Not only do the two fantasy flicks that arrive on DVD this week each appeal, rather obviously, to a respective gender, they each feature stars who seem born to play their respective roles. Hercules, aiming for the male crowd, stars Dwayne Johnson, seemingly the largest human being alive, while Angelina Jolie, aka Mrs. Brad Pitt, headlines Maleficent.
To be fair, Hercules really belongs to the action genre, as the story, based on a pair of graphic novels by late British comic book writer Steve Moore, casts the character as merely an ultra-strong man who leads of a band of mercenaries on dangerous jobs and whose legend as a demi-god exists via exaggerated storytelling. No actual gods appear. No lightning bolts streak down from the sky. This Hercules bleeds just like we do. Dreams torment him as they do any human.
It’s quite the understatement to say Johnson fits the part physically, especially when compared to Kellan Lutz’s more human-sized version in The Legend of Hercules earlier this year. He really does look like he could punch a rampaging barbarian in the face and send him flying back several feet, or defeat a warlord by lifting the man’s horse right off the ground. And while I concede he did similar things in The Scorpion King, he seems a more assured performer here.
Narratively, it all plays out pretty broadly—The Magnificent Seven in ancient Greece—and Rush Hour director Brett Ratner, typical of his mediocre skill set, choreographs the action competently but without a lick of style. John Hurt, as the King of Thrace, and velvety-voiced Ian McShane, as Johnson’s in-house fortune teller, lend some class, while Rufus Sewell, who normally gets cast as villains, appears to have a great time playing one of the good guys.
Jolie may or may not have had a great time making Maleficent, but she sure is the perfect choice to play the live-action version of the evil queen fairy from Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty, who here places a she-will-fall-into-a-deep-sleep-on-her-16th-birthday curse on the newborn daughter of the man (Sharlto Copley) who took her wings so he could become king. Her casting ranks right up there with Vivien Leigh’s in Gone With the Wind or Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.
She so excels at being grandly evil—the scene in which she places the curse on the kid easily ranks as the film’s highlight—with her impeccable British accent and gorgeous, razor-sharp cheekbones, that I was a little disappointed to see her get softened up and made mother figure to the girl (played with beautiful innocence as a teen by Elle Fanning). But Jolie works well in those scenes, too, and, admittedly, such is the nature of constructing a story around a villain—redemption is required.
If the $180 million film around Jolie fails to be as good as her, it’s only because it was helmed by one Robert Stromberg, a special effects artist who bit off perhaps a bit more than he could chew for his directorial debut. As consolation to him, the makeup and vast amount of CGI look terrific, and he remembers to include plenty of humor, a lot of it courtesy of pixies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville. He just needed to make it all feel a little more… magical. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
Hercules: Action/Adventure, Rated PG-13
Maleficent: Action/Adventure/Family, Rated PG
DVD Release Date: 11/5/14