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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

(2019) * 1/2 Pg
118 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Joachim Rønning. Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sam Riley, Harris Dickinson, Ed Skrein, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Robert Lindsay.

/content/films/5183/1.jpgSometimes a sequel has a way of making its predecessor seem better in retrospect. 2014’s Maleficent was no great shakes, but its reimagining of Sleeping Beauty—both the Charles Perrault fairy tale and its 1959 Disney-animated version—at least had that sturdy narrative spine with which to play chiropractor around Angelina Jolie’s strikingly vampy Maleficent. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil feels spineless, Maleficent’s tortured semi-tragic antihero turned into a slightly misanthropic soccer mom who likes wearing black.

"Mistress of Evil,” you see, turns out to be an entirely ironic subtitle. Once upon a time in Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent was a straight-up villain, but “twice upon a time” in Mistress of Evil, the worst thing she does is…get a little angry? For good reason? So, um, I guess it’s about how she masters—uh, mistresses—someone else’s evil by putting it down? Yeah, let’s go with that. This time, Maleficent’s goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) enthusiastically agrees to the proposal of boyfriend Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, replacing the otherwise-engaged Brenton Thwaites). Guess who’s coming to (the engagement) dinner? Maleficent’s greatest challenge turns out to be playing nice with the kingdom of Ulstead’s kindly King John (Robert Lindsay) and nasty Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer, stealing the picture while Jolie flies through the motions).

Turns out Ingrith roughly corresponds to the original conception of Maleficent as a poorly motivated evil villain. She’s a downlow racist against the faeries and other woodland creatures that live in the Moors, where Aurora reigns as queen and Maleficent lurks around with longtime companion Diaval the raven (Sam Riley, when in human form). Flouting the union represented by Aurora and Phillip, Ingrith’s gonna blow it all up with a sinister smile. At least someone’s having fun. Meanwhile, Maleficent seems crowded out of her own movie after the first act’s weak-tea drawing-room comedy; made mostly to react to new revelations and wait out the run-time till her carefully timed “here comes the cavalry” reappearance during the climactic battle, Maleficent winds up just another cog in this sequel’s pricy, slick machinery. (Although Maleficent’s sonic boom when she flies? Respect.)

The piecemeal script, no doubt a result of original screenwriter Linda Woolverton being rewritten this time by at least two others, dabbles in meanings as if nibbling at hors d’oeuvres. There’s an allegory to be had about interlopers warring against indigenous peoples (human “poachers” have been picking off faeries in the Moors), one garnished with a bit of environmentalism (although you know that cute li’l hedgehog-faerie Pinto is already a made-in-China toy), all amounting to a thin excuse for the spectacle of that big battle, during which Ingrith at last literally launches her plan to use chemical warfare to turn fairies into dandelions or piles of ash or something.

To the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in profit, this franchise gets a pass from audiences by putting women front and center, with Mistress of Evil’s plot divvied up amongst actor-producer Jolie, Pfeiffer, and Fanning, with the men relegated to sidekick (Riley), spouse (Lindsay), and cleavage-revealing himbos (Dickinson and “bad boy” Ed Skrein as one of Maleficent’s heretofore unknown brethren). That’s an all-well-and-good feminist corrective, albeit orchestrated by male director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) to the end of a Lord of the Rings-style special-effects conflagration.

It's just that Mistress of Evil dully flirts with its implications rather than productively digging into them. There’s a bit about Aurora asking her mother to cover her horns with her scarf that serves as an anti-shame object lesson (a passing reference to Maleficent’s exaggerated “killer of men, destroyer of armies” reputation could have served as an allegory for hurtful gossip and bullying). Beyond that, Mistress of Evilsettles for passing fantasy-war-movie platitudes about love conquering fear to achieve “harmony and peace” (ironically capped by an up-with-elitism royal wedding that can’t wait, fallen dead be damned).

Audiences can’t be blamed for turning off their brains and focusing on the aesthetic trappings. Certainly, Ellen Mirojnick’s beautiful costumes impress, as does the visual riot of photo-realistic—if pastel-painted—backdrops unfortunately still populated with uncanny-valley CGI creatures. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil can afford all that, plus guest stars like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Imelda Staunton, but in this film featuring a flying protagonist, nothing really lands.

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