[Review] ‘MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL’ is a misguided misfire

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Rated PG, 118 minutes

Directed by: Joachim Rønning

Starring: Angelina JolieElle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Ed Skrein, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Warwick Davis, Jenn Murray

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL has the scale, movement, and texture of a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film – in that there’s a boatload of convolution and contrivance to navigate, but it’s packed with star power as a distractive device. That comparison is also apt since the two franchises share a director in Joachim Rønning. The Norwegian auteur’s previous Disney venture (one that he co-directed with longtime collaborator Espen Sandberg), PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES, was one of the series’ better sequels with its crackling energy and ability to balance a snappy narrative with visual grandeur.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the sequel to MALEFICENT. While the original live-action re-imagining of SLEEPING BEAUTY took bold strides, adding a kid-friendly spin on the rape-revenge genre and upholding feminist tenets, its follow-up feature forgets to do anything nearly as creatively innovative. It instead delivers an infuriatingly dull story that hinges on two women fighting each other.

Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is struggling with feelings of inadequacy after her adoptive goddaughter Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) announces her engagement to Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). The young lovers’ union would be a blessing if not for Aurora’s soon-to-be mother-in-law, the intimidating, perpetually pearl-clad Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), interfering with their nuptials. She’s scheming with her pocket-sized second in command Gerda (Jenn Murray, whose performance reverberates in the key of ham) not only for control of her husband’s kingdom, but also of the Moors, the enchanted woodland territory Maleficent, Aurora, Diaval (Sam Riley), sprites, and fairies inhabit.

The evil Queen has even gone a step further and poisoned the town’s citizens against the mystical creatures of the Moor, spreading rumors about Maleficent and stirring up prejudice. Her plan to lay waste to the magical forest using sacred ingredients for chemical weapons parallels the mysterious backstory revolving around the exile and systematic extinction of Maleficent’s kind, the dark fae. As Maleficent weighs waging war on the humans who betrayed and rejected her, the dark fae tribe leaders, compassionate Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and bad boy Borra (Ed Skrein), also find their philosophies clashing.

Angelina Jolie, Sam Riley, Jenn Murray, Harris Dickinson, Elle Fanning, Robert Lindsay and Michelle Pfeiffer in MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Jolie, Fanning and Pfeiffer are a holy trinity that should be united every chance the filmmakers can get from their perfect casting. And yet screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and Linda Woolverton have concocted a thoroughly rote narrative, bestowing each with rickety, uninteresting character arcs that frequently serve to splinter them. The trio are brought together only twice, with neither time making much of an impact. It also doesn’t help that there’s a minimum of five stories happening simultaneously when depth should’ve been mined from the simplicity of fewer.

Maleficent’s arc is naturally the most fortified of the bunch. Though much of the glee is her diva delivery of one-liners (campy jabs suitable for a British snoot, gay man, or middle-aged divorcee), she’s also handed the bulk of the narrative subtext on heavy subjects like the refugee crisis, genocide, and motherhood. Ingrith’s villainous leanings are one-note, lacking any sense of dimension. Aurora doesn’t experience an arc at all. Her allegiance to Maleficent is tossed aside too easily, and she isn’t held accountable for it. Plus, her greatest inner conflict is what wedding dress to wear. At least the filmmakers don’t saddle her with a suit of armor during the inevitable GAME OF THRONES-type climactic battle in a move to pander to rah-rah-feminism.

Worse, it fails to individually give these very capable actresses anything resembling Memorable Movie Moments. It’s far more interested in either making fetch happen with CGI hedgehog Pinto, or fashioning a wholly unnecessary father-son storyline, or spotlighting a lackluster side quest for supporting players like troll alchemist Lickspittle (Warwick Davis) and the never-not-creepy fairies Thistlewit (Juno Temple), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Flittle (Lesley Manville). All of those creations are just noise to pad the run time and distract the youngest members in the audience away from a sluggish story.

Special effects also fail to put the spectacle in what should be a spectacular fantasy. From the camera that spins in a dizzying 360 effect before we’re immersed in this fairy tale, to a few ropey green screen sequences, the team creates a world that feels far more artificial than organically animated. Its transportive qualities are rendered emotionally void.

Michelle Pfeiffer in MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Where the film doesn’t falter are its character-based aesthetics. Intricately detailed costume, makeup and hair design take center stage, entertaining the eye when the brain isn’t as engaged with the plot. There’s a propulsive drive found within each of the stories that Ellen Mirojnick’s exquisite costume design weaves together, where the character’s maturation can be charted through the progression of their wardrobe. Aurora begins as a flower child clad in a gauzy light blue dress with leaf-patterned lace overlay in the Moors and is imprisoned by a more restrictive formal gown before finding herself again in an equally breezy, more grown-up dress. Maleficent is tightly constrained by her prickly garb at first, but cycles through her journey, given war paint for battle and a relaxed style whenever she’s vulnerable. Pearls and diamonds are Queen Ingrith’s signature combination, utilized in sparingly in her introduction, but as she grows protective, she cloaks herself in them like armor – even threading teeny pearl accents in wisps of her hair.

The draw of MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL is assuredly there, but it never reaches the heights of what it could’ve been if the material and direction gave its three powerhouse leading ladies wings.

Grade: D+

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL opens on October 18.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.