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‘RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET’ a Sporadically Clever, Nostalgia-Bombed Delight

This November, families have a chance to decide between two cartoon villains to treat their kids to. Illumination Entertainment’s The Grinch, a perfectly affable and admittedly adorable – if toothless – remake of the Dr. Seuss classic, and Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet. A sequel to 2012’s critical and commercial success Wreck-It Ralph, the follow-up directed by Phil Johnson and Rich Moore (Zootopia) reacquaints us with Ralph’s 8-bit world, wherein he happily stars as a stocky bad guy in an arcade game called Fit-It Felix, content as a clam in his closed-loop routine.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’

Don’t mess with a good thing, so croons an age old adage and Beauty and the Beast, the most recent live action Disney remake, is exemplary of that statement. A near-perfect update of the beloved animated Disney classic, this live-action contemporary version is in many ways a literal note for note transfer, with everything from story beats to musical runs to the lavish costumes tracing 1991’s hand drawn offerings but despite its reciprocal, borderline redundant nature, Bill Condon’s product feels sumptuously loved nonetheless. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘MOANA’

Following the sage advice of her kooky grandma (a la Pocahontas) princess Moana must leave the enclosed life she’s always known behind (a la Aladdin’s Jasmine) to return a mystic item to the mountain from whence it came (a la Lord of the Rings). Moana, for its great many strengths, falters bringing a truly original tale to the screen, running on the fumes of Disney movies past to craft a well-loved, good-natured and visually decadent, but still somewhat second-tier Disney Princess potboiler, to the big screen in eye-popping 3D. Read More

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Disney Does Dubstep: DESCENDENTS Debuts

Disney’s Descendants plays like an extended 2-hour pop music meditation, updating the classic Disney Princess Magic Kingdom with Deadmau5 dubstep and Sia Fuller hyperpop, that is ultimately utterly likable.

Descendants is a made-for-TV feature length film, debuting on July 31, 2015 to an audience of 6.6 million, despite underground murmurings and protestations leading up to the pop spectacle. Descendants tells the story of the offspring of four of the main Disney Villains – the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy), Cruella De Vil (Wendy Raquel Robinson), Jafar (Maz Jobrani), and Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth). The kids – Evie (Sofia Carson), Carlos (Cameron Boyce), Jay (Booboo Stewart), and Mal (Dove Cameron) – have grown up in the Isle Of The Lost, cut off from magic. Read More

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Out in Theaters: CINDERELLA

From the first time they put pen to paper, the House of Mouse changed things. Classics from Snow White to Sleeping Beauty capitalized on groundbreaking innovation, brokered a new medium for entertainment and launched the phenomenon of the Disney princess, a cultural landmark that lasted for decades. Maybe it was my being a teenager and all, but from what I gathered, that cultural landmark dried up around Y2K, petering out with a string of computer animated duds. Dinosaur, Atlantis, Brother Bear and Chicken Little all represented a low point for the imaginative power of the ubiquitous studio, especially when juxtaposed with the meteoric rise of Pixar. With a certifiable hit in Princess and the Frog reviving the old-fashioned charm of the Disney engine a year earlier, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland arrived on the scene to dominate the box office to the tune of a billion dollars. Dollar signs in their eyes, the once great studio turned its attention to recycling old mainstays with new CGI to the collective groan of people everywhere. Read More

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Out in Theaters: BIG HERO 6

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In the past, I’ve been something of a bitch when it comes to animated movies. The Pixar classics are notorious for beating down my manliness and summoning up the tears – Up, Toy Story 3, even f*cking Ratatouille all got me going. Something about the to-the-bone earnest family connection gets this child of divorce waterworking. It’s clockwork. Minute 82 and I’m Niagara. The last animated movie to move me: How to Train Your Dragon 2. The Mom stuff. The Dad stuff! Whew. Color me teary.

In Big Hero 6, the tragic beats are there – dead parents (c’mon, it’s not a Disney movie without dead rentals), another family member who bites the dust in a ghastly explosion and, yup, a close friend and confidante who also eats the proverbial bullet. The kids in my audience gulped palpably and cried out in waves of concern.

But where was the lump in my throat? Had I grown too cold and calloused to experience my fair share of emotional woes? I felt like Palahniuk’s narrator stuffed into Bob’s meaty bosoms, post-Marla. What the eff was going on?! And then I realized, the fundamental issue was this was more Marvel movie than animated flick. The deaths were without meaning. The sacrifices just temporarily absences; a normative formula via disappearing act that’s taken hold in sequel culture. The offings were like watching Agent Coulson die in The Avengers (spoiler, whoops) or Sam Fury die in Cap 2 (whoops, more spoilers). You just don’t really care. Worse yet, you don’t believe it. This symptom of emotional weightlessness is part and parcel of the pricklinesslessness (not a word) that is the Marvel-verse. Everyone is safe, everything works out. If I had a nicket for every faked death in the MMU, I would have like a full quarter. This consequencelessness (also, not a word) leaves me cold and indifferent. With Big Hero 6, I laughed heartily, I generally enjoyed myself, but I never felt a single thing. Nor did I ever feel a sense of danger.

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And that’s why I’m struggling to conjure up words to properly describe my experience with Big Hero 6. It was pretty good. It made me smile. But that’s kinda all one can really say. It’s a hearty head shake; a smiling nod. You can recommend it to just about anyone and they wouldn’t be offended by what they’ve seen. They’ll likely enjoy it quite a bit. It’s got plenty of funny moments to boot, the actions sequences are beautifully realized and colorfully captivating and there is a heart to it, it’s just more robotic than of flesh and blood. But once it’s all over (and with an inevitable load of sequels on the way) there’s really nothing to talk about; nothing that sticks with you.

The latest from Disney is adapted from an under-sung Marvel comic created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau in 1998. The first collaboration between Marvel and Disney since Disney acquired Marvel almost five years back, Big Hero 6 tells the story of 13-year old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a robo-tech genius taken to back alley bot battles. After a narrow escape from one black-market moonlighting or other, Hiro is seduced by older bro Tadashi to go legit and enroll in a prestigious engineering program promising to hone his robotic skills. Decidedly won over by Tadashi’s classmates, his state-of-the-art workspace, his just-finished invention and the winning Professor Calahan (James Cromwell), Hiro decides to win the science fair and earn a place among these up-and-coming science wiz-kids.

Set in the hyper-futuristic San Fransokyo, the superhero saga sees Hiro team up with medic-bot Baymax (Scott Adsit) and fellow students Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung) and Fred (T.J. Miller) to take down a mysterious super-villain who’s stolen Hiro’s next-gen microbots and has nothing short of evil intentions for them.

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The script has a massive nine credits (!!!) to its name, which accounts for the rigidly structured and carefully manicured movements of Big Hero 6, but co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams find ample opportunities to let the jokes waft from the otherwise stenchy grasp of formulaic mediocrity. The humor flows liberally from the emotionally stinted Baymax, a plushy bot who’s more Wall-E than Vision. From fist bumps to mixed colloquialisms, Baymax’s journey to figure out the human world – and the associated emotions that come with it – is flooded with moments of laughter and genuine warmth. Of the seis big heros, he’s the only one anyone’s going to be talking about exiting the theater. Trouble is, outside of this smiley Stay Puft marshmallow man, the film is inflated with flat characters and narrative breadcrumbs all leading to an overdone and overblown ending you could see from miles away without a super scanner. So while it is paint-by-numbers, the colors used are at least rather pretty.

Big Hero 6 is like a Nilla Wafer; yummy going down but nothing to write home about. It’s funny and entertaining in a bland, gingerbread kind of way. It’s the taste of the scrumptious substancelessness (not a word) that defines the Marvel cinematic universe now bleeding into Disney. I don’t doubt that you’ll like it, maybe even love it, but I challenge you to remember this movie five years down the line. You know, once the Avengers 4 is out.

C+

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Out in Theaters: SAVING MR. BANKS

“Saving Mr. Banks”
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths
Biography, Comedy, Drama
125 Mins
PG-13
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Saving Mr. Banks may as well have been called How Walt Disney Saved The Day From The Curmudgeonly P.L Travers. It’s as whitewashed a narrative as can be, oozing Disney hallmarks to reinvent the notorious asshat that is Walt Disney into a salt of the earth type inspirationally adept at picking himself up by his bootstraps. He’s the American Dream personified and he circles Emma Thompson‘s P.L. “put the milk in the tea first” Travers with the predatory knack of a hawk.

 

Travers, whose opaque Britishness sticks out like Andre the Giant’s thumb if it’d been slammed in a car door, is a woman desperately struggling to maintain artistic control of a character she’s poured her very heart and soul into: Mary Poppins. Having either run dry in the ideas department or simply too stubborn to pen another Poppins adventure, Travers straddles the line of bankruptcy. Her only option lays in Walt Disney, who’s been hounding after the Poppins property for the past ten years.

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While Travers flies over to LA to be courted by Mr. Disney himself, the earnest, creative folks at Disney are pouring themselves into turning Poppins into a product, equipped with sing-a-long numbers and dancing animated penguins. It’s a far cry from her original vision, and she battles tooth and nail to preserve the soul of these stories that mean so much to her but in the process only comes across as a mean old kook. I mean, this is the 60s, women have no place asserting themselves, amiright?

As audience members, we’re expected to cheer for this moustachioed monopoly man trying to ink out another deal with his enterprising smile. And after Saving Mr. Banks dresses Disney’s acquisition of Mary Poppins up as a promise to his children to one day turn their favorite storybook into a delightful family video, how can you not want him to succeed? Think of the children!

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I don’t think I have to tell you whether or not Disney got his grubby hands on the rights to Poppins. So with that, the moral of this Disney story reads something like: big business always triumphs over the solitary artist. How sweet.

For all the tomfoolery that tries to pass as morals here, Thompson is undeniably powerhousing it as Travers. She’s confounding, frustrating, pitiable, and, for a majority of her screen time, detestable. Her 50 shades of gray comes in two flavors: frowny and disappointment. With a no-nonsense attitude so caustic she makes Professor McGonagall look like a bonafide class clown, Travers is the stuff of fairytale stepmothers – strict, rude, and utterly indifferent. But Thompson plays her with understanding, lacking an ounce of judgement. This year’s Best Actress talks have been all about Cate Blanchett but, with a performance of this caliber, Thompson might just have what it takes to knock her off her horse. There is one big thing standing in the way of that though: Travers is entirely unlikeable.

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Typically, it requires a bit of mental gymnastics on behalf of the audience to acclimate to a character who is so legitimately awful and yet director John Lee Hancock makes no attempt to skirt around the dozen or so sticks up her butt. In fact, that seems the primary function of the first act – to reveal just how uptight Ms. Travers is. For most of the movie, she might as well be a plum. Says Hancock’s film, she’s a dried up old cooze more pleased by naysaying than any of this smiling nonsense. She wants for nothing save a paycheck so she may return to her flat in London and live out the rest of her days on trumpets, tea, and sighing. As she closes in on signing over that character which has come to define her and her career, she’s hardly a popular figure on the Disney campus. Making friends along the way is about as high a priority as stepping in a pile of dog shit. To her, they may as well be one in the same. With all her humbuging, she’s the Ms. Scrooge of the 2013 Christmas season.

But there’s no illusion that this pinecone of a woman won’t shed her crusty shell and reveal the little sweet girl inside, that flax-haired Aussie who we become well acquainted to through an unexpectedly prominent series of flashbacks. In his milking of the emotional teat, Hancock knows that you’ve got to show just how sour someone is to make their inescapable third act transformation all the more power. Most will likely fall victim to his ringing of the waterworks bell, but they’ll probably also be smart enough to see through the highly visibly emotional manipulation at work. So though you may cry, you’ll likely feel a sucker for it.

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On the sidelines, the film is stuffed full of cheery secondary characters who either have helped raise Travers into the woman she is or those unlucky dogs who have to deal with her now that she’s grown into a froofy-haired, red lipstick-wearing bulldog. B.J. NovakJason Schwartzman, and Bradley Whitford are a fine trio of slick-job comic relief and their many colored reactions to Travers’ totalitarian workmanship are amongst the best moments of the film.

In stark contrast, Paul Giamatti‘s thick take on a white version of Driving Mrs. Daisy‘s Hoke Colburn is a prime example of Saving Mr. Banks as a hokey tearjerker while Colin Farrell‘s bubbling but bumbling alcoholic father is shaded with true characterization. He’s far richer in depth than many of these hackneyed stereotypes but belongs in a whole other movie; one far darker and sadder. Then again, the wealth the flashback scenes do seem like another movie entirely. It’s not until the end that it all finally comes together and we see the pieces for a whole. Nonetheless, Hancock never really justifies the amount of division the film must carry and the emotionally stirring conclusion still isn’t enough to make up for the sluggingness that clouds the first hour.

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Saving Mr. Banks
is yet another Disney export of saccharine in the highest degree, an uplifting tale that also serves to reinforce the likeability of a dynasty that has swept up Pixar, Marvel, Stars Wars, and just recently Indiana Jones. But for those of us who’ve heard stories of Disney as a man who aligned himself with anti-Semitic organizations and would work his employees to the bone, attempts to make him seem like Saint Walt come across as disingenuous at best and full-blown falsification at worst. But it’s hard to look down your nose when Tom Hanks is playing the role with all his usual charm and gumption. Well played Disney, well played.

C+

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Disney Takes INDIANA JONES Property, Will Make Fifth Film Because Fuck Your Childhood

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In the most heartbreaking news article of the week, Disney has acquired the rights to Indiana Jones and plan on making a fifth film in the beloved franchise. Heralded as one of the greatest film trilogies in the history of film trilogies (although some are admittedly lukewarm on the ultra-campy Temple of Doom), the utterly heinous fourth film sought to dismember all fan love for the franchise. Now, a fifth film is in the works to challenge how far you can push viewers until they snap.

Subbing a grizzled and aged Indiana Jones for the snarky, cock of the walk ruffian who made the hat and whip combo into a thing, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull left a stain on the franchise unlikely to be wiped away by a follow up chartered by Disney. Introducing Indy’s son in Mutt (Shia Labeouf) was a play to pass the torch but was widely panned by all, making the likelihood of his playing a serious role in any future installments slim.  

But the question remains: what to do with the character? Sure, Ford could probably play him one last time, and perhaps try to make up for the utter disappointment of his last outing, but he’s hardly in physical shape to play the character any further on down the line (the guy isn’t getting any younger). This doesn’t leave the future of franchise with many options. Since the whole Shia/Mutt thing isn’t really an option, this really only leaves them with one choice: to James Bond it.

Instead of going back and rebooting Raiders with the same story, they can just pass the mantel to a new, younger actor without ever explaining the change and continue down a whole new line of whip-cracking adventures. This will allow them to remain in the same Nazi-filled time period, breathe new life into the character, and set him up as a mainstay for decades to come. But any duplicitous attempts to shoehorn any ol’ actor into Indy digs to take on supernatural/Nazi will be met with fierce fan uprising. However, if they put a proven talent in the role, people might not have such a knee-jerk freakout and may accept Indy as a changing man. Then again, what is Indiana Jones without Harrison Ford?

I guess I’d rather not really think about too much and instead will bow my head in respect for our lost friend, Indiana Jones (1981-89).

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Out in Theaters: FROZEN

“Frozen”
Directed by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Starring Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciarán Hinds, Chris Williams, Stephen J. Anderson

Animation, Adventure, Comedy
108 Mins
PG

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Although still lacking the gilded touch that made the likes of Aladdin, Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast such timeless classics, Frozen is a rock solid addition to the post-hand-drawn Disney musical stable and is the best animated feature of the year by a good margin.

Made up of a relatively unknown vocal talent, Frozen values story and song more than an all-star cast and kitschy pop culture jokes, making it an experience that’ll warm the most curmudgeonly of hearts and a film rich with beautifully-realized animation that keeps the wow factor buzzing for children and adults alike.

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The new roster of tunes sound inspired by an alluring amalgamation of Inuit folk songs and bubbly fad-pop songs the likes of Katy Perry. And while some songs are a little too bright for the taste of a self-respecting mid-twenties male, each has a narrative purpose accompanying its infectious melodic tendencies that all blend perfectly into the fabric of the story.

Eight new songs from Kristen Anderson-Lopez (In Transit, Winnie the Pooh) and Tony Award winner Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q”) are sure to inspire a whole new generation set to commit these catchy songs to memory. The best of which is the opening, near teary-eyed, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and the witty anthem courtesy of reanimated snowman Olaf (Josh Gad)- who is destined to be a favorite for all – in the openly hysterical “In Summer.”

Listening to these tunes, it’s clear why A-list celebrities have been sidelined for more undecided stars – they can all sing…and they can sing well. Unlike earlier Disney musical endeavors, no voice performer is swapped out for a sound-a-like. Keeping this narrative bridge consistent allows character to enliven their songs with the necessary emotional weight or comic vibrancy needed for the scene. But will they stand the test of time to join the ranks of “Tale as Old as Time,” “Circle of Life,” or “A Whole New World”? Probably not.
 
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Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” a non-Grimm fairy tale from 1845 that sees evil trolls, amnesiac kisses, and the Devil himself, Frozen pursues the sugarcoated stylings we’ve come to expect of Disney that champions heart over heinousness and works all the better for it.

In the royal town of Arendelle, we meet a newly crafted version of Andersen’s Snow Queen in Elsa (Idina Menzel), a withdrawn but hopeful young girl with magical powers of icy consequence. Quartered out of site after a childhood accident that nearly saw the death of her fearless younger sister, and this story’s other central heroine, Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa’s loving but misguided parents instill in her a mantra the close cousin of Gandalf’s “Keep it secret, keep it safe.” But throbbing beneath Elsa’s poised veneer is an unflinching desire to break free of the taut regulations that years of secrecy have instilled in her.

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Since we all know the most perilous job in the Disney kingdom is parenthood, it’s no surprise that the young princesses’ parents are lost in a storm at sea, leaving Elsa to take up the mantle of Queen when she reaches the ripe age of womanhood. Years later, on her coronation day, Elsa’s buried abilities are shaken loose by an overeager Anna whose heart is newly set on marrying prince Hans (Santino Fontana), whom she met just hours earlier. Unhinged by a sense of crumbling familial guardianship, Elsa unwittingly lets loose years of repressed icy powers to cover her island community in a blanket of eternal winter. Finally, the town’s people see her for what she really is – a sorceress lacking the most basic semblance of control.  

Deemed a monster by the unscrupulous tradesmen passing through Arendelle on a business trip, fatally cute, and morbidly naive, Anna employs the help of ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer BFF Sven to locate her escaped sister and return the city to prosperity before it’s too late. The normative fairy tale lessons of “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “Be true to yourself” are pounded home but the dichotomy of two princesses each struggling with their own separate but equal identity crises is a new chapter in the Disney princess manual.

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After absolutely dominating the 90s with some of the best animated features, Disney suffered a nosedive in quality that saw the likes of Treasure Planet, Bolt, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Meet the Robinsons flail and fall into obscurity, a side effect of their unwillingness to change with the ebb of culture. Halting their dominant reign (that unarguably stopped after 1998’s Mulan), newcomers Pixar started their own golden age which took the wind out of Disney’s sails. Bookending the period of Disney’s supremacy and the coming of Pixar’s rising star, Disney faded from the spotlight.

But with their recent string of successes, made up of 2010’s Tangled, last year’s Wreck it Ralph and now Frozen, it seems that Disney is finally back on top as the animation studio to beat. Although the hand-drawn days of animation have come to a close, the same immaculately rendered, noticeably loving detail is put into each and every breathtaking sequence in Frozen. This not only has resulted in an animated feature worthy of Disney’s legacy but it’s essentially is assured Frozen a win at this year’s Oscar ceremonies.

Adapting to a new generation of tech-savvy, open-minded youngsters, the House of Mouse also gives some much-needed wiggle room for Frozen to step away from Disney’s legacy of antiquated sexual identities, chartering a new and exciting course for post-feminist Disney princesses. Our main heroine may still be a landlocked princess but a smooch from a prince may not be the ultimate life bandaid we’ve seen in a thousand children’s tales before. Rather, true love is found in self-discovery, or simply etched in the fiber of the nuclear family. This is a new brand of lesson in a new social climate, one where the tenants of yesteryear cease to dictate the values of tomorrow.

B+

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MALEFICENT Gets a Fairy Tale Trailer

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Nipping at the heels of yesterday’s poster comes the first trailer for Disney’s Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie. Revealing a CGI-heavy world too reminiscent of this year’s piss-poor Oz: The Great and Powerful, this latest in a string of live action adaptations of classic Disney tales looks to be just another in a long list of throwaway cash grabs. At one point, I remember thinking that both Oz and Snow White and the Huntsman looked like they had some promise but both ended up being some of the worst films that I’d seen all year. From this first look, I’m almost willing to already retire Maleficent into that category.

The biggest issues these slew of new age fairy tales face is that they try to be everything for everybody, balancing light and dark elements amongst a dump truck of special effects and C-grade humor that goes slightly over kids heads but is too dumbed down for adults to really enjoy. Although this first teaser trailer doesn’t showcase much of the goings on in the story, the setting itself is highly reminiscent of the landscape of those aforementioned films – not to mention the one that started it all, Tim Burton‘s Alice in Wonderland – and for it, I’ve lost any hope that this is anything but another cookie-cut slice of the Disney pie.

Visual effects guy Robert Stromberg will direct with John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Bank) apparently brought in to do some reshoots. A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land’s fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal — an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king’s successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora (Elle Fanning). As the child grows, Maleficent realizes that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom — and perhaps to Maleficent’s true happiness as well.

Maleficent is directed by Robert Stomberg and stars Angelina Jolie, Miranda Richardson, Imelda Staunton, Kenneth Cranham, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville and Brenton Thwaites. It hits theaters on May 30, 2014.

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