Seth 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.
So 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.