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Who Gets the Credit for 'Maleficent's' Box-Office Magic?

Richard Rushfield
Features Editor
June 4, 2014

Maleficent opened last weekend with a fierce $69 million from U.S. audiences, on top of another $100 million internationally. And then came the Monday morning analysis, which was split into two schools of thoughts:

It shows the power of fairy tale revisionism! Its opening gross trailed just behind those of huge hits Alice in Wonderland ($116 million domestic) and Oz the Great and Powerful ($79 million domestic, and just ahead of Snow White and the Huntsman ($56 million).

No, it shows the power of Angelina Jolie! It was her biggest opening gross ever, and proved that her last deflating live-action film, 2010’s weak The Tourist, was just a fluke. (Blame Depp!)

So did Angelina save Sleeping Beauty or vice versa? As you’ll see in this tale of the tape, Maleficent followed the playbook of the most successful fairy-tale movies, but there’s no way that the movie or the star could have done it without the other.

The Power of Maleficent

In retelling Sleeping Beauty, the Maleficent filmmakers made two shrewd choices.

1. They picked a legend that had been told on film before.

The selling point of most of these reboots is that you’ll be seeing a side to a classic fantasy tale that you’ve never seen before! And indicating a break with the past is more effective when the audience can see the past crystal clear in their heads.The big winners of this era (Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful) are stories that have been previously adapted into films. The hook on the public consciousness is more than a reinvention of a century(s)-old children’s tale, but fresh and daring takes on an artifact that already exists in visual form; an attempt to make you see through a different lens something that has been seared onto your consciousness almost from infancy.

The bombs Jack the Giant Slayer and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, by contrast, have never been iconically depicted on the big screen, and therefore don’t have the same hooks into our collective imagination. We all know what Maleficent looks like thanks to the original Disney cartoon, which most Americans saw practically before they could speak. A reinvention of stories that we have no hard set image of — be it in fairy tale or vampire hunter form — doesn’t carry the same transgressive thrill.  

2. They made it look dark

From Snow White and the Huntsman to Alice, successful reworkings of classic fairy tales seem to come in one wet, miserable tone: dark gray. It’s the palette created by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which initially suggested these were no cheery kids’ stories, but dark and complex visions of a world where evil forever lies in wait. What was a fresh, original adventure film makeover for LOTR, has now become a visual shorthand to convey emotional depth and seriousness that the story may or may not have earned. Maleficent, for example, depicts a villainess who, in the end, isn’t as evil as the original Disney version. But it doesn’t matter: the trailer — with all its creepy airs — is what gets people in.

The Power of Angelina

With her dark looks, dramatically sharp features and well-known wild youth, Angelina Jolie seems genetically engineered to play a sexy, over-the-top villainess. Jolie works very sporadically (her last on-screen roles were 2010’s one-two punch of Salt and The Tourist), so seeing her back on screen in such a perfect match of a role made for the ideal comeback. And her all-in embrace of this theatrical villain was reminiscent of another statuesque actress who dove into fairy-tale land headfirst: Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman.

It’s not enough to just have a big star don a cape and stalk a princess: It needs to be a certain kind of actress. Look at Julia Roberts’ turn as the Evil Stepmother in Mirror, Mirror, which never connected; the pent-up rage and sinister passions were never quite believable in the former Pretty Woman star, whose strength is a goofy but down-home Southern charm, and the film came off as campy. There was always, however, a rich vein of darkness lurking just below Jolie’s surface that audiences are clearly delighted to see it tapped.

So could Malifecent have worked without Jolie? And could Jolie have had such a hit if she were playing a different witch, one not universally known since childhood? It’s hard to imagine the “______ Is Maleficent” with any other name other than Jolie’s. Mila Kunis? Meryl Streep? Natalie Portman? No: Jolie is too perfect a match. And yet it may be soon to declare her unstoppable. After all, her previous movie, The Tourist — in which she also played to her femme-fatale strengths — tanked. Her co-star? Johnny Depp, who was just coming off a giant hit: Alice in Wonderland.