‘Maleficent Mistress of Evil’ Channels the Fantasy, Misses the Magic

By Susan JAMES

Angelina Jolie was born to be a movie star.  She grabs the attention of an audience in any scene in which she appears.  But even the Jolie charisma can’t create gold from lead and in this leaden pastiche of children’s fairytale paired with somber meditation on otherness the writers have left the alchemy in the bottle.  In 2014’s ‘Maleficent’, the dark fairy had found true love in the human child she raised.  All was flower petals, smiles and happily ever after.  Five years later, we are now told in a confusing voice-over, poor old Maleficent is suddenly considered the mistress of evil once more.  Why, you ask?  Because Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), the mother of Aurora’s true love, Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson), has declared it to be so.  Why, you ask?  You need to stop asking because no one is going to tell you.

The threadbare story, with the totally misleading title, opposes powerful, said-to-be-evil dark fairy Maleficent against powerful, appears-to-be-good-but-isn’t human Ingrith and unfolds so predictably and unmemorably that you have to wonder what writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster were thinking.  Aurora, played by Elle Fanning as an almost too wide-eyed innocent, pouts and primps and plays with the fairies in the forest (or rather the Moor) while evil Queen Ingrith weaves her web of malevolence to destroy Maleficent’s kingdom.  King John (Robert Lindsay) wants peace for all; his wife disagrees.  Both queens have henchmen.  Maleficent’s is the one bright spot in the film, Sam Riley as the shape shifter Diaval.  Ingrith’s is Jenn Murray’s expressionless scene killer Gerda.

The film opens with CGI’d moments straight out of Snow White with pretty Princess Aurora, now crowned queen of the Moor (moor = a treeless expanse, go figure), playing with the fairies in the forest.  These sequences clash jarringly against the scenes of Ingrith’s henchmen/women tormenting and killing captured fairies.  When Maleficent, herself, tries to play nice with Philip’s parents because Aurora wants to marry her prince, the horned wonder is threatened with destruction by the ever-evil Ingrith.  It’s then Maleficent is rescued by the dark fairy Conall (an under-used Chiwetel Ejiofor) and taken to the cave where the remaining dark fairies are in hiding from humans.

Humans in fantasies do get a bad rap.  If you’re a mutant, a superhero, a fairy of any description or any other form of non-human otherness, the torches and pitchforks are coming for you.  Humans aren’t too clever either.  Check out the muggles in ‘Harry Potter’.  But at least here, standing up for the humans, the peace party proposed by King John and earnest Prince Philip are trying to project positive possibilities.  Will they succeed?  Is that a real question?

For reasons unknown — we would need to ask Norwegian director Joachim Ronning — the British actors are using British accents and the Americans are all trying and failing to imitate them.  So much successful fantasy has come out of Britain that it’s now a given that fairy-tales have to be told with an English accent.  But this tends to hobble emotional expression and Pfeiffer especially seems uncomfortable not only with the accent but with costumes that look as if they’re about to strangle her.  Portentous statements sound pretentious and don’t actually make a lot of sense anyway.  ‘Maleficent’ is yet another of Disney’s financially-targeted efforts to rewrap an earlier film and present it as the brand new gift you always wanted.  This time it doesn’t work.  See you at the movies!