A film review by Craig J. Koban November 3, 2019


2019, PG-13, 119 mins.


Angelina Jolie as Maleficent  /  Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora  /  Michelle Pfeiffer as Queen Ingrith  /  Harris Dickinson as Prince Phillip  /  Juno Temple as Thistlewit  /  Teresa Mahoney as Dinner Servant  /  Sam Riley as Diaval

Directed by Joachim Rønning  /  Written by Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, and Micah Fitzerman-Blue


Even though I didn't admire it altogether too much, I will give 2014's MALEFICENT kudos for one thing: 

It represented an attempt by Disney to produce a live action adaptation of one of its beloved animated classics that presented the mythology from the vantage point of the villain and not the hero.  

Considering the unending slew of mediocre cash grabbing remakes that the studio has been somewhat lazily manufacturing as of late, MALEFICENT was a decidedly different breed in terms of how it re-imagined the cherished 1959 animated feature SLEEPING BEAUTY instead of just copy and pasting its storyline wholesale.  That film didn't really work for me overall (it featured a lot of uninspired characters beyond the titular one and even shoddier and more distracting CGI overkill), but it dared to be different than the rest of the seemingly unending Disney remake engine. 

Still, any amount of good will that I'm inclined to bestow upon that film is kind of thrown out the window when its sequel is concerned.  MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL struggles throughout its somewhat endurance testing running time to stake a claim for itself as a relevant and necessary continuation of its predecessor.  The first film did modestly well as a box office earner, but I never gained the impression that even its most ardent of supporters were clamoring for a follow-up.  This is a big, bloated, garishly overproduced, dramatically flaccid, and - worst of all - spectacularly dull sequel, and one that I mentally checked out of roughly 15-30 minutes in.  Even though there are some potentially compelling new character arcs thrown in here (and some challenging dramatic terrain that's commendably not usually the stuff of family fare), this latest installment seems to waste the talents of a considerable number of proven industry veterans in a fairly prosaic story on pure factory produced autopilot.   

It's been five years since peace was established by Queen Aurora (Elle Fanning) after King Stefan's demise, leaving the former as the leader of the kingdom while the magic dispensing Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) remains in the background as the land's protector.  Aurora decides to take the next big step in her life by accepting the loving marriage proposal of Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), which leads to Aurora desperately wanting Maleficent to cast away her pride and attend a special engagement party to meet her future in-laws in King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer).  Well, the night starts awkwardly for all and then ends in tragedy, with Maleficent accused of being an uncontrollable danger to the Moors while being framed for the King being cursed into eternal sleep.  She attempts to flee the Queen's hateful wraith, becoming seriously injured in the process, but is later befriended by more of her kind, including Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Borra (Ed Skrein).  Concurrent to this is a vengeance filled plot by the dastardly Ingrith to wage war against anything not human, and to also ensure that forest dwelling creatures of all kinds are removed from the earth...permanently. 



One of the better angles of this sequel is the promise of a square off between Jolie and Pfeiffer's characters, which is set up relatively nicely and intriguingly in the opening sections of the film, which requires Maleficent to essentially play the part of nice dignitary (something that she's seriously not programmed for).  It adds another layer of complexity to the Maleficent character and her interesting personal journey, not to mention that, yes, it's a giddy hoot to think about the possibilities of her locking horns with another actress heavyweight of the industry in Pfeiffer, who makes her Queen someone to be feared as an unhinged monarch that's got a thirst for genocide.  Jolie gives it her all with this role again, and she clearly relishes in playing it, but Pfeiffer is arguably given more to work with here, not to mention that it's pretty uncommon to see her take on the role of a dangerously unstable villain. 

Beyond this, MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL's scripting is pretty empty minded and doesn't fully flesh out other subplots with the weight that it certainly aspires to.  There's something inherently enthralling about Pfeiffer's Queen going full-on evil in this tale, fully committing herself to conspire against those she considers her kingdom's mortal enemies, but the screenplay tips off her vile motives way, way too early, robbing the film of any element of surprise.  Then there's Maleficent's recovery time with the Dark Feys, during which time she grows to learn of their plight and all of the deep resentments they have to all outsiders, especially with Ingrith's rise to murderous power.  It's regrettably sad that stars of the caliber of Ejiofor are trapped under pounds of makeup and in ultimately what's a throwaway character that's essentially introduced to propel the story forward to its all-hell-breaks-loose finale.  You also know that a series like this is in trouble when you don't even notice that some key characters have been replaced by different actors.  Brenton Thwaites played Prince Phillip in the first film, who's now replaced by Dickinson, but the part is so interchangeably bland that it's hard to even care about this alteration.  Even Elle Fanning this go around is afforded nothing much more to do than to appear devastated at the madness around her and scream and/or look worried on cue. 

Let's also consider the thematic undercurrent of this whole film, which is Ingrith's beyond obvious intolerance of other species that she deems inferior and worthy of immediate eradication.  She becomes the sole engineer of a conflict pitting everyone against each other, with delusions of purification grandeur that she hopes will culminate with the prejudicial elimination of multiple species.  This is pretty damn heavy stuff, even as far as a family fantasy goes made by the House of Mouse.  This woman is essentially a genocidal racist.  Frustratingly, MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL deals with such solemn ideas with the most broadest of strokes and reaches a neat and tidy resolution that rings pretty falsely.  There's nothing inherently wrong with a film like this using the fantasy genre to tackle ideas with tangible real world implications (that's what great genre pieces do), but MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL is a pretty consequence-free endeavor that never gives such themes any weight or substance.  Even when the film commits the unforgivable of manipulating audiences into thinking that it's killing characters off, only to bring them back from the dead pretty systematically and quickly...it simply leads to a whole lot of incredulous head shaking. 

I guess that all we are left with are the visuals, but this film is - like its antecedent - so addicted to CG-heavy flourishes that sequences often resemble second rate video game cut scenes that fail to immerse you in any tactile or authentically rendered world.  The scope of the film's palette is ambitious, to be sure,  but its execution if pretty lackluster.  When MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL flounders on a conceptual level with its environments and creatures (aside from a few impressively rendered establishing shots), it becomes distractingly murky and dark just to look at, which makes some scenes almost unwatchable with the already dim wash of 3D placed over it.   The director here in Joachim Ronning (who previously had better success on a level of polished imagery co-directing the last PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequel) seems to let the garish and artificial looking spectacle here drown out every other creative impulse.  MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL seems more obsessed with being potentially good looking eye candy versus offering up a unique and magical universe to feel fully transported to and lost in.  And that's a big reason why I think this sequel is so utterly hollow and disenchanting...

...not to mention superfluous.  

...and...just...boring.  Let's not forget that.

At the risk of opening up a massive can of worms that would require a whole separate blog post longer than this review to discuss, director Martin Scorsese has recently and very publicly come out to label Disney's MCU films as "theme parks" and - GASP! - "not art."  Although I disagree with him in some respects to this, there's no denying that after watching MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL that it feels more like a forgettable amusement park ride than a fully realized and engaging motion picture.  It's a mass marketed product with hopes of easy box office game, but simply not much of a movie.  It's just so damn inessential.  Maybe Marty has a point.  

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