean||

    Spittle-flecked rants strike me as not out of bounds for being described as "militant."

  • Warren's Strapon||

    He's right. Atheists are always showing up at my door or leaving fliers on my windshield asking me to come to their meetings.

  • TheZeitgeist||

    I watched Maleficent last night. For the most part it was entertaining movie. I agree with Loder's assessment of Angelina Jolie - in a movie full of special effects she was by far the best one.

    In general, I am pretty bored with CGI in movies. But one thing I noticed that should give live actors pause was the three faeries when in their tiny flight mode: They were computerized versions of the real actresses, and the digital renditions just about spanned the Uncanny Valley into looking 'real' for the first time I've ever seen.

    In ten years, live actors might be getting rare in live action movies at the current rate of technical progress.

  • Hayeksplosives||

    That brings to mind the early 80s move "Looker" directed by Crichton. I saw it several times when I was young (HBO ran the same 10 movies all month back then), but haven't since. It was about scanning actors and using their images in commercials, etc., but of course there was sinister business on the side involving politics, hypnosis and so forth.

    I'll have to find it online see if it has held up over time. Albert Finney was the unlikely hero.

  • jmomls||

    Seth McFarlane is funny if you have a 13 year-old boy's mentality...or are a liberal democrat. But I repeat myself.

  • Spawn of Nyarlathotep||

    "For a writer so famously clever ..."

    This is *Earth* Seth Mcfarlane we're discussing, right?

  • WillMG||

    Saw Million Ways last night. Some laughs but it's basically a Judd Apatow rom-com plot of "shlubby guy loses girl, gets depressed, manic pixie dream girl fixes him" awkwardly put into some Western elements. That the trailer shows the majority of the funny deaths didn't help. I went in expecting a movie length episode of 1,000 Ways to Die with a Western twist.

  • Todaluney||

    Rarely do I go to the movies but I wanted to see Maleficent, as Sleeping Beauty is one of my favorite Disney films.
    I hated it.
    They have completely turned the story on its head. They have taken a deliciously evil character and made her a victim, and ultimately, the hero! And who did they get to be the villain in her place? Sleeping Beauty's father, or course! (Why am I not surprised!!) And "good King Stephan" as he was called in S.B is a totally vile and unredeemable character. From the first we see of him as a boy, he is a thief, a liar, a betrayer, (he maims Maleficent-which turns her into a vengeful victim), he's an awful husband and a lousy father. And does Prince Phillip awaken our slumbering princess with "love's first kiss'? No...guess who does?!? I guess in this PC world of ours one cannot portray a female as downright rotten, there has to be some justification for (and that's usually a rotten male).
    And in the first part of the film I thought it was odd that the creatures in fairyland (who were being attacked by the evil human army (all male)were referred to as "Moors". Now, I don't know how it was spelled in the screenplay (written by a....woman) but that's how it sounded.
    Altogether an absolute disgrace.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement