Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, 2019.
Directed by Joachim Rønning.
Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Warwick Davis, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville and Robert Lindsay.
When Aurora decides to marry a prince, Maleficent struggles with her dislike of humans at the risk of igniting an inter-species war.
Maleficent is often forgotten in the pantheon of Disney’s live-action reinvention of its animated classics. Arriving before Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book cemented the wave, it received tepid reviews and wasn’t particularly loved by many. However, and crucially, it made more than $750m at the worldwide box office. No studio is likely to leave that amount of money on the table, and especially Disney in the midst of one of the great studio purple patches in cinema history. So with that, Angelina Jolie and the reigning award winners in the Best Supporting Cheekbones category are back for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.
The first movie worked hard to transform Jolie’s icy Maleficent into a sympathetic figure, but the voice over that opens the sequel (“perhaps twice upon a time, because you might remember this story”) makes it clear that via some sort of fake news machination, everyone still thinks she’s a baddie. Her adopted daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) wants to marry Prince Phillip – not the real one, but a rather more dashing royal played by Harris Dickinson – and this necessitates an awkward ‘meet the family’ dinner. Despite her best attempts to smile (“a little less fang”) and act normal, her encounter with King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) is far from cordial.
Mistress of Evil opens as a strange and reasonably enjoyable family drama, with the fantastical world of the Moors butting up against the far more traditional kingdom of Ulstead. Soon, though, the doo-doo begins to hit the fan and there’s a very real war in the offing. Maleficent and a host of new allies including Ed Skrein – surprisingly sexually charged for a kids’ film – prepares to defend herself and the Moorfolk against the humans, with Pfeiffer’s manipulative Queen at the centre of it all.
Jolie versus Pfeiffer is a mouth-watering screen face-off, and their scenes are comfortably the highlights of the film. It’s a joy to watch Pfeiffer snarl her way through her part, as the type of woman who enters her secret castle room by twisting a mannequin’s neck as if to snap it. Jolie, complete with CGI cheekbones that could slice up a steak and collarbones that form a precise V shape, hisses her way through the moments of aggression and glamour, while proving adept at the inherently incongruous comedy beats. Aside from the two women it’s only Sam Riley, as Maleficent’s raven familiar Diaval, who appears to be having anything approaching a good time.
But those performances are very much an oasis amidst the rest of the film’s milieu, which can best be described as blandly competent. The first film could at least be sold as an intriguing twist on a classic story from a new perspective, whereas this one has none of that joy of reinvention. Norwegian director Joachim Rønning, best known for that fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film that even the cast have forgotten, has made a blockbuster with nothing in either its head or its chest. It’s got nothing to say and has no surprises, simply delivering the beats everyone expects to see. Disney gets accused of being a formulaic sausage machine too often, but there’s a real argument here.
It’s not that there’s nothing there to be explored either. The script, by Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, flirts with very timely ideas about how lies spread more easily than the truth, but never has the inclination to score any real points with those themes. It simply wants to get to the ending it knows it needs to convey, ensuring that everyone goes home happy and without being even slightly challenged. The horns might be longer and more elaborate than ever before, but the ends are blunt.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.