Film review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Film review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Film review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

She’s bad, she’s good, she’s bad again. It’s hard to keep up with Maleficent, but one thing is certain: when making plans to meet the future in-laws, no one wants to hear, “Maleficent is coming to dinner”. That is an actual line of dialogue from Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, a vibrant if scattershot sequel to the 2014 hit. As a character piece, the sequel short-changes Angelina Jolie’s heroine/anti-heroine, of the glaring green contact lenses, black horns on her head and ultra-sharp prosthetic cheekbones. But as a fairy-tale action film, it is more colourful, energetic and absorbing than the first Maleficent.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Director: Joachim Rønning

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson

Run-time: 118 min

Release date: On general release 18 October 2019

In the original, Maleficent grew to love Aurora (Elle Fanning), the sleeping-beauty princess she had once cursed. But when that film earned more than $700m ($750m, £558m today) worldwide, it was goodbye to the happily-ever-after ending, and time to bring back her bad-fairy self. Plus, her name is synonymous with evil; she really doesn’t have much choice.

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Aurora is now Queen of the Moors, the enchanted forest where she and Maleficent, her godmother, live. Special effects bring the place to vivid life, with a carpet of flowers that glows with light, multicoloured butterflies filling the air and adorable little creatures including Pinto, a variation on a hedgehog. She’s engaged to Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson), of the neighbouring kingdom of Ulstead, whose kiss failed to break the curse and wake her last time around. Good-hearted and bland, Philip is so nondescript you might not notice he’s played by a different actor from the first Maleficent.

The best casting choice was to add Michelle Pfeiffer as Philip’s mother, who makes the beautiful and elegant Queen Ingrith a wickedly entertaining villain, dripping with jewels, whose benign smile disguises her scheme to thwart the marriage and take over the Moors. She hides this plot from her son and her peaceful husband, King John (Robert Lindsay), but below her wardrobe room – filled with stunning, silvery gowns on mannequins – is a dank workshop where her minions concoct poisonous red dust which is lethal to fairies.   

Jolie doesn’t have to do much except pose, which she can manage expertly

The engagement dinner at which Maleficent meets Philip’s parents gives her an excuse to turn evil again. As tree branches move to form a bridge across a moat – even the small special effects are gracefully done – Maleficent reluctantly walks with Aurora to the King and Queen’s castle. Eager for her fiancé’s parents to like her godmother, Aurora gets Maleficent to hide her horns under a scarf, an inauspicious beginning to a dinner that ends with green bolts of light flying from the enraged Maleficent’s hands.

With her character veering from good to bad, and overwhelmed by special effects, Jolie doesn’t have to do much except pose, which she can manage expertly. She shows flashes of jealousy and anger, but mostly changes wardrobe.

The old-fashioned trappings are at odds with a film that wears its message about powerful women on its sleeve

As it goes along, the film feels more and more cobbled together from bits and pieces that don’t quite fit together. There are sporadic attempts at sly self-awareness – “This is not a fairy tale,” Queen Ingrith warns the naive Aurora – but not enough to make the film work on a sophisticated level for adults. There are hints of metaphor; creatures known as dark fae, with horns and wings like Maleficent’s, have been marginalised and cast out from society. They create a faint connection to real-life prejudice and hatred, but the idea is so faint it is beside the point. Chiwetel Ejiofor is practically unrecognisable under all the prosthetics as a fae who wants to reconcile with humans, while others of his kind want to go to war with them.

Alongside those half-hearted stabs at contemporary resonance, there are jarring retro touches. When Philip proposes to Aurora he gets down on one knee and holds open a box with an engagement ring, as if he were in a cheesy romcom. We want Aurora to have love, but the old-fashioned trappings are at odds with a film that wears its message about powerful women on its sleeve – and in its closing-credits theme song, You Can’t Stop the Girl by popstar Bebe Rexha. With King John under a sleeping spell for most of the film and Philip being so dull, the men are largely side-lined while the warrior queens do battle.  

On the day of the wedding, as Ingrith’s schemes begin to take effect, fairies and humans fight each other inside and outside the castle. The faes fly into battle, human soldiers attack, and people are turned into goats. Aurora’s good fairy godmothers, Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple’s heads attached to animated figures) try to escape Ingrith’s poison. The over-long sequence feels as if the sequel has borrowed left-over special effects from Avengers: Endgame for a big splashy ending. Until then, though, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil swoops you along with ease. Like so many Disney films, it is a commercial calculation with a just a splash of magic. 

★★★☆☆

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