Common sense dictates that a deficient movie is less worth experiencing than a proficient one. After all, film projects in which all the elements work as intended end up satisfying both creators and audiences. But there are some times where a movie failing to live up to ambitions is what makes it highly compelling. Not to mention, it can be especially unhinged if it has funding from one of the world’s biggest companies. So it brings me great pleasure that Disney has created quite the ambitious failure with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. In a weird move, it resembles a family-friendly version of Game of Thrones more than its own predecessor.
This is because the film is not content with just retelling Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s perspective like before. Admittedly, the 2014 original revises so much of the source material that it becomes more of its own thing. But for the majority, the last film does little more than provide development to its protagonist. By contrast, Mistress of Evil spends the bulk of its time on violent conflicts between different species. Furthermore, it shows in detail how both the human and non-human factions have their own malicious motivations. As a result, there are a lot more key players than Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) for this sequel.
Speaking of which, the plot is mostly a device to get the various parties to interact with each other. It starts simple enough with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) proposing to marry Aurora (Elle Fanning). She is now queen of the Moors, where all the fairies and enchanted creatures live. But it soon becomes a problem when Phillip’s mother, Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), uses their wedding to retaliate against those living in the Moors. This attack also allows her to expose Maleficent as the vengeful being that causes nothing but trouble. And just when you think the central conflict is enough, we also have the Dark Fey, Maleficent’s own species. As it turns out, they have their own vicious outlook on humans.
Based on the plot synopsis, a few notable aspects come to the forefront. Firstly, it is much busier than the last movie, with only some time devoted to building its fictional world. It is also shocking how often the movie embraces a genuinely sinister edge. In fact, one extended sequence in the climax essentially turns a church into a gas chamber. In addition to trapping the Moors’ creatures in a confined space, toxic dust explosions occur everywhere in the church. To top that off, it shows the person having an utter blast as they play the organ that releases toxins in the air.
But the most notable aspect is how little Maleficent makes an impact as both a character and a plot device. In all fairness, Jolie continues to indulge in the character’s theatricality thanks to a boatload of corny line readings. Just the venom she can wring out of the word “beastie” is enough to keep this mildly watchable. It also helps that the makeup artists are quite superb at making Jolie’s angular facial features into something grotesque. But for all of Jolie’s efforts, the film’s three credited writers – including Maleficent‘s own Linda Woolverton – annoyingly shove her aside in favor of everyone else.
Keep in mind that Mistress of Evil‘s definition of “everyone else” is quite the inclusive one. Halfway through its 118-minute runtime, it introduces the Dark Fey and its leader Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor). These new additions should be able to make Maleficent a more unique and engaging character. It even elaborates that she is the only Dark Fey to control her magic powers with such assuredness. Still, the Dark Fey scenes disappoint on that front. Outside of one moment that shows a prophecy relevant to Maleficent, they simply add one more perspective to the primary conflict between species.
To give the movie some credit, one character stands out from the rest: Ingrith. Knowing that she was always going to be the antagonist, the writers wisely depict her being vicious at every turn instead of being coy about her moral compass. From her using a crossbow with casual hostility to the snide comments she throws to Maleficent, she is overwrought in the absolute best way. Even better, Pfeiffer embraces the villain role with such commitment that even her glances at people are sickening. Lastly, whoever came up with the idea of Ingrith opening a secret door by snapping a mannequin’s neck deserves all the love in the world.
Jumping back to the Game of Thrones comparisons, Mistress of Evil shares a lot of qualities that defined the final season’s large-scale visuals. Most of the action takes place in dim areas rather than illuminated ones, with the dark scenes being nearly illegible. But once it gets to the climax in the daytime, this is where director Joachim Rønning starts to have fun with camerawork and cutting. At its best, Rønning brings the same visual vibrancy that kept his last Disney project, Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, from being a total slog. With the help of a few novel creature designs, the movie is able to conclude – figuratively and literally – on the bright side.
Unfortunately, every one of its virtues is nothing but a distraction from its biggest downfall: its lack of focus. There is certainly a lot one can say against its 2014 predecessor. But at least it has a stronger grasp on which characters are more engaging. Meanwhile, this film poorly juggles between the humans, the creatures of the Moors, and the Dark Fey at a nonstop rate. Never mind the fact that Maleficent barely factors into their story threads, there are so many players here that none of them get their due. In the case of Aurora and Phillip, it utterly fails to hide how nondescript both the writing and performances are. With no hesitation, I can say that the Maleficent films are two-for-two with providing Fanning’s career-worst performances.
Suffice it to say that Mistress of Evil does not work as great or even good fantasy cinema. There are frankly too many moving pieces clashing together for that to happen. But for all the areas that fall short, the experience is bonkers in ways that I would never expect out of a mainstream family film. I certainly never thought that a Disney film would basically have a PG-rated version of Game of Thrones‘s infamous Red Wedding scene. And yet that is exactly what happened! Under no circumstance would I urge someone to watch it, let alone in theaters. However, it is odd and energetic enough to call it the single most fascinating live-action Disney movie of 2019.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is now playing in theaters.
The film stars Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Sam Riley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Ed Skrein.