Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein and Jenn Murray
Written by: Linda Woolverton, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster
Directed by: Joachim Rønning
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Reviewed by: Rob Vaux
I was not a huge fan of the original Maleficent, though Angelina Jolie’s performance in the title role was a thing of beauty. The film proved a monstrous hit – and helped further Disney’s trend of live-action remakes than began with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – which means we now face the inevitable Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which proves both greater and lesser than its predecessor. That makes it a curious and interesting movie, though sadly not an especially good one.
Its biggest strength lies in world-building, which makes a fine starting point for a project like this. We learn more about Princess Aurora (Ella Fanning) and the “Moorlands” she rules, populated by all manner of supernatural creatures. We learn more about Maleficent’s species, from whom she has been cut off for her entire life and who now debate fighting back against the humans who have all but annihilated. And of course there’s an evil queen (Michelle Pfeiffer) who doesn’t much care for the magical weirdos in the forest and has some less-than-noble plans to do something about it.
Like Sharlto Copley in the first film, Pfeiffer does a lot of heavy lifting for the sake of this one. She nails it, because of course she does, and when films like this have a strong villain, they can go a surprisingly long way. The entire cast is uniformly strong too, with Jenn Murray’s bloodless palace assassin stealing almost every scene she’s in. Fantasy stalwarts like Warwick Davis make a few lovely cameos too, and one wonders what a film with a stronger central thread might have done with them.
Amid all of that, one key element is missing: Maleficent herself. Jolie is in fine form as expected, but the character becomes surprisingly passive for most of the running time. The script endeavors to lend Maleficent depth and nuance, and the star is clearly up to the task, but the results leave her either standing around waiting for something to do or flat-out ignored in favor of other parts of the world. That said, the world has a lot going for it in the art department, and even at its weakest moments it’s always easy on the eyes. The care placed in the development of this fairy tale universe almost becomes a virtue unto itself, and while the story may wander here and there, the scenery is always pleasant.
That doesn’t excuse the third act, however, when the characters fly back together for the expected Big-Ass Showdown and the money shots flow like wine. The resulting tangle loses track of far too much for the sake of expediency, along with some weirdly twisted ways to avoid the finality of death that create exactly the wrong sort of creepiness. If you’re looking for a Halloween outing with the family, this evokes the right kind of seasonal spirits without much trauma. But WOW be ready for some awkward questions on the ride home with any kids.
It’s all glossed over and the way paved for further sequels if the box office gods smile, and there’s no reason to think they won’t. Jolie has lost none of her relish for the part, and while she has far fewer moments than the project needs, when those moments come, she nails it to the wall. This new Maleficent is not without its finer parts, and that bears note. But this is still a movie in dire need of some script tightening and a serious clean-up on the last 15 minutes. Disney doesn’t deal in moral ambiguity, and their attempts to rewrite one of the greatest villains in their stable as a sympathetic anti-heroine never quite went down as easily as they might like. The role is Jolie’s and if that’s all you need, she delivers when she can. But be ready for a long wait between those moments, holding only pretty pictures that melt at the slightest touch.