MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL – Review
So, whatcha’ gonna’ be for Halloween? You can bet that the Hollywood Studios and the multiplex know that big holiday is charging at us like that headless horseman. The answer to that question, for many young women (and lots of older adults…of both sexes), is “Princess”. Or more specifically “Disney princess”. And what’s essential to that character? Well, other than a prince. A villain, be it a wicked stepmom or sister, evil queen, or witch. About five years ago the “mouse house” had the bright idea (maybe inspired by the big, still-running and touring, Broadway stage smash “Wicked”) to re-imagine, and maybe reform, the villainess from one of their beloved animated classics, but this time with live actors (with a few make-up and CG tweaks). This may have inspired a recent trend in the superhero genre in which the “bad guys” of Spider-Man and Batman were turned into the heroes of their own self-titled features (VENOM definitely, but JOKER is more of an “anti-hero”). Anyway, Disney has finally made a sequel to that unorthodox (then) box office hit, giving it a subtitle that’s closer to her previous “rep”. Lookout, it’s MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL.
The beginning of this follow-up more resembles a story by that comic strip icon Snoopy as it’s “a dark and stormy night”. A trio of men is creeping about the enchanted moors. As two are quickly dispatched by shadowy forces, the third scoops up a mushroom-topped imp along with a glowing flower. Both are paid for by a mysterious figure peering out of an opening near the bottom level of a looming nearby castle. The next bright, sunny morning Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) cavorts with the magical denizens of the Moors including some towering talking trees, a mumbling porcupine lad, assorted plant-like pixies, and a trio of talkative fairies (more like “aunties”), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), Flittle (Lesley Manville), and Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton). Their playful banter is interrupted by Aurora’s suitor, the smitten Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). He promptly proposes to her moments before the arrival of his love’s guardian, the supreme sorceress Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). Much to her chagrin, she agrees to meet with Phillip’s parents. After some prepping on human manners and decorum from her crow/pal/familiar Diaval (Sam Riley), Mal and the two kids travel to the kingdom of Ulster for a meet and greet meal with King John (Robert Lindsay) and his Queen, Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). Things don’t go “well”, and Mal takes wing and crashes through a window. As she glides back to the Moors, one of the royals’ (seems they were “prepared”) aides wounds her with an iron-tipped arrow. This sends the injured witch on a journey to find her roots prior to an all-out war on the Moors’ denizens by dark forces within the Ulster castle. But will Aurora side with her fellow human or will she come to the aide of her adopted forest family?
Jolie slips on the horns as though they were a comfy old pair of jeans (or…slippers). She still gives the witch a sexy diva quality, rolling her eyes and caressing every bit of dialogue for comic effect. that’s not to say she exudes no real menace. With the new look via makeup and costuming I wondered which was sharper, those horns, her molars, her collarbones (impressive), or her acid-tinged line delivery. Luckily she’s got a formidable adversary in Pfeiffer, all dead-eyed stares and raised brows as the plotting queen (insert mother-in-law from “you know where” jokes here). She bounces between passive-aggressive matriarch to campy screeching royal harpy, all while looking stunning in a series of jeweled gowns. The inspired match-up harkens back to Shirley MacLaine versus Anne Bancroft in THE TURNING POINT or maybe further back to Joan vs. Bette in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE. Fanning rarely gets to join in on the farce fun this time out as she carries much of the emotional drama as the conflicted princess, though she throws herself into the final act’s big battle sequences. Dickinson’s Phillip spends most of his time longingly gazing at her until he gets “woke’ to the “sitch”, while Lindsay as his papa, the King is an ineffectual pawn. Riley provides just a bit of comic relief as the man-crow, as does Temple, Manville, and Staunton as the flitting fairies whose oversized human heads on tiny bodies have an oft-putting quality like Funco Pop hummingbird girls. As for the actors playing new (to the series) roles, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Conall makes soulful eye contact with Mal as he mainly provides her with ancestry info in a missed opportunity for an engaging romantic subplot. This as Ed Skrein bares his fangs and six-pack abs as the “ready to rumble” Borra.
Despite the opportunity for a frenetic funny “throw down” between the two screen glamour goddesses, director Joachim Ronning struggles to keep the pace consistent and make the action sequences coherent. It doesn’t help that the three writer credited script changes tone from sprightly sparkly fairy tale to origin story (an island with denizens resembling the children of the Na’vi from Pandora in AVATAR and the Hawk People of FLASH GORDON minus the great Queen score), and a seemingly never-ending war between then modern weapons and magic. There are noble sacrifices aplenty (with actors perhaps happy to sit out a third outing), but most viewers will spot a trite character resurrection long before the glowing spell begins. By this time even the most devoted Disney kids and their folks will be worn down. Visually the costumes are eye-popping, but the opening Moors in the morning backgrounds are a candy-coated CGI overload, packed with lots of future toy “merch” (some critters seem to pop up only to justify a new “product”). Though she’s still one of the greatest Disney villains, her second live-action (mainly) flick, MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL, fizzles and fumbles rather than flies. Hang them horns up already.
2 Out of 4