The conveyor belt of Disney live-action remakes trundles on and on. While movies like The Lion King (2019) make only small additions to the original screenplay, Maleficent has always been a little bit more ambitious. The 2014 original asked: what if the version of Sleeping Beauty we all know is wrong? What if Maleficent wasn’t quite so evil? Or, more broadly, it asks: what if Wicked but again? (This, of course, is the train of thought that gave us Frozen.)
This Halloween’s sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, sees the franchise go off the map of the original Sleeping Beauty story. If this sounds like it defeats the point of the original, don’t be too cynical – but if it sounds daring and original, don’t get too excited. Everything about this feels like it grows out of the original idea, but you’ve seen it all done before and better.
Princess Aurora, a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning of Teen Spirit), gets engaged to the bland Disney Prince Phillip (charisma-void Harris Dickinson of Beach Rats). This is a big controversy because Aurora, though not a fairy herself, is princess of the fairies and rules over all the cute little woodland critters in the moors. So, it’s a mixed marriage. That’s right: this is another movie about Fantasy Racism. Once again, all the racists are stereotypical big meanies. Hardly a compelling response to These Dark Times.
The drawn-out, excruciating first act is entirely preoccupied with sitcom antics about the in-laws meeting each other for dinner. Casting Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer as two entertaining villains and making them butt heads is a great idea, so it’s a shame that the script isn’t funny. All the failed attempts at jokes are handed off to a trio of insufferable comic-relief fairies. The result is an oddly self-serious version of Shrek 2.
To be fair, things do pick up after a while. Once the dinner inevitably ends in an argument, the kind King John suddenly and suspiciously falls ill. Pfeiffer is quick to blame Maleficent. As a result, the fairy and human kingdoms are suddenly on the brink of war. The sudden ratcheting-up of stakes is a welcome burst of energy. Plus, it ties into the mixed marriage. By zooming out from Aurora and Phillip, the film shows that coming together rather than falling apart can help the whole world, not just these two royals. But, again, you’ve seen all of this before and better. As the adventure unfolds, you might get the impression that it’s trying to be another ham-fisted metaphor for Trump or Brexit or something, especially when Michelle Pfeiffer starts gassing the oppressed minorities (yes, really).
Parts of this movie look good and other parts look very bad. Maleficent is still a treat. It’s satisfying to watch Angelina Jolie swoop around with huge, black wings. The assembled woodland creatures, on the other hand, generally suck. Those comic-relief fairies look deeply rubbish. And while all fantasy nowadays owes something to Tolkien, it’s a bit cheeky to entirely rip off the talking trees.
The cast generally pulls its weight. Fanning’s first scene as Aurora is alarming – it sounds like a dry read – but she’s entirely convincing from then on. Chiwetel Ejiofr (12 Years A Slave) does a great job as Conall, another fairy of Maleficent’s species. Even where the script flounders about in cliches, he sells it with pathos. Sam Riley does his best in the mostly pointless role of Maleficent’s raven sidekick. It seems that he’s being directed to do a broad Oirish accent. The result is sure to appeal to insufferable Americans everywhere.
Talking about the musical score at length is always a slightly nerdy shout, but Geoff Zanelli deserves it. Even where the original Maleficent is clumsy, James Newton Howard’s fantasy music shines. Of course, composers don’t always come back for sequels and it would be childish to sulk about that. But it’s a rare joy when the next guy has both the opportunity and the get-up-and-go to use the original themes and motifs. It’s gratifying to hear Howard’s haunting motif for the cursed spindle re-worked into a brassy action number.
To briefly continue the positive vibes, it ought to be said that Mistress of Evil feels like it has much more reason to exist than most of the rest of the current slate of Disney live-action remakes. Beauty and the Beast, though fun and sweet, is ridiculous in its attempt to re-frame Belle as a feminist heroine. Randomly slamming a message about animal cruelty into Dumbo also failed to impress. By comparison, both Maleficent and Mistress of Evil have their heads screwed on. For their faults, they’re based on the essentially compelling idea of re-working a classic fairy tale to instead be about women supporting women. It hands the role of hero to a trauma survivor. There’s something worthwhile in that.
But if good ideas were good movies, we could all make them. As it stands, Mistress of Evil is sporadically fun but toothless. You’d be better off re-visiting your favourite songs from Wicked.
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