“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” Review

Director: Joachim Rønning | Screenwriter: Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue | Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Michelle Pfeiffer | Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures | Running Time: 118 min. | MPAA Rating: PG

The good news is that the sequel to 2014’s Maleficent has some notable improvements. It’s more colorful, magical, features a more solid story and a significant reduction in rape allegories. In its place, however, is a more milquetoast fantasy of familiar elements that comes off as Ferngully meets Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

The story is at least interesting enough to have some chemistry before settling into its tiresome epic nature. A division between the Moores and a kingdom is soon to be mended when the Moore’s Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) starts falling for the kingdom’s Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). One wonderful morning in the forest, Phillip pops the question and the two agreed to get married, all the forest creatures cheering around them. Whether their parents will approve is another story, especially since their wedding will mean peace between the territories.

Aurora’s adoptive witch mother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), still looking good with horns as sharp as her cheekbones, is particularly bitter about trusting humans. Having gone through a very rocky relationship that led to the death of a king in the previous picture, she’s not willing to accept her daughter’s marriage. Still, there’s a heart that beats beneath all her green-tinted magic and she stifles a smile to meet with Phillip’s family to solidify the marriage.

Not as keen for the marriage is Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). With her kingdom having been war-free for quite some time, her trigger finger is getting itchy. She thinks the presence of Maleficent in her kingdom may be an opportune time to brew up a war she’s been secretly preparing in her hidden dungeon of magic-fighting tech. What a dinner they’ll have!

The dinner itself is staged as such an awkward and biting comedy I’d be happy if the entire film were just this scene. But, of course, this is a Disney fantasy epic and hoping for My Dinner with Maleficent is an even bigger fantasy. Maleficent will wage war but also, out of nowhere, discover there are more of her kind with wings and horns. They’ve been in an exile for decades for fear of the humans after they took their land. And if just mentioning that premise seems too on the nose with the reference to Native American colonialism, imagine how uncomfortable it is for one scene to feature Pfeiffer calling them savages followed by a scene of the beasts putting on war paint and beating their chests.

Mistress of Evil goes about setting up a war of mankind versus nature with all the familiar beats but little of any build. We get to see the underground colony of the Maleficent race but only long enough to get the cliff notes of them being at war. We hardly spend any time at all getting to know Phillip’s kingdom with anyone outside the castle. This lack of development makes the coming battle, filled with lots of tragedy and death, lack that punch. How can we feel that bad for the fairy creatures sacrificing themselves for the good of others when we know little of them past one-liners and cute asides? There’s a romance between what looks like an anthropomorphic hedgehog and mushroom that is so distant from the story I wondered how much of it was pushed in post-production.

While Mistress of Evil is certainly more pleasing to the eye than surreally dark Maleficent predecessor, it’s nothing all that memorable either. It throws a lot of fantasy fragments at the screen and does have some eye-pleasing action. I’d be lying if I said the kingdom battle of winged beasts versus crossbow-wielding knights didn’t have some thrills to it. But it really says something about an action-fantasy when there’s more tension at a dinner table than on a battlefield.

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