Why Maleficent is A Perfect Disney Franchise Starter

Maleficent (2)Of the year's top box office draws, perhaps the most under-analyzed was Maleficent.

The Angelina Jolie-starring twist on the classic Sleeping Beauty tale took one of Disney's most evil and recognizable villains and transformed her into a more complex character...and while neither critics nor audiences could really decide whether that change was for the better or not, the combination of the star and the content drove butts to the seats, finishing sixth overall for the year with over $240 million in North America and more than doubling that in the foreign market for a worldwide take of over $757 million.

Even with a hefty $180 million budget, that's nothing to sneeze at, especially for a movie that nobody quite knew what to make of when it came to theaters back in May.

On reflection, perhaps people shouldn't be so surprised it was a big hit. After all...it's built for success, especially with Disney behind it.

In fact, they could probably create an entire franchise, or maybe even one of those interconnected universes people love so much, with films like this.

Maleficent didn't give us very much that was new. We've seen these new twists on fairy tales before, from Wicked to Once Upon a Time, which ABC developed after passing on a TV adaptation of Bill Willingham's long-running Vertigo series Fables, which has a similar premise.

What it did give us was the idea of merging that sensibility with the classic animated properties upon which Disney built their multimedia empire. There are elements of that at play in Once Upon a Time, especially this year with the introduction of characters from Frozen so soon after they dominated the box office, but Maleficent felt different.

First of all, it felt like it was tied more to the animated history of the Sleeping Beauty characters, whereas Once Upon a Time generally seems to be trying to put an ABC or Disney spin on the traditional myths. That's an important distinction in terms of building a franchise, because the Disney animated features have a massive, dedicated audience built-in. Everyone can draw on Brothers Grimm and Mother Goose stories, but Disney alone can draw on, reference and potentially tie in with some of the most beloved animated films of all time.

Franchises are currently the biggest guarantee you have of big-time box-office success in Hollywood; from Marvel to James Bond to Transformers, recognizable properties with built-in sequels seem to be where the money is at right now.

And this is something that's great for Disney.

Adapting or at least playing to the classic Disney animated films has a lot of upside; in addition to the aforementioned appeal, the studio wouldn't have to pay the same stars to come back over and over -- or demand long-term contracts that superstars like Jolie shy away from when it comes to the Marvel and Star Wars type of franchise.

That's pretty big, in terms of attracting top talent. How many times have we heard Joaquin Phoenix or Ryan Gosling rumored for some superhero movie where the actor eventually backed out because they didn't want to be tied down by a long-term deal?

It could retain the feel of a big franchise, because people know and love the Disney "universe," but without necessarily having to make every property into a trilogy.

It also averts the Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland issue. There's a sequel to that film in the works, but it's got two strikes against it at the start because Burton isn't the guy at the helm. The cult of personality around Burton will likely work against the movie.

Maleficent is a solid model to follow in that regard, as well. The film was visually striking and solidly made, but nobody is talking about director Robert Stromberg. He director can easily be replaced without alienating the audience, as Maleficent -- or Disney, if they decide to go with another myth -- is the real draw.

Kenneth Branagh, of course, is working on a Cinderella live-action film, so it's a pretty good guess Disney has already got a similar thought in mind. How well it works may come down to scripts and casting...but there's certainly a very promising start here.