To this day, Maleficent remains one of the outliers of the Disney live-action adaptation machine: a visually dazzling revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty that succeeded in being more than just a nostalgic grab bag of recreations of beloved animated moments. All of it was boosted by the strength of Angelina Jolie‘s bewitching turn as the titular Disney villain and a potent, if somewhat clumsily told, sexual assault metaphor. But after the 2014 film finished its retelling of Sleeping Beauty, what else could there be to tell? In Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, fairy genocide and dastardly politicking, apparently.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is an ambitious sequel that expands the world and once again pushes a socially relevant allegory to the forefront. It’s full of spectacular action sequences and awe-inspiring world building that is designed like a mix of Avatar meets The Dark Crystal. But this lofty sequel sacrifices all the storybook whimsy in favor of political intrigue and dark plots that are far too complicated to be wrapped up by a typical Disney happy ending, and end up landing with a thud.
Angelina Jolie returns in glorious fashion — sharp-tongued and sharp-cheekboned as ever — as the titular dark fairy who is dealing with something few fairy tale villains ever have to: in-laws. Five years after the events of Maleficent, her goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning, easing back into the winsome role after years of playing a stony-faced ingenue) has finally gotten engaged to her Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, taking over from Brenton Thwaites). Maleficent is naturally resistant to the idea, but agrees to a celebratory dinner with Phillip and his parents, the buffoonish but peace-minded King John (Robert Lindsay) and his scheming Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer).
The film starts with Meet the Parents comedic antics, with everyone walking on glass around the intimidating Maleficent, and Jolie delivering genuine laughs as she practices her fake smile and greetings. But this awkwardly funny dinner soon takes a turn for the nightmarish when Ingrith probes at Maleficent a little too sharply, causing her to lash out magically. Ingrith uses the incident to slyly frame Maleficent for cursing the King, who falls under a deep sleep not unlike Aurora’s. Maleficent flees the scene only to be shot down by an iron bullet from Ingrith’s henchwoman (Jenn Murray). War between the humans and the fairies has begun.
Or so the character declare for the next hour or so. After the rapidfire sequence of events surrounding the dinner sequence, the film grinds to a halt, as Aurora laments her godmother’s betrayal and Ingrith schemes some more. It’s revealed right away that Ingrith has less than noble intentions, with a glamorously sinister sequence in which a cloaked Pfeiffer strides down a secret underground bunker where she has been manufacturing weapons to defeat the fairies. The roiling smoke and clang of metal of the warlike bunker is a radical departure from the vibrant fairy tale whimsy of the first film, and is the first indication that Maleficent: Mistress of Evil has larger ambitions. It has Pfeiffer sweetly manipulating Aurora like a character out of Game of Thrones, and it has political intrigue and divisive relations between fairies and humans as if this Sleeping Beauty retelling had suddenly turned into a gritty war fantasy. This shift toward a dark and serious tone would be all fine and dandy if Maleficent: Mistress of Evil didn’t frequently bring back the quirky sidekicks and fairies of the Moors, the fairy realm over which Maleficent and Aurora rule. The tonal shifts are drastic and confusing.
Meanwhile, Angelina Jolie has been transported into an Avatar-like underworld in a subplot that finds Maleficent discovering a whole race of dark fairies that have been in hiding underground. Chased underground by the hostile human race, a few of the dark fairies have made peace with their lot in life, building a natural utopia out of the breathtakingly beautiful caverns that lie underneath the surface. But a few angry fairies, led by Ed Skrein‘s always grimy and frequently shirtless Borra, are clamoring for war against the humans, especially after the discovery of a wounded Maleficent. The wise leader Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) attempts to soothe tensions, but even Maleficent is eager for war after she has gotten over the awe of discovering a whole race of her own kind. Jolie is a solid anchor in this impressive mythology-expanding subplot, but it’s with the introduction of a dozen fairies and soaring sequences through the cavernous underworld that Maleficent: Mistress of Evil begins to feel weighed down by its ambitions. While Jolie is appropriately awed, intimidated, hostile, and hopeful upon learning that she is a sort of Messiah for the fairies, there’s just too much world-building to balance with Pfeiffer’s political scheming aboveground.
And yet, despite the massive amount of mythology and plot dumps in this middle act of the film, it still drags. That’s because it mostly consists of the characters talking about war and doing nothing, while Jolie and Pfeiffer strut around in their respective subplots without Maleficent: Mistress of Evil giving us the glamorous face-off we were promised. The divas share precious little screentime together, which is a shame considering the film suddenly gets an injection of energy whenever they do.
When we finally arrive to the battle scenes, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil truly becomes magnificent. The visual spectacle of the first film is upped tenfold by director Joachim Rønning, who has a confident handle on the big blockbuster sequences. But the film’s mistake was introducing too many characters, which make the battle scenes feel listless, despite the impressive staging and genuine thrills. And try as he might, Rønning can’t quite bring the two storylines together in coherent fashion — Pfeiffer’s political intrigue plot and Jolie’s Avatar-esque fantasy being too disconnected for too long.
Its lofty ambitions keep it afloat for the majority of the film, but Maleficent: Mistress of Evil cannot be the prestigious Game of Thrones or Avatar or The Dark Crystal fantasy that it wants to be. Jolie and Pfeiffer vamping can partly elevate Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but at the end of the day it’s a Disney film that must wrap up its messy intersecting storylines with a Disney bow on top, one that it does haphazardly and with a few too many jokes about goats.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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