Published Oct 19, 2019Is it art reflecting life, or merely a lack of originality, that has led us to the "Age of the Villain" in the Disney live action canon? As the news daily reveals the darkness beneath the icons of Great and Good in our society, there's a new license to eschew Snow White for the Evil Queen, Ariel for Ursula, and Aurora for Maleficent. Yet as interesting as origin stories can be in most genres, does it suit a classically simple fairy tale to delve into a cackling baddie's ex-boyfriends and mommy issues? Are we looking to make villains, particularly villainesses (did Jafar have a bad childhood? Who knows?), more complex or just more toothless with these revisionist stories?
The answer for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is mainly the latter. Five years after donning, with arch humour, the horns and wings of one of Disney's most classic villains, Angelina Jolie returns with a disappointingly tame arc and a stiff performance. Eschewing any evil mischief in favour of trying to persuade her goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) against marrying, "Prodder of the Patriarchy" may have been a more suitable subtitle for this sequel. As the hallmark of Disney happy ending takes away any suspense that she'll be successful, tedium sets in quite quickly amongst the chaos.
Mistress of Evil is two films warring for screen time. The first is a family drama, set in motion by the aforementioned betrothal. As Aurora was crowned Queen of the Moors by her witchy godmother in the previous film, while Prince Phillip (a sweet Harris Dickinson) stands to inherit the human Kingdom of Ulsted from his normcore parents (Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Lindsay), the couple have the power to keep the two realms from war if they can only get their respective guardians on board. The stakes are high, as humans are already raiding the Moor for flowers that can be brewed into an iron powder that will guarantee fairy genocide. It's very Game of Thrones-ish. Warwick Davis is lots of fun as alchemist Lickspittle alongside newcomer Gerda (Jenn Murray), an engineer who runs the war machine with efficiently weird aplomb.
Uniting the family's calls for a priority check amongst the women — which alliance offers the most loyalty, the greatest happiness and strongest protection? The original Malificent bucked tradition by waking Aurora from her cursed sleep through a maternal, rather than romantic, "true love's kiss," so it's no wonder that Maleficent dismisses the engagement as frivolous. How could her goddaughter abandon this cool and dark utopia of female bonding to chain herself to a human boy? How short-sighted, how… basic. How unlikely that Disney would let Aurora concur.
The other major plotline swerves to straight-up fantasy. After exiting an explosive encounter with Pfeiffer's delicately poisonous Queen, Maleficent, wakes, wounded, inside a new world. Stumbling through caves in tattered couture — the fashion is luscious Oscar-bait — she finds she has been saved by the Dark Fey, an exiled community of her kin whose existence she never guessed at.
After her earlier robotic blankness, it's effective to see Jolie more reflective in these scenes, but eventually her passivity grows annoying as new characters Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, slightly lost) and skeezy Borra (Deadpool's Ed Skrein) fight about whether to go to war against humans. As a guardian and neighbour of humans, shouldn't Maleficent have a stake in this argument? No? Okay. Both men are awkwardly placed as romantic possibilities, but without any time to establish a connection, it falls flat — God help us if we ever see Maleficent in a wedding gown, should the franchise continue.
Since Jolie cannot occupy both plotlines at once, a large chunk of the film is given over to Fanning, who has frankly never been the most interesting of actors. As audience proxy, Aurora gazes from her balcony searching for a glimpse of that acid-green light that indicate that the rightful protagonist is returning.
Co-director of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, this is Joachim Rønning's first solo feature film. Considering the female leads and feminist underpinnings, Rønning is an odd choice, since his casts have been quite masculine — his best work, on Kon Tiki, contains no women at all — but he does a capable job, only failing in his inexhaustible need to pack every shot with CGI-spectacle and violence. Upped to a PG from a G rating of the original, it's too scary for little kids, but not self-aware enough for older ones. This leaves nostalgic adults, who should stick to the classic themes and stylishly uncomplicated Maleficent of the original Sleeping Beauty.