By Preston Wilder
It’s the battle of the cheekbones, or the battle of imperious divas. When it comes to cheekbones, Angelina Jolie (as Maleficent) wins it; you could cut yourself on her razor-sharp facial architecture. When it comes to being ‘Mistress of Evil’, though, Michelle Pfeiffer (as her antagonist, Queen Ingrith) has the edge. Maleficent, after all, is a bit of a softy underneath the fangs and horns – but Ingrith is bad to the bone, having devised a special red powder in her top-secret workshop (it’s below a room full of creepy mannequins, in the basement of the palace) with which she plans to kill all the mushroom people, winged fairies and other inhabitants of the Moors, ruled by Maleficent’s ward Aurora (Elle Fanning). Now that’s just wrong.
Aurora’s due to marry Prince Philip, Ingrith’s son (played by Harris Dickinson who made his name as a gay New York teen in Beach Rats, a long way from Disney), but the prospect of becoming in-laws doesn’t please either woman. “He’s very kind,” pleads Aurora, speaking of her fiancé; “Kind of what?” retorts Maleficent frostily. Queen Ingrith goes even further, using the wedding as a ploy to invite all the cuddly fairy people then attempt to exterminate them; when the church gets transformed into a literal gas chamber – the red poison piped in through the church organ, played by Ingrith’s diminutive sidekick – it may feel like Disney has lost its collective mind. The rest of the film isn’t quite so bizarre – but it still feels inadequate, a superfluous sequel that doesn’t know what to do with its ostensible heroine.
I skipped the first Maleficent five years ago, so I may be missing some connective tissue – but I’m guessing there was more to the character than Jolie looking alien and robotic (and yes, imperious), and tossing out campy one-liners. (On being greeted by hostile villagers: “Pitchforks? Humans are hilarious!”) The concept seems very Shrek-ish, updating classic fairytales – Sleeping Beauty, in this case – to redeem the supposed villain (Shrek was an ogre, Maleficent the evil witch who put a spell on the princess); a new curse is duly placed in the sequel – not on a princess but good King John, Ingrith’s ineffectual husband – and the traditional remedy of a true-love kiss is attempted, but fails miserably. “I told you,” says steely Ingrith: “This is no fairytale!”
Maybe not; but then, what is it? Shrek built a whole franchise out of snarky spoofery – but Mistress of Evil is no spoof, playing more as adventure fantasy. The film has its moments, including a memorably awkward getting-to-know-you dinner between the two families, and the climax is also exciting (even that gas-chamber wedding is quite exciting) – but Maleficent herself is largely absent from the grand finale, having already been domesticated by finding her ‘tribe’ (other “dark feys” like herself), and indeed it’s clear that she doesn’t quite belong in this movie. The script’s sole idea – shades of Jolie’s real-life persona – is to make her maternal, with a line about “protecting” little winged fairy-kiddies that makes her seem even more out of place; “Motherhood is a mental illness,” as they say in Hustlers, the week’s other Girl Power movie.
It is indeed a good week for strong women (the guys, with a couple of exceptions, are gentle souls in Maleficent; you can’t take them seriously) – and Jolie vs. Pfeiffer is an excellent match-up, at least on paper. They flash their eyes, incline their heads regally as if to say they’re ready for their close-up. The more natural Fanning, big-eyed and button-nosed, out-acts them both – but that’s not the point, the point is that Mistress of Evil has a ripeness that’s quite enjoyable. Oh, and its anti-war message isn’t exactly unwelcome, either.
That’s where it ends, however. Mistress of Evil is okay, but a long way from excellent. The plotting is weak throughout; getting Aurora to the secret workshop (the pivotal scene in the whole movie) is done very flatly, without any clever dramatic device; the rift between Aurora and Maleficent – “I have no daughter! She has chosen her side!” – seems to exist because the plot demands it, not because of anything that’s actually happened in the movie. The climactic battle is fairly rousing, but then the thing drags on for another 15 minutes. In the end, it’s hard to recommend this mixed-up sequel, no matter how many millions it adds to the Disney coffers; if you want to see Michelle Pfeiffer savagely twisting the head of a mannequin, however, there’s no better film. “A war is coming,” she intones darkly, and makes evil plans to destroy the talking trees and porcupine beasties and mushroom people: “No more fairies!”. The cheekbone of the woman!
DIRECTED BY Joachim Ronning
STARRING Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer
US 2019 118 mins