There are a lot of reasons to be giddy about the idea of Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer going toe to toe as powerful, warring women. But “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” doesn’t deliver on such a lofty promise.
The sequel to 2014’s villain origin tale picks up five years later. The Sleeping Beauty, Aurora (Elle Fanning) is now Queen of the Moors. She is a good queen and all the fairy and woodland creatures love her. Prince Phillip also loves her and proposes a union of their kingdoms. When they are married, the Moors and Ulstead can finally have peace. Aurora loves Phillip too, and doesn’t hesitate to accept his proposal. But then they both realize they’ll have to tell their disapproving mothers.
Elle Fanning was born to be a Disney princess. And she makes a lovely Aurora. She is totally believable as a friend to all varieties of creatures and she’s the kind of darling person you want to root for. Likewise, Angelina Jolie is delightful as the Maleficent who was more misunderstood and scorned than truly evil. They pick up where they left off, and although the two do not spend much time together in this sequel, their bond remains strong.
Michelle Pfeiffer is an actress of many gifts and talents. The idea of watching her play a wicked queen was too good to pass up. And she is certainly committed to her role as Queen Ingrith, a woman in a loveless marriage who has a long score to settle. The problem with Ingrith is not Pfeiffer’s fault. Instead, the character isn’t developed much beyond Generic Evil Queen. Yes, we learn her motivations—and she definitely has them—but they are very basic and unoriginal. Instead of twirling a mustache, she wears her crown and gives orders to her right-hand woman, Gerda (Jenn Murray) who inexplicably obeys her every command.
The script, co-written by Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, and Micah Fitzerman-Blue is a grab bag of cliched plots and underdeveloped characters. It lacks spark or wit or biting humor, and the tension that should exist between Maleficent and Ingrith is watered down by throwaway lines that lack punch.
The reintroduction to the Moors and catching up with Aurora would be fine, and even lovely, if not for the hyperactive camera work of Director of Photography, Henry Braham. Every time we are about to get a shot of something beautiful or interesting, the camera cuts away quickly. The result is dizzying and frustrating. And it diminishes the impact of the luscious production design by Patrick Tatopoulos. Like so many aspects of “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” it is simply exhausting.
Fighting for attention in all of that chaotic photography are a few new characters and some returning ones. Prince Phillip has been recast and is now played by Harris Dickinson. It is such a generic prince role that recasting doesn’t matter and goes basically unnoticed. Perhaps there is some promise in the young actor, but in this he is not interesting. In fact, he is boring. There is nothing about Phillip or Dickinson that makes it clear why Aurora would be interested—besides the fact that he seems to be literally the only available bachelor for thousands of miles.
Chiwetel Ejiofor turns up as a dark fey, one of Maleficent’s kind. Unlocking such a huge piece of Maleficent’s past could have been fascinating and Ejiofor is a great actor. But, again, the script does him no favors and this ends up being little more than a catalyst for other parts of the story, rather than an interesting exploration or effort at further world-building.
And that is essentially the problem. It is rushed, pushed, and never takes time to just be. Director Joachim Rønning doesn’t allow room for anything to breathe or develop. He had a similar problem with his last feature, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” in 2017. It feels in many ways like he knew the target audience would be kids and therefore put little thought or effort into making something truly good.
The costumes, casting, and overall design are lovely, but the finished product is a mess. “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” will make some money and the powers that be will declare it a success. And in this age where box office returns are accepted as a judgment of quality, there will probably be a third film too. We can only hope they’ll learn some lessons from this uninspired exercise.
“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures and is in theaters now.