REVIEW – ‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’ does little to prove the necessity for this sequel

Disney’s monopolistic run on 2019’s box office has rightfully taken a slight breather for the last few months. After dominating cinema returns from March to July, we’ve had a brief respite from their incredible (if not a little worrying) continuous string of blockbuster success stories unlike any in film history. Unsurprisingly, that pause is about to come to an end, as we venture into their third bombastic live-action adaptation for the year.

Five years after giving one of their most beloved villains a re-imagining nobody really asked for, the mistress of evil (who’s really not all that bad; she’s just drawn that way) returns in a sequel set to twist the classic Sleeping Beauty fairytale even further. Sadly, this is another muddled adventure beset by a narrative that simple can’t live up to its title.

With a host of interesting narrative ideas that mostly went nowhere, Maleficent was an earnest but messy disappointment. As with its predecessor, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil holds a glorious treasure trove of promising opportunities that sadly go begging. Outside of another visual feast of lavish costumes and spectacular CGI effects, there’s little here that proves the necessity for this sequel.

When we last saw Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), she had been reawakened from her cursed death slumber by “true love’s kiss,” delivered by her fairy godmother, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). After taking the throne as Queen Aurora, all seemed well in the kingdom. But time has passed and the tale has been forgotten. Now it appears the kingdom only recalls the curse itself and not who broke it. Maleficent is feared as a villain once more.

Leaving her castle days behind, Aurora now resides as Queen of the Moors, the magical forest realm and former domain of her godmother. With her cherished Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) by her side, Aurora longs to unite the Moors with Phillip’s homeland of Ulstead. The naive Aurora ponders if a bridge linking the two kingdoms would be a wise idea. Phillip has more romantic intentions in mind.

Before you know it, the two are engaged to be wed, much to the delight of Phillip’s parents, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (a sublime Michelle Pfeiffer). But not all are happy with the news of this royal betrothal. High up in her new cave-dwelling, Maleficent is far from pleased when informed of the union by her trusted sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley), given her longheld belief love and romance only lead to misery.

But Maleficent’s affection for her goddaughter proves too strong and she begrudgingly agrees to attend a celebratory dinner, held in the banquet hall of the Ulstead castle. Unsurprisingly, Maleficent’s loses her wicked temper, causing Aurora to question if her godmother may truly be a villain after all. Fleeing the kingdom in a fit of rage, Maleficent stumbles upon Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a fellow winged and horned creature known as a Dark Fey.

Whisking Maleficent away, he introduces her to his homeland known as the Nest of Origin where the Dark Fey now reside in exile from the human world. It seems Maleficent isn’t the only one of her kind and her people will soon be in need of a leader. Unbeknownst to all, Queen Ingrith is secretly plotting a nefarious scheme to launch a war on the Moors and every magical creature who calls it home, especially her new rival Maleficent.

If you’re expecting Maleficent: Mistress of Evil to fully embrace its suggestive title and take the titular character back to the villainous roots that made her such a staple of classic Disney animation, you will be sorely mistaken. She’s just as morally ambiguous here as she was in the first film. In fact, Maleficent almost feels more like a supporting character in this sequel, which is genuinely unfathomable and rather bizarre.

For almost an hour, Maleficent is given little to do but sulk and pout like a petulant child before being dumped in a foreign land where she barely utters a word. Thankfully, Jolie’s performance finally shrieks to life in the final act where she vamps it up and displays the fire we know she can deliver. As with the first film, she certainly looks the part in the role she was always born to play. Yet, once again, Jolie is simply not offered the substance behind the role to really make it something special.

With Maleficent essentially sidelined, it’s left to Pfeiffer to deliver the true villain here, which she handles effortlessly in a campy role that frankly steals the entire show. Pfeiffer knows how to play bad so damn well and she absolutely shines as the scheming Queen. On one hand, Ingrith can be warm and inviting, but on the other, she’s ruthlessly wicked and maniacally power-hungry, crafting a fully rounded character this film is so sorely in need of.

As with the best villains, her motivation rings deeper than just world domination, gifting Pfeiffer with the chance to play with light and shade before her character’s true nature is finally unfurled. But the opportunity to have Pfeiffer and Jolie constantly face-off never materialises, which is an absolute travesty.

While the pair trade nasty bards in the deliciously awkward and sharply written dinner scene, it’s never to be repeated. For all the marketing’s suggestion of this being a blockbuster showdown between two fierce female characters, it’s just not there in the final product. If you’re expecting an epic battle of Jolie vs. Pfeiffer, think again.

Instead, the sequel focuses its narrative on Aurora and the debilitating conflict between her past life with her godmother and her future with a whole new family. Again, the fair maiden is portrayed as far more independent and strong than her doe-eyed animated counterpart. It’s another admirable attempt to fix Disney’s long history of poorly crafted female characters, and that has to be admired.

But she’s ultimately portrayed as little more than a pawn in Ingrith’s game than anything else, resulting in a character who’s truest role is merely to move the plot from point A to B. Fanning is typically charming and endearing, gifting Aurora with the sweet sensibilities and good nature that make us adore a Disney princess. As for the supporting cast, none of them will register a blip on your memory, particularly Ejiofor who is shamefully wasted in a character who does nothing more than providing constant dull exposition.

What saves Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are the gorgeous visuals that burst off the screen through a series of outrageous set pieces, namely the climactic battle sequence, which, while terribly formulaic, is the most entertaining segment of the entire film. As the entire Dark Fey army launches an assault on the Ulstead castle, they are bombarded with a series of bombs filled with deadly red iron dust, creating a stunning visual sequence that’s both beautiful and horrifying.

But it’s within this sequence that one particularly dark scene plays out that caused several young children in my screening to make a hasty exit. Our beloved creatures from the Moors find themselves trapped within a church, making them sitting ducks for an attack of the same red iron dust. This entire jarring segment feels more like something from a war film than a Disney production. It’s hard to tell just who this film is being aimed at, but consider yourself warned for your little ones.

The sumptuous costume design work of Ellen Mirojnick is simply marvellous. Whether it’s Jolie’s array of dazzling black leather outfits or the detailed and meticulously crafted regal attire of our royal family, Mirojnick creates a host of spectacular costumes to adorn the ensemble cast. Consider her work a lock for plenty of love, come awards season.

As for the CGI work on the assortment of magical creatures found within the Moors, it’s clear technology has vastly improved since the first film. These characters are far more engaging and enchanting than in the predecessor, particularly one little guy who looks like a combination of a mushroom and Baby Groot. If you found these creations rather offputting the first time around, you can rest easy knowing they’ve heard your complaints.

At one point during Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, I found myself writing, “This is all very silly.” And that’s probably the best summation to make here. This sequel serves up mostly what you were given in the first film, only really differentiating itself by running for an extra 20 minutes. While there’s plenty of visual mastery at play here, it’s simply not enough to warrant this rather tiresome sequel.

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Harris Dickinson, Michelle Pfeiffer
Director: Joachim Rønning
Producers: Joe Roth, Angelina Jolie, Duncan Henderson
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue
Cinematography: Henry Braham
Production Design: Patrick Tatopoulos
Music: Geoff Zanelli

Editing: Laura Jennings, Craig Wood
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: 17th October 2019 (Australia)