Back in 2014 Disney decided to release a movie about one of their most iconic villains. Maleficent, the evil fairy and protector of the Moors was a rather ambiguous character in the film adaptation. Toeing the line of an antihero, as she fought to protect her realm against the twisted King Stefan whilst also befriending Princess Aurora, the original Sleeping Beauty. The film grossed around $760 million worldwide, so of course the fact that it profited on its $180 million budget was enough reason for Disney to warrant a sequel irrespective of whether audiences even wanted it.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil picks up some five years after where the previous film left off. Aurora (Elle Fanning) has been deemed as Queen of the Moors whilst Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) guards the kingdom from poachers and humans entering into the forests. After Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) proposes to Aurora and asks for her to meet his parents, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) they are welcomed into the castle at Ulsted. Phillip and Aurora’s attempts at diplomacy fail under the scheming manipulations of Queen Ingrith. Whilst Maleficent also discovers she is not the last of her kind, and meets Connall (Chiwetel Eijofor) and Borra (Ed Skrein) a race of Dark Fey, the former trying to forge peace with humans, the latter trying to start a war.
Where the 2014 film opted to inject a fresh take on the fairy tale by flipping its origins and turning Maleficent from villain into a sympathetic hero. This second effort is a messy narrative that’s incoherent and has too many threads that need to be hurriedly tied up by run time’s end. Directed by Joachim Rønning, with a screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and Linda Woolverston, they attempt to follow a somewhat tried and true method that results in feeling a little short-changed by the end. The clunky exposition during the introduction tells us that despite Maleficent initially saving the day, years later the story has been twisted to make her into a villain again. Which in itself seems a little far fetched but sure, I guess they need an excuse for why people dislike her now. And don’t get me started on the mcguffin of the red dust iron that obliterates the dark fey or turns fairies from sentient beings into plants. It’s shockingly dark, yet this is meant to be a family friendly movie.
The characters feel a little two dimensional, and the performances are generally bland and obvious. Jolie’s Maleficent is practically relegated to being a supporting character in her own movie. The discovery that she is not the only fairy helps add some emotional weight. But the relationship with Aurora is really what should be the focus here in order to maintain continuity with the earlier installment. Sure she can look fierce with her razor edge cheekbones, but we’re not really shown the extent of her badass-ness until the climactic battle.
Fanning throws her all into the pure, naive and innocent Aurora but she’s hamstrung by being sandwiched between Jolie and Pfeiffer. Her initial agency and freedom that she has at the start, quickly fades away as she becomes the plaything of Queen Igrith. Pfeiffer gets to dial it up as the nefarious queen with her own endgame and she’s probably the most entertaining to watch on screen. Even if it’s telegraphed very loudly, quite early on, that she’s up to no good. And the true crime is having Pfeiffer and Jolie together in a film and never get to see them truly battle it out. For a film that has three strong ladies sharing the most screen time, it’s difficult to see any positive reinforcement of female empowerment which is also a shame.
Sure the film is stacked to the ceiling with some visually stunning set pieces and CGI. We get to see a few new fairy tale creatures that will definitely keep the kids amused. And the costumes are magnificent to look at and would rival any lavish British period drama. But all of this extravagant exterior only serves to hide the fact that the interior is a shambolic mess.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a messy darker watch that had every opportunity to give this iconic Disney villain a surprising and well rounded characterisation. The potential for us to get a new take on this character, portrayed by her embodiment in an actress like Angelina Jolie is lost. Getting to see a number of strong women leading the charge on this is positive but it could have been a better vehicle to showcase their talents.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is screening in Australian cinemas now through Disney Pictures Australia