Well, well. Who would have thought in a year of play-it-safe ‘live-action’ remakes – some good, others not so much – Disney would release a beastie like “Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil”, an elaborate fantasy epic that, for better or worse, swings for fences at every pitch.
Five years after the death of King Stefan, the Moors are at peace, ruled over by Queen Aurora (Elle Fanning) and protected by Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). When Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) proposes marriage to Aurora, his father King John is delighted but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) is decidedly less keen. Maleficent agrees to the union despite reservations but when provoked by Queen Ingrith during a royal dinner, things go from bad to worse when the king is cursed and Ingrith declares war on the Faeries.
You may have thought that there was nowhere to go with the reimagined story of Sleeping Beauty after 2014’s “Maleficent” and in a way you’d be right; that’s what happily ever after is supposed to mean, after all, and the source material ends up acting as something of a headwind as this ambitious sequel seeks to soar higher and further than before. “Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil” resembles nothing so much as the concluding chapter of an epic fantasy trilogy, albeit one where we’ve skipped over the middle chapter and so have a king’s ransom of world-building and backstory to cram into this film.
This overstuffed approach contributes to the inflated run time (clocking in at two hours rather than its predecessor’s leaner sub-100 minute run time) but there’s at least three hours’ worth of material crammed in here – or four if you’re Peter Jackson. Side-plots and supporting characters feel truncated and rushed and even the movie’s title star feels sidelined by a plot which has too much to tell and show us. When it comes together, it’s genuinely spectacular but we rarely get more than a glancing blow of motivation or character development for any of the new characters, let along much more insight to the returning characters we’ve come to see. Thematically, too, the movie’s exploration of a medieval version of fake news, media manipulation and the othering of another nation’s people and their leader gets trampled in the rush of new information and plot points needed to move the story along. What “Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil” needed most of all was another movie in between it and the first one to delve into the mythology and history of the Moors and their magical inhabitants and give the story time to breathe.
Jolie is as imperious and darkly mischevious as ever in the role and retains the fantastic chemistry with Fanning’s Aurora, the kinetic mix of Maleficent’s darkness and Aurora’s sunniness providing the alchemical magic that powers the story so it’s a shame the characters are separated by the plot for so long. Pfeiffer provides an excellent foil for Maleficent although again the story contrives to keep them separated for much of the movie’s run time. The rest of the cast are given pretty much short shrift, although Sam Riley’s Diaval gets a couple of fun moments however that may be a blessing in disguise. The returning three fairy godmothers are shrill, unfunny and often plain irritating and Harris Dickinson’s anodyne Prince Phillips (taking over for a “Titans” occupied Brenton Thwaites) is dull and remarkably lifeless in a story which sees him having to choose between his mother and his bride-to-be. Chiwetel Ejiofor does impress in a brief appearance as another of Maleficent’s people but suffers from the lack of a real exploration of their people and the film makes the baffling decision to put Ed Skrien front and centre instead.
There’s much to applaud here as the makers make some bold storytelling decisions to expand the world of the first movie and even though those gambles may not always pay off – usually because they’re rushed through without the time to develop and blend organically – there’s a willingness to take risks which has been sorely absent from many of the Disney live-action products to date.
“Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil” takes the intriguingly subversive reimagining of the “Sleeping Beauty” story and spins it off in a wild new direction, expanding its horizons from a fairy tale into an expansive flawed high-fantasy epic which recalls the hit-and-miss scope of the likes of “Jupiter Ascending” and “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets”. There’s a place for these bold, sweeping storytelling attempts, unafraid to take big risks and it’s on the big screen whether the jaded audience, numbed by formulaic comfort or constrained by auteur-led snobbery turns up for them or not.