It’s the weekend of sequels, with the belated Zombieland: Double Tap spattering onto screens, along with Disney’s second entry in the Maleficent franchise (a phrase I didn’t think I would be saying today), Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. I guess I should have seen this coming, with the monstrous $758 million that the first film accumulated worldwide back in 2014.
Disney is swallowing the film industry whole, and whatever makes money is all but guaranteed to lead to more of the same. But if any of you thought that the first Maleficent felt like an unnecessary and unsuccessful attempt at humanizing one of Disney’s most infamous villains, Mistress of Evil cares even less about its redefined anti-heroine. With a story that flails about in desperate search for a reason to exist, this unfocused sequel loses sight of Angelina Jolie’s ferocious fairy, even as it introduces a scenery-chewing Michelle Pfeiffer as a promising adversary.
Following the events of Maleficent, Aurora (Elle Fanning) is now queen of the Moors, the land where all the mystical beings live in relative peace, separate from humanity. While tending to the needs of the land, she gets a surprise visit from Prince Phillip, who has an even bigger surprise in store for her, in the form of a wedding proposal. An ecstatic Aurora says yes, at the behest of her guardian and godmother, Maleficent (Jolie).
Aurora and Phillip see this union as the potential pathway to peace and harmony between humans and fairies. Phillip insists that Aurora bring Maleficent to meet his royal parents for dinner, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Pfeiffer), to which Maleficent reluctantly agrees. Little do the newlyweds-to-be know that Ingrith has her own malicious plans for the fate of the fairies.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is at its best when it focuses on Maleficent and Ingrith’s seething tension with one another. Jolie clearly relishes in playing this role, every utterance of hers oozing with snide theatricality. And Michelle Pfeiffer goes toe-to-toe with her, playing Ingrith with a snakelike malevolence that is not too far off from Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones. Ingrith knows how to manipulate those who might be an obstacle to her plan, and she seems like the perfect antagonist for Maleficent, someone who has a deep mistrust for human royalty.
And the dinner scene shows the promise of such a conflict, Jolie and Pfeiffer together eating up more of the scenery than the actual food in front of their characters. It’s a great scene that starts out awkwardly humorous, but slowly turns to broiling tension and dangerous outbursts.
Unfortunately, the aftermath of this scene sends Maleficent far, far away from the rest of the human characters, where she meets a colony of Feys (winged fairies like herself) led by Ed Skrein and Chiwitel Ejiofor, who are intent on going to war with the humans. And when you separate your titular character from most of the integral plot in the story, all the promise and momentum of the conflict set up in the first act falls by the wayside. What we are left with is a very scattered and drawn out set up for an equally drawn out, CGI-laden battle.
And it isn’t the fault of Elle Fanning, who is a very talented actress, but her Aurora is written with such a blind naivete and blandness that she can’t reasonably carry the film when Pfeiffer and Jolie aren’t in the scene with her. And the writing team of Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, and Micah Fitzerman-Blue don’t give Ingrith and Maleficent compelling things to do on their own, beyond rather generic fantasy threads.
The more Maleficent: Mistress of Evil goes along, the more the story, character development, and initially interesting setups begin to get swallowed up by the overblown and practically inconsequential flurry of CGI blockbuster filmmaking. Major props to the costume and set design, who contribute greatly in their respective departments to creating lavish attire and thoroughly detailed castles and corridors.
All of this is competently directed by Joachim Ronning (Kon Tiki), who was responsible for the equally underwhelming Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. He handles the fantasy and action elements just well enough. Although, between these two big-budget efforts, Ronning’s directorial voice hasn’t materialized onscreen yet; everything comes off as generic and rehashed. Both films feel very much like a product of Disney’s own money-hungry wishes, rather than the work of a filmmaker with a distinct voice.
This strategy of bringing a relatively small-time indie filmmaker into the blockbuster fold has had some success, for sure; notably, Taika Waititi’s unique brand of wit and humor remains intact in Thor: Ragnarok. More often than not, though, the voices of these filmmakers become drowned out by the studio box-ticking. I just hope Ronning can use the money he makes off Mistress of Evil to create something where his voice can be heard.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sidelines its titular anti-heroine in a sequel that is too unfocused and generic to add something substantial to its predecessor. The film actively refuses to indulge in its best aspect, namely the back-and-forth between Jolie and Pfeiffer, instead hoping that a little bombast and grand CGI fantasy battles will sufficiently entertain. But when characters aren’t given new or interesting things to do in the interim, what we are left with is empty spectacle.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is rated PG, and it hits theaters this weekend. All images courtesy of Disney.