This weekend, I watched two very different movies. Knowing that I needed to blog about both, I spun around, trying to find a connection between Seth MacFarland's A Million Ways to Die in the West and Disney's live-action Maleficent. Finally, I hit on it - both prominently feature women in mythic circumstances. Million Ways is trying to poke fun at the genre of the American Western and Maleficent attempts to retell the Sleeping Beauty tale, this time from the point of view of the villain. (Very reminiscent of Wicked, although plenty will point to Disney's recent smash hit Frozen as well.) Face it, both Westerns and fairy tales are tangled up in myth - the West of the great John Ford movies existed in reality about as much as the Grimm tales. Generally speaking, these are both types of stories in which women do very little, aside from get saved, get avenged, and/or get married.
So how do these two films stack up?
Million Ways wants to be MacFarland's Blazing Saddles, but he's not quite up to the task. To be fair, he tries. Clearly, he's watched and studied a number of Westerns - all the better to caustically mock the genre - and he knows the standards. Look - there's Monument Valley! Running throughout is a Western score and even the credits look like they were taken from a 1950s Technicolor Western. His cast is solid, with Liam Neeson playing a vicious gunfighter from Eire while Sarah Silverman (whose whole schtick to me has always been a variation on "look - I'm pretty, but I can be as raunchy as any guy!") as the town hooker with a heart of gold and a loving boyfriend, Neil Patrick Harris as a dastardly shopkeeper, and Charlize Theron as Anna, the gunfighter's wife who, like MacFarland's sheep farmer, hates the West with all its dirt, filth, disease, and rampant stupidity. Far less about rugged individualism and the pioneer spirit and far more about the triumph of modern plumbing, Million Ways is raunchy and funny in places (very funny in that particular MacFarland vein that made Ted such an unlikely hit and to me, the best joke was a throwaway line about Stephen Foster) but it's a rental. The only thing gained by a big-screen viewing would be the magnificent Monument Valley vistas and for those, go see Stagecoach. Or Blazing Saddles.
Maleficent is worth watching for two scenes alone, although again - this one could easily be a rental. Told with a sympathetic bent for one of the scariest Disney villains ever, Maleficent explains just why Aurora was cursed at her christening. Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast as the wicked fairy although this film makes it clear that there are reasons behind her turn to darkness, while never condoning her actions. (Oh, and the scene where Shartlo Copley's King Stefan is "having a conversation" is just chilling. He did wrong and it haunts him.) The movie is quite pretty visually, with a sharp divide between the "castle country" and the "fair folk moors," but things get kicked up a notch when Maleficent awakens to find she's been betrayed and violated by the one she loved and trusted. And the christening scene is the cartoon brought to vibrant life, even down to the spooky shadow on the wall. Alas, Elle Fanning as Aurora has very little to do aside from smile vapidly - perhaps a side effect of being given the gift of perpetual happiness is to make a person a simpering idiot - but the movie is worth seeing for Jolie. (Side note - one of the Jolie-Pitt children plays the toddler Aurora in a scene that is just marvelous. Apparently, other child actors were either stunned into silence or scared into tears by Jolie's elaborate "hey, I'm evil" getup, but her daughter knew it was just mom.) Is the film reminiscent of Wicked and of Frozen? Sure, but I'll take all the stories with strong, complex women as the headliner that I can get these days.