Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)
Directed by: Joachim Ronning
Written by: Linda Woolverton, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Harris Dickinson, Michelle Pfeiffer
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 118 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Five years after her father King Stefan’s death, Queen Aurora now reigns over the Moors, maintaining order among humans and the fairies and woodland creatures, while Aurora’s fairy godmother Maleficent remains the protector of the realm. Prince Philip proposes to Aurora, with the result that a royal wedding is announced. However, somebody has been ordering the kidnapping of fairies, and when Maleficent is invited to a dinner presenting Aurora to Phillip’s parents, King John and Queen Ingrith, Ingrith insults Maleficent so much that she curses John and puts him in a permanent slumber. Maleficent escapes but is wounded, and soon war begins to brew between the humans and the denizens of the wood….
When I wrote my review of the first Maleficent back in 2014, the Disney remake programme had only began to get into gear. A quick read through of that write-up revealed the words, ”Disney will no doubt turn to another of their classics to ruin, there’s already talk about Beauty And The Beast”, but no mention of the others that have taken place since then. The funny thing is that I really disliked Maleficent when it came out. In fact I disliked it before I’d even seen it because I regard Sleeping Beauty as the artistic peak of Classic Disney and I adore it. But seeing the film failed to change my mind. It destroyed one of Disney’s greatest villains by turning her into a misunderstood emo-type seeking to gain acceptance, yet felt it has to constantly remind viewers of the animated movie by lamely rushing through many of its highlights, showing that it couldn’t decide whether to attempt to be a supposedly fresh angle on a familiar story or a straight remake. This approach could still possibly have worked if they had gone further down the former route and all but ignored the 1958 film altogether, but modern Disney is nothing if not timid. However, much as I didn’t like what it did to Maleficent [why is it I think that, 30 years from now Disney will reboot Star Wars and we’ll see how Darth Vader is really just a moody nice guy who’s actually trying to save Luke and Leia all along?], at least it did try, if half-heartedly, some newness, and thereby maybe demands a little bit of respect unlike the mind numbing sameness of the new versions of Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King which truly showed the laziness and creative bankruptcy of a studio I and I know many other movie lovers have grown to hate for a variety of reasons.
So it’s possible to now approach Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil with a more positive frame of mind I think, especially as the Sleeping Beauty stuff is now out of the way and we can have a new story to tell, though unsurprisingly there’s not much new about the story that is told, the narrative being very by the numbers. You know where things are going virtually right off the bat. And yet in some ways its a slightly better handled piece than its predecessor. It’s far less choppy, the 2014 film often looking it was routinely hacked down and then they had to try to pepper over the gaps. It’s more varied in tone and quite successful in being so, veering back and forth from light to dark so it feels like you’re having a fuller cinematic experience. Most of the CGI is even better, it really is top range with one notable exception which I will get to later. Some of the action excites even though it’s hard to get excited much about yet more computer animated characters whizzing around on screen, familiarity threatening to breed contempt. Director Joachim Ronning displays a surer hand than Robert Stromberg with this kind of material. But like most of these newer Disney films there’s no real heart and soul there, you feel like the film-makers made it entirely because the Disney bosses ordained it and not because they really wanted to make it. And, aside from Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning who have considerable chemistry together and at least to pretend to be reasonably rounded characters, the rest of the cast tend to be rather stiff and act like they’re reading their lines off of cue cards held by an intern, not helped by some iffy audio dubbing in places. And the title character sometimes seems like a guest star in her own movie, being absent for quite a lot of it despite Jolie’s performance being one of the things nearly everyone agrees is a highlight of these films. Michelle Pfeiffer has more screen time as Queen Ingrith.
A scene with a tinge or two of horror opens the film with three men out in the woods catching fairies. It’s quite atmospheric the way some of the area is lit at night by the fairies, and Maleficent’s first appearance is highly dramatic. She catches two of the guys, but the third one escapes to arrive at a castle to hand the sole creature he’s been able to kidnap over to somebody. Who could it be who’s masterminding this? Well, it’s embarrassingly obvious very early on who the main villain is from the character’s very first appearance, and soon after that we a terrible example of storytelling that I could not help but shake my head at in the cinema. Maleficent’s servant Diaval overhears Aurora accepting Phillip’s marriage proposal. He relays the news to Maleficent who warns Aurora against the union, believing it will end badly. Aurora insists that she and Phillip will prove Maleficent the opposite and she persuades the fairy to attend a royal dinner where her and Aurora would present themselves to Phillip’s parents, King John and Queen Ingrith. The initial and quite nicely played humour of her being really awkward and not knowing what to say [reminiscent of a scene in Shrek 2] turns smoothly into tension as Queen Ingrith keeps on vocally provoking her, eventually causing her to lose her temper in the manner that you entirely expect. King John falls to the ground, and it’s assumed that Maleficent did it. However [I should probably write SPOILER ALERT though I cannot believe that any person watching the film would not suss things out very quickly] we are later told that it was not Maleficent but somebody else who did the dastardly deed. So why the hell doesn’t Maleficent say that it wasn’t her – ever?! Surely she would have felt that it would help her case? Even if screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and Linda Woolverton wanted to keep things secret for a while [which they failed at anyway!], it just makes no sense, as indeed do a couple of plot turns elsewhere that I won’t go into but which give the impression that the script was churned out in a rush.
On her way to the Moors, Maleficent is hit by Ingrith’s servant Gerda with an iron bullet [iron can harm and even kill fairies] and falls unconscious into the ocean but is saved from death by a mysterious winged creature similar to her. She wakes up in a series of underground caverns among a group of winged and horned fairies of her own kind, among them Conall, their peaceful leader who saved Maleficent, and Borra, a warlike fairy who strives for an open war with humans. She’s told that she’s is one of the last Dark Feys, a powerful species of fairies that are almost extinct because of human oppression, and that her own bloodline ties directly to the Phoenix, an ancient and very powerful ancestor of the Dark Feys, and that is why she wields magic more powerful than the rest of her species. None of this information really adds anything, but it’s certainly more fun spending time with this lot than it is with Aurora and Philip. Fanning and Harris Dickinson don’t even seem to be trying to sell to the audience that their characters are deeply in love, and Dickinson, who replaced Brenton Thwaites who played Philip in the first film and is even worse, is horribly stiff throughout. Even though they’re an important ingredient of the story, I wish that I’d instead spent more time with, say, Warwick Davis as Lickspittle, a fairy who’s had his wings ripped out and who is now in servitude to the villains, engaged in what are pretty cruel acts. Even more peripheral characters tend to be more interesting or are better portrayed than our wet and weedy couple. My mention of “pretty cruel acts” leads me to remind you that some elements in this film are quite dark for a ‘PG’ rating today, such as the way that so many of the good guys get killed, and may even displease some parents. This would probably not have been an issue back in, say, the ‘80s, when ‘PG’ actually meant what it said, but these days ‘PG’s tend to be extremely tame and, despite the whole idea of it existing getting more and more pointless in today’s digital, easy access world, censorship is actually tightening, at least with regard to family viewing.
The big battle scenes aren’t badly done, and the sight of catapults firing iron rocks at the fairies is fun at first, though less so after a while when it becomes apparent that we’re not going to see much else. But the visuals are generally convincing, and the creature lover in me enjoyed the many shots of masses and masses of oddball beings throughout, though of course there are a few occasions where the CG seems overdone, presumably because CGI is the most awesome thing ever and should be employed at every opportunity possible – apparently. Unfortunately it still doesn’t stop the film’s underused three female fairies who were such a highlight in 1958 from looking positively unpleasant, what with the way the huge and at times creepy looking, indistinct faces of Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville have been stuck onto small bodies. At least there’s some decent costume design to enjoy, and a good music score by Geoff Zanelli who employs a lot of the material that the previous composer James Newton Howard used in his very fine effort, and hardly ever resorts to the usual devices that the Remote Control [Hans Zimmer’s film scoring empire] composers often feel necessary to employ over and over again.
The themes of parenthood and love are still highly present, and are even given some variations if not delved into as they might have been. But now the issues of bigotry and racism are also prominent. I think that one can agree with the sentiments expressed while being a bit bored with having these issues repeatedly being shoved down our throats, but that’s today’s Hollywood for you. It was entirely predictable that the forest creatures would be a far more racially diverse lot than our white humans, even though Chiwetel Ejiofor has an especially poorly written role as what looked to me like the sole non-Caucasian human. Maybe one shouldn’t look too much into this kind of thing, but some balance might be nice. But at the end of the day Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil [which is a misleading title really if you think about it] is really just a simple, generic fantasy that’s inoffensive and hard to really dislike even if it actually does very little, and fails to get us really invested in yet another identikit fantasy world that does little more than rehash stuff that we’ve seen in Middle Earth, Narnia, and so forth. Why is it that CGI can supposedly do and allow us to be shown anything, yet it’s usually employed in just repeating the same imagery over and over again? It seems that, in a situation similar to Alice In Wonderland where the original was a big hit but the sequel wasn’t, Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil isn’t going to be the smash that Maleficent was at the box office, perhaps proving that not that many people who went to see the latter were enthralled by it. But this second movie is a slight improvement, making the thought of a third [though hopefully final] one not entirely unpleasant. If they do make it, there are actually some interesting places that the overall story can go to – but will it go to them?