Maleficent: Mistress of EvilReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/24/19 11:07:50
I can't say that I exactly loved "Maleficent" when it appeared a few years ago, but it was at the very least interesting, and grew in relative stature as Disney followed it up with less daring live-action takes on their animated library. Maybe the sequel will follow a similar path, but its ambitions seem less impressive and interesting, a mere building out of the fairy-tale world that the first attempted to turn on its head.It's been five years since the events of the first film, and Aurora (Elle Fanning) has become Queen of The Moors, where the magical creatures live, rather than ruling her father's kingdom (the castle is said to have been given to the people, so maybe they are experimenting with democracy). Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) has just proposed, a development that pleases Aurora's dark fae godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) not at all, and that is before a disastrous dinner at the castle where King John (Robert Lindsay) seems genuinely proud of his son and eager for peace between these neighbors but Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) is eager to provoke Maleficent and then have a servant shoot her with iron when she storms out. She is rescued by another of her endangered race, Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who would coexist with humanity but is losing ground in fae society to the likes of Borra (Ed Skrein), eager for a fight before humans develop even more dangerous weapons.
There are the germs of interesting ideas in here, and some of the same topical darkness that made the first film interesting, perhaps enough ideas that the film cannot truly give them their due - in the dark fae, there is an indigenous population trying to survive in the face of an expansionist, technologically-superior foe, with Maleficent presented as an orphan making the first attempts to reconnect with her roots. Ingrith is a familiar sort of villain, the leader whose own early misfortune leads her to see the world as a zero-sum game and be willing to destroy her neighbors in order to win it, although it's a rare movie for kids that goes down the road of biological weapons and what is probably one of the more bizarre evocations of a Nazi gas chamber ever put on film. It's impressively heavy stuff, but there's so much of it that new director Joachim Rønning and returning co-writer Linda Woolverton never take the chance to lean in these themes: The fae's cavern is a neat location but not much else, and while it's always tough to figure out how much a movie like this should scare kids, the horrifying parts of the final battle are sanitized a bit too much to make the impression the filmmakers seem to be going for.
It also doesn't help that there is distressingly little for either Aurora or Maleficent to do for much of the movie, either together or separately. The opening scenes of the pair experiencing friction over Aurora's engagement seem like they're from a less fantastical movie about meeting potential in-laws and discovering their politics are awful, and the threads about both having to learn how to deal with formal society never come to much. Fanning does some nice work and Jolie often seems to give back much more than she's given as discomfort turns to lashing out at dinner and as she shows a wary curiosity while exploring the cave, but they're holding steady until the more active characters make their moves. Unfortunately, neither Michelle Pfeiffer nor Ed Skrein gets a chance to stake out interesting territory the way Jolie did in the first film - Skrein doesn't make Borra charismatic enough to sell how the man may have a point while Pfeiffer's Ingrith seldom shows enough of the desperation she says motivates her or the gleeful cruelty that might make her an interesting monster, and there's not enough effort to put this wolf in sheep's clothing to make anything she does a surprise.
LIke the previous film, Mistress of Evil is often striking, although at times it seems quite overstuffed. There are a lot of magical creatures running about, from tiny pixies to Ent-sized tree people, enough to become a bit of a blur, few of them looking nearly as good as the fae with what certainly look like practical wings. The cavern where the fae live is often spectacular - its unusual curves, massive chambers, and three-dimensionality that makes it feel like a place winged people would live. The castle, on the other hand, is a bland place, ever stone the exact same shade of tan with the exteriors feeling too big and orderly, a model city that always feels like the digital extension of sets that only contain the things a character might actually touch. It's nice in 3D if your theater's subscription program doesn't upcharge for it.Maybe, given time, "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" will gain some of the favor the first has; it's not like there's nothing going on here and Jolie is still committed to making the title character interesting without sacrificing her abrasive nature. It just often seems very lost trying to find a way to extend "Sleeping Beauty" in a new direction rather than look at the other side.
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