Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Despite its great cast, this dark fairytale fantasy is muddled and overblown with screensaver-like special effects.
Maleficent has a perception problem. Traditionally blamed for Sleeping Beauty's snoozing state, the evil fairy gained an on-screen backstory in 2014, which softened out her edges (but not her razor-sharp cheekbones, naturally). That leaves inevitable sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in a tricky predicament. The movie's title dials up the character's supposedly unsociable ways; however, if Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is now happily playing godmother to Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), how nefarious can she really be? And if she's facing off against a seemingly kindly queen (Michelle Pfeiffer) who actually wants to start a genocidal war against all magical folk, well, she's hardly the most wicked creature in this film.
You could say that Disney just chose the wrong name for this follow-up, but the movie's moniker is symptomatic of its generally muddled state of affairs. It's easy to see why this sequel exists — the first film made a quarter-billion dollars at the box office, and Jolie's casting as Maleficent is a dark fairytale dream — yet that doesn't explain why such little thought appears to have gone into it otherwise. Perhaps the powers-that-be assumed that audiences just want Maleficent to be somewhat evil, so they'll overlook the fact that the last flick (and the beginning of this one) establishes otherwise. Or, perhaps it was a case of trying to use the same formula by giving it the slightest of twists. Where Maleficent proved that its eponymous antiheroine wasn't really bad because she has a soft spot for Aurora, Mistress of Evil does the same by saying "hey, someone else is worse!"
That someone, Pfeiffer's Queen Ingrith, comes into Maleficent's life when Aurora accepts Prince Phillip's (Harris Dickinson) marriage proposal. While Maleficent is wary at first, she's heatedly flapping her wings with disapproval after an awkward meet-the-in-laws dinner, where she's accused of working her wicked magic on King John (Robert Lindsay). Although Aurora is left distraught and confused, original screenwriter Linda Woolverton and newcomers Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue (TV's Transparent) ensure that viewers don't feel the same, spelling out exactly who's responsible for the sinister turn of events. After a run-in with a colony of fellow dark fairies (led by a wasted Chiwetel Ejiofor), the scene is set for Maleficent to do her worst against Ingrith — for the absolute best possible reasons.
With its feuding royals, controversial nuptials and ill-motivated blonde queen, Mistress of Evil takes a leaf or several out of Game of Thrones' book — all while tasking its antagonist with trying to wipe out an entire race. Throwing homicidal xenophobia into the mix is designed to reflect today's times, rebuke toxic political structures and promote a message of harmony, but it's both bluntly and clumsily handled. This is a family-friendly flick, after all, so Disney doesn't seem to want to delve too deeply into such tricky terrain. It's still happy to use holocaust parallels to up the dramatic stakes, though.
Under the direction of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales' co-helmer Joachim Rønning, the movie's visuals also prove dull and lumbering, unless you like overblown CGI onslaughts. Of course, Mistress of Evil isn't the first big fantasy blockbuster that's forgone subtlety and ramped up its battle scenes, but it never escapes attention that the film didn't need to turn out this way.
Jolie is once again a commanding delight as Maleficent, a role she relishes even if it barely stretches her Oscar-winning acting skills. Pfeiffer is equally as mesmerising as her increasingly deranged adversary — and, as she did the first time around, Fanning wears innocence well. After fleshing out its titular figure's tragic past in the initial movie, this sequel could've just let its three main talents go head-to-head. Indeed, Mistress of Evil is at its strongest when Jolie and Pfeiffer are trading withering barbs and glares, or when Jolie and Fanning are exploring their characters' complex mother-daughter dynamic. Cast-wise, it helps that they're in fine company, with Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple returning as pithy pixies devoted to Aurora, and Sam Riley popping up again as Maleficent's shape-shifting offsider; however the film's three main ladies steal the show when they're just talking to each other.
But, then the screensaver-like special effects start screaming for attention. The movie's swooping cinematography keeps repetitively flying over forests and castles, too. And, especially from its mid-point, Rønning repeatedly hits audiences over the head with the film's clunky themes. Instead of enchanting, it all just makes for average-at-best fairytale drama. Mistress of Evil is hardly cursed, but it won't send anyone leaping from their slumber.
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