Angelina Jolie rises from the fairy-tale train wreck of new ‘Maleficent’
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Starring Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer & Elle Fanning
Directed by Joachim Rønning
It’s good to be bad—at least that’s what Disney is hoping as it sends Angelina Jolie into the air once again for the sequel to her 2014 twist on the legend of Sleeping Beauty.
But Jolie’s Maleficent—a sexpot flying sorceress with wings like a condor, towering antlers, gleaming fanged teeth, piercing, oversized green eyes and jutting, chiseled cheekbones—isn’t really evil, just tragically misunderstood. All that stuff about the deep-sleep death hex she put on Sleeping Beauty—well, see the first movie. That all got worked out and patched up.
Now, several years later, things are hunky-dory in the magical fairy kingdom of the moors. Maleficent is the godmother of the former Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning), who’s now the fairy Queen Aurora, wide awake and getting ready for a big wedding to Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). The prince is from the adjoining, over-the-river kingdom of Ulstead, where his father, peace-loving King John (Robert Lindsay), is excited about a union that will finally officially unite the kingdoms of fairies and humans.
But Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), has other ideas. A lifelong fairy hater, she has sinister plans to crush Maleficent and the fairies forever.
That’s what sets the story in motion, and there’s a lot of story—and other things—moving around. The screen is often teeming with flittering, skittering fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville reprise their roles as Knotgrass, Thistlewit and Flittle), lumbering tree-like gnomes and magnificent “dark fae,” an ancient, proud race of bird-like fairies forced to live in exile due to human persecution. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein look pretty good with big ol’ sets of wings.
There’s a wedding going on, a war heating up, a genocide in the works and some other meaty issues swirling about—love, loyalty, prejudice, racism, exploitation, death and why it’s always better to sow seeds of kindness rather than fan the flames of hatred. As tribal drums set the beat and nighttime campfires illuminate a peaceful, idyllic scene, the movie asks us to ponder the (timely) idea of an advanced, heavily armed civilization invading a “primitive” country, pillaging its treasures, murdering its people. It challenges us to be defined “not by where we’re from, but by who we love.”
Norwegian director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) deep dives into the special-effects toybox, putting CGI creatures and creations just about anywhere and everywhere. A huge slice of the movie’s budget had to be spent on the nearly wall-to-wall FX, which at times completely overwhelms the more human elements—especially in an extended, exhausting, bombastic battle sequence.
I wish the movie set aside some of the computer-generated hoo-hah for a few more scenes like the delicious dinner-table snark-fest between Ingrith and Maleficent. In a story about a “war of the worlds” between characters played by two world-class, veteran actresses like Jolie and Pfeiffer, what a waste—and a shame—to only give them one real opportunity to face off and play off against each other.
The sets, gizmos and getups feel like a pixie-dust smash-up of Shakespeare, steampunk and The CW—when the movie’s not recalling moments from other films, like Avatar or The Wizard of Oz. It’s all over the place, and it’s all just a bit too much. Maleficent the winged witch may not be bad, but her movie just isn’t very good. It’s a big, overwrought, hot-mess fairy-tale train wreck—but guess who rises, Phoenix-like, from the rubble?
Of course: Angelina Jolie. This is her flick, and she owns it. She’s the big bird, the hot wings, the OG witchy woman. In this revisionist, fem-forward fairy tale—part two—Jolie soars, rising regally above the overly fussy fairy-fray to remind fans of her secure place in the Disney pantheon of live-action superstars.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil won’t win any awards, and it won’t change the world. But it might inspire a lot of little girls for a super-cool Halloween costume this year.
In theaters Oct. 18, 2019