'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil': Film Review

A sequel that feels programmed to within an inch of its life.
10/18/2019

Michelle Pfeiffer joins Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning for a sequel to the 2014 film centered around the titular 'Sleeping Beauty' antagonist.

The most immediately apparent difference between Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and its progenitor is that Angelina Jolie's cheekbones now appear even more razor-sharp than they did five years ago; other characters could hardly be blamed for avoiding even a polite cheek kiss with her. In most respects, however, this inevitable follow-up to the eighth-biggest box office attraction of 2014 feels just as predictably programmed, with a new evil queen to make the title character seem benevolent in comparison, a textbook young love romance and enough swirling computer-generated “camera” moves to make this come close to qualifying as an animated film. All the same, its grand box office success is as inevitable as its momentarily imperiled happy ending.

It would be difficult to find a contemporary film more overstocked with time-tested commercial “elements”: a lovely princess, her sweet and dashing beau, the silly little elves who flit about and look after them, the aforementioned calculating queen and peons ready at the snap of a finger to cater to the betters or carouse in celebration. The one thing giving this mash of influences a measure of distinction is Jolie's title character, whose parentage owes as much to the Broadway show Wicked (the film version of which director Stephen Daldry is now scheduled to deliver in December 2021) as it does to Disney's (and Charles Perrault's) Sleeping Beauty.

The studio has brought back its in-house writer with the golden box office touch, Linda Woolverton (the first MaleficentBeauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mulan, Alice in Wonderland, et al) to ensure that all the ingredients are stirred together in a proper balance; to this end, she and her cohorts Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue (who together wrote the upcoming, well-received-in-Toronto Mr. Rogers feature A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) have, however obviously, connected all the dots.

What the writers and the Disney alchemists have brewed here is a time-tested tale of young love being interfered with by manipulative old folks with nefarious schemes of their own to pursue. At the center of things now is Maleficent's goddaughter Aurora, a lovely vision of fairy tale purity and innocence charmingly played by Elle Fanning, who was 14 when she originated the role and is now 20. Replacing Brenton Thwaites as her fiance Prince Philip is the perhaps even more handsome Harris Dickinson, who caught the eye of many two years ago in the strong indie Beach Rats.

As for Maleficent, it would seem that she's been laying relatively low these past few years, looking after Aurora while perhaps suffering through a prolonged funk for lack of a worthy adversary. This state of affairs will change soon enough, however. When the the two arrive at Queen Ingrith's (Michelle Pfeiffer) fabulous castle for a formal dinner to mark the imminent wedding between Aurora and Prince Philip (the queen's son), Maleficent seems distinctly ill at ease; she's socially awkward, quite incapable of small talk and understandably displeased by the queen's announcement that, henceforth, “I consider Aurora my own.”

This, of course, is intolerable and lights a fire in Maleficent the likes of which she presumably hasn't felt in the half-decade since the previous film. Unfurling her wings at last, she flies off, only to be shot down and end up in a jungle-like land that decidedly bears no resemblance to the British Isles that otherwise seem to define the yarn's backdrop (accents included). This primeval realm is populated by a group of outcasts, led by a warrior, Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor), sympathetic to the newcomer's antipathy for the nasty queen. And so, with just three days before the wedding, the assault is on.

This turn of events brings the long-dormant Maleficent back to life; she's a warrior at heart. As the tribal forces gather their resources and head for a showdown with their oppressors, the young lovebirds yearn and coo while Ingrith madly prepares for her long-awaited opportunity to eradicate the annoying rebels. But little did she count on having to contend with the resurrected dragon woman with unwanted but enormously useful big wings.

Dominated by a castle seemingly larger than Prague, Hohensalzburg and Windsor all put together, Queen Ingrith's domain is made ready for the royal wedding even as the climactic onslaught draws near. The beautiful young couple, doted upon by the three little pixies from the first film played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville, enjoy a few privileged moments together while the day of reckoning draws near. But everything in the final act, from the betrothed's cavorting to the queen's scheming and the rebels' righteous assault, could not feel more formulaic; every conceivable button is pushed to achieve rote satisfaction in young viewers, while any notion of creating tension and suspense is dutifully ignored. Not for a moment is actual peril considered as something worthy of a dramatic climax.

As for the action itself, it feels overwhelmingly computer-generated, the camera movements seemingly connected as if by a gyroscope that circles around panoramically to provide a full-spectrum view; this, paradoxically, serves to create significant doubt that a relatively small band of outsiders could so thoroughly overwhelm the giant citadel and the ample forces enlisted to protect it. Perhaps one is supposed to remember that this is, after all, a fairy tale, but the sheer size of the climax suggests more grandiose aspirations, and the mechanical feel of the protracted action cannot be escaped.

It takes quite a long time indeed for Maleficent, and Jolie along with her, to emerge as the deserving star of the show. She spends most of the first hour pouting, more or less silently, making it easy for Pfeiffer to dominate as the true villain of the piece and for Fanning to transform from a bashful innocent into a young woman keen for adulthood and marriage. Ultimately, Jolie makes sure she does get her big moments with a character that remains intriguing for the ambiguity of her position in the world — is she a heroine or an opportunistic quasi-villain, a malcontent prepared to align with anyone who can serve her purposes? Has she gone over to the other side, or does she always hedge her bets while awaiting an opening? Or is she simply a deeply wounded individual, coping as best she can with the uniquely weird hand fate has dealt her?

Of course, in this sort of film, its makers are not obliged to address such questions; in fact, they must not, lest they bust the boundaries of their wide-audience franchise. Norwegian director Joachim Ronning, now split from his creative partner Espen Sandberg, with whom he made Kon-Tiki and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, pushes the mandatory buttons to achieve the desired results, nothing more or less. The new film, however, is 21 minutes longer than the original, and there was no evident need — creative or commercial — for that.

Production company: Roth Films
Distributor: Disney
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Harris Dickinson, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Lindsay, David Gyasi, Jenn Murray, Miyari, Warwick Davis
Director: Joachim Ronning
Screenwriters: Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, based on characters from Disney's
Sleeping Beauty and La Belle au Bois Dormant by Charles Perrault
Producers: Joe Roth, Angelina Jolie, Duncan Henderson
Executive producers: Jeff Kirschenbaum, Matt Smith, Michael Vieira, Linda Woolverton
Director of photography: Henry Braham
Production designer: Patrick Tatopolous
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick
Editor: Laura Jennings, Craig Wood
Music: Geoff Zanelli
Casting: Red Poerscout-Edgerton

Rated PG, 118 minutes