- Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
- Directed by Joachim Ronning
- Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and Linda Woolverton
- Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning and Michelle Pfeiffer
- Classification PG
- 118 minutes
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a misfire, despite its wonderful title, which feels plucked straight from an Elvira movie. It is a waste of so many resources and people’s talents: A CGI budget that surely trumps Game of Thrones, an ensemble of interesting actors (including Elle Fanning, Sam Riley and Michelle Pfeiffer) trying their hardest to fill out dialogue and direction that does them no favours and, most cruelly, Angelina Jolie’s glorious cutlass cheekbones, which should be chiselled into marble.
Beginning as a loose Meet the Fockers-ish farce in which Maleficent tries to make nice with her new in-laws, the King and Queen, after the former-target-of-her-rage-turned-treasured-goddaughter Princess Aurora (Fanning) receives a marriage proposal from their painfully bland son, it middles in a sojourn where Maleficent goes on a journey to find herself and basically enters the second act of Avatar for awhile, and concludes in one of the laziest and most visionless CGI battles in all of Disney history.
In 2014, the retelling of the Sleeping Beauty origin story from the point of view of the exiled fairy sorceress who cursed a child into sleeping for 16 years because of her past trauma (and probably boredom), felt like the start of something fascinatingly feminist for the Disney corporation. Jolie’s star power made space for an anti-heroine who was prickly and terrifying, but all the more sympathetic because of her caustic bitterness. Yes, Maleficent was truly the Joker of her time.
Five years later, Maleficent’s unrepentant rage gets neutered in an ineffectual sequel that sidelines her right out of her own movie. She might be the titular character, but she barely drives the story. Instead, the plot actant is Aurora, who, as Queen of the Moors ruling the fairy kingdom, hopes to unite a misunderstood race with their human brethren in a marriage to her true love Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson, who, excellent in Beach Rats, is all blue eyes and embarrassing earnestness here). Philip’s in-laws welcome Aurora into their family, but Philip’s mother Queen Ingrith (Pfeffier, iconic in a movie that gives her evil mother-in-law no character motivations whatsoever) has other plans, including a mass fairy genocide. Maleficent is the only one who can protect her goddaughter, but after Ingrith insinuates that Maleficent is a terrible mom with a trash attitude, she goes on a spirit quest to find her own kind in a C-story involving an underground resistance of behorned fairy-tale truthers I can’t even describe to you because it is so poorly considered. (What a waste of Chiwetel Ejiofor though.)
Things plod on until the climactic battle and inevitable mother-daughter reconciliation, following every move in the Disney fairy-tale pastiche playbook, including a turn by Warwick Davis, who toils in a basement concocting a fairy-killing potion that is basically Agent Orange. It makes you want to shout at the screen in the script’s vaguely Medieval dialect: Why hast thou forsaken Maleficent, killer of men, destroyer of armies and owner of formidable cheekbones?
Norwegian director Joachim Ronning, whose thankless direction of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man Tell No Tales also did its source material no favours, has nothing to recommend him here. In scenes of conflict between his three female leads, he shoves the camera uncomfortably close to their faces, thinking an extreme close-up can stand in for conviction. His CGI backdrops of kingdoms and fairylands look like a slowly rendering BitTorrent of Shrek. And while his production design and costume choices feel lavish and expensive, he hasn’t created an unforgettable cinematic world, a sin when you are literally receiving your paycheque from the Magic Kingdom.
The most interesting thing about the Maleficent movies has been the sad and cruelly beautiful Maleficent. You can tell, even in the scenes where she has little to do but pout and strut, that Jolie loves and understands her deeply. She plays her with a bruised heart and extreme posture, the combination of Nosferatu and a jilted Joan Crawford. There’s even a brief moment in this film that broke my heart as we see Maleficent stare at her own reflection in a pool of water. She’s practising for that big dinner with her goddaughter’s in-laws, trying her best to imitate a proper smile and a “How do you do?” as her shape-shifting man servant Diaval (Riley) nods encouragingly at her painfully vulnerable attempts to be human.
I could watch that Maleficent all day, trying and failing at building meaningful relationships with awful humans, retaliating by lighting a few kingdoms on fire with her green CGI-sparks, and finally going back to bed with a big bottle of mead. Keep the same cast, but give Jolie the material she deserves for one of the greatest characters in her arsenal. We can talk Ursula later.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil opens Oct. 18.
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