Maleficent: Mistress of Evil has a committed Angelina Jolie and lush production values, but its overreliance on familiar fantasy tropes and abundance of underdeveloped characters makes this adventure a dull affair.
Picking up five years after the first film, the dark fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) look over and protect the Moors, the forest realm that is home to many magical creatures. But those roles are in danger of shifting when Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), of the neighboring human kingdom Ulstead, proposes to Aurora, and she accepts. Despite her attempts, Maleficent, already feared in Ulstead, cannot get along with Phillip’s parents, especially his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). A tragedy befalls Ulstead during Maleficent’s visit, which estranges her from Aurora, and sends her on the run. During her escape, she finds that she is not alone in the world: there is another gathering of dark fairies like her. Meanwhile, Ingrith has plans of her own to divide the worlds of creatures and humans forever.
What makes the first Maleficent stand out today, especially in this age of Disney live-action remakes that pointlessly retread their animated counterpart’s territory, is that despite its issues, the film had a genuinely new approach to the story of Sleeping Beauty. We were now looking at the story through the famous villain’s eyes. Couple that with Jolie relishing in every ounce of the character’s devilishness, and you had a ridiculous, but entertaining film. This follow-up, like the previous film, does not borrow from old Disney classics. But the trade-off is that it instead borrows from all kinds of other fantasy media, like The Lord of the Rings and Avatar. So many of the elements in the screenplay by Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, just provoke a sense of deja vu in place of intrigue and awe. Certain plot points are incredibly convoluted, and there is even a variation on the too-often-used “Chosen One” trope. All of this culminates in a big battle that is incredibly “been-there-done-that.” While it is admirable that a typically male-dominated genre is giving the spotlight to a trio of women, it is a shame that this is the best they have been given. Jolie, Fanning and Pfeiffer are incredible actresses, and they all deserve better. Borrowing tropes from previous works is never a bad thing, if there is something new being said about them or they are used in interesting ways. This film, unfortunately, just uses them.
Not helping these tropes go down well are the stagnated returning characters and underdeveloped new ones. Jolie brilliantly throws herself into the complex, yet fiendish energy of Maleficent, but for all the promotion, she can sometimes tend to feel like a supporting character in her own film. Fanning is once again a delight in her role, but her growth is stuck, and her romance with Dickinson’s character is a non-starter, especially because Dickinson is not given much to do other than fill the standard “prince” trope. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein both appear as members of the dark fairy gathering (who are all decked out in wardrobe and make-up straight out of a medieval Hot Topic), and they suffer the most from underdevelopment. Ejiofor’s character, in particular, is given a crucial emotional moment that does not land because we do not ever get to truly know or be invested in this character. The new character who makes it out the best is Pfeiffer’s (who is always fun to watch), though even her type of character is derivative of other “evil queen” characters.
Director Joachim Rønning (Kon-Tiki, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) clearly has an eye for spectacle and crafting luxurious images. I would say that he could be a great fantasy director with better material. But, while the production values are beautiful, they are not inventive. There are so many special effects that you have seen in other films of this genre before, and the set design also has a look that is similar to the looks of other fantasy movies. Geoff Zanelli’s score, while grandiose, is generally placeholder for fantasy films like this.
The familiarity is what makes Maleficent: Mistress of Evil disappointing. This was the one film in these recent live-action Disney adaptations of their old animated projects that did not follow beat-for-beat something in Disney’s vault that came before it. It had the chance to be inventive, to continue that tradition from the first film of finding a new and exciting avenue to tell Maleficent’s story. But because it pulls out so many fantasy clichés and very few inventive ways to use them, it feels as derivative as those remakes, just in a different way. I would say that if you really enjoyed the first film, you will probably get some enjoyment out of this one. But for me, it was hard to remember what even happened a couple hours after I left the theater. | Bill Loellke