Cinema Dispatch: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directed by Joachim Rønning

If I was reviewing movies when the first Maleficient came out, it probably would have been in my top ten of that year; THAT’S how much I genuinely loved that movie, and I don’t think I’m in TOO big of a minority on this one!  It didn’t get the BEST reviews, but I think it still managed to connect with a lot of people and certainly made quite a bit of money even with its enormous budget.  Doing a sequel though, eh… that doesn’t sound like THE GREATEST IDEA EVER, but I’m willing to throw myself into it and hope for the best considering how good the first one was and Jolie’s continued involvement with the series since she was the best thing about that movie.  Do they find an interesting way to continue the story after its revisionist Happily Ever After, or should they have left well enough alone after managing to catch lightening in a bottle already?  Let’s find out!!

Queen Aurora (Elle Fanning) has been running the magic forest known as The Moors since her adoptive mother killed her biological father in the first movie.  It’s cool though; the dude was a HUGE jerk and was played by Sharlto Copley, so he pretty much HAD to die!  Someone who DIDN’T die though was Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) who’s been dating Aurora for some time now (ACTUALLY dating; not rescuing her from a castle and getting a bride as a reward), but now is the time for him to pop the question and join their kingdoms under one big happy family.  This is cause for celebration for just about everyone in The Moors… except for one woman who finds this arrangement utterly dreadful.  Actually two women, but we’ll get to that soon enough; we’re of course talking about Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) at the moment who has obvious reservations because of the whole Sharlto Copley thing, but agrees meet Phillips parents for dinner which will SURELY go off without a hitch, right!?  Well… that OTHER woman who’s not too please about all this is Phillip’s mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) who has a clear bias against all things magical and is not about to let those ghastly creatures crash on her kingdom’s metaphorical couch, and so she sets into motion her diabolical scheme to ruin the forest and turn Maleficent into a fearsome monster once again.  At first it seems to succeed as Maleficent is more or less banished from the kingdom after being a particularly unpleasant dinner guest, but things take an unexpected turn when she learns that there are OTHER creatures just like her that call themselves Dark Feys and have lived in hiding all this time, but Queen Ingrith’s plans may just put an end to all that.  Will Maleficent unmask Queen Ingrith’s evil plans and restore her place as a good guy once more, or will she embrace her outsider status and become the worst nightmare that Ingrith and the rest of the humans could ever face?  What will the Dark Fey do to protect themselves, and will it be in the best interest of everyone else in this conflict; even Maleficent herself?  Can we maybe get a movie where Queen Ingrith meets Queen Ravenna from Snow White and the Huntsman?  I’m pretty sure that the combined efforts of Jolie and Thor wouldn’t be able to overcome THAT level of concentrated ham-tastic villainy.

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If that stare gets any icier, we’re liable to start a new Ice Age; either the massive shift in global temperature or the movie franchise. Both would be equally devastating…

 

Okay… um… I liked it!  I think I did at least.  The movie is all over the place trying to cover as much ground as possible, and some of it is absolutely fantastic and exactly what I would want to see from a Maleficent sequel!  The problem is that it’s also trying to be at least two other Maleficent sequels at the same time, and they just don’t fit together all that well.  It’s unfortunately what happens to a lot of sequels where the first one was about something specific and when it’s time to do it all over again it’s about absolutely everything else which makes for a rather confusing viewing experiencing even if I can cherry pick certain moments and ideas here and there that knock it out of the park (Warwick Davis FTW!!) and would have been great if left to flourish instead of being a piece of a rather oddly shaped puzzle.

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You didn’t use THIS Maleficent in Kingdom Hearts 3, WHY!?

As stated, the big problem with the movie is its choppy narrative which runs into problems pretty much immediately.  There’s a prologue at the beginning which genuinely feels like it was shot in post to try and clear up a few key details about the narrative, and yet in trying to smooth over those issues it creates even more that stay unresolved.  Maleficent is accused of something fairly early on in the movie, and yet I couldn’t tell you if she actually DID do it despite the prologue SEEMINGLY confirming it to be the case, though the way its shot it APPEARS to maybe be a misdirection, and it’s something we really do need the answer to because it’s a genuinely pivotal plot thread upon which a good chunk of the movie turns!  It’s stuff like that throughout the whole movie where you’re not quite sure how specific events are meant to play out and even the explanations feel muddled and uncertain.  Perhaps if it wasn’t trying to take itself so seriously for most of the run time then some of these issues could be smoothed over; if the scope wasn’t so intimidatingly huge and the machinations of our villains weren’t so specific and complex.  However the intent here was definitely to be the Game of Thrones type of dark fantasy instead of what the first movie was which was frankly more akin to something like The Dark Crystal or a less on the nose Snow White and the Huntsman.  This works for the movie in several ways which we’ll get to in a moment, but the focus on politics, alliances, and even basic stuff like time and spatial relationships is just something this movie and its screenplay are not equipped to handle.

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“We’ve been here the whole time!”     “You have?”     “Yup!  Just off of camera left!  You’d think someone would have noticed with these big horns and giant wings!”

Where this movie succeeds is not in its overarching plot threads but in the writing for its characters with Michelle Pfeiffer taking the MVP award.  It really is quite engaging and a lot of fun to watch her devious machinations and the sheer sinister glee with which she gets poisons the mind of everyone around her, and her performance is so captivating and delicious that it actually manages to outshine Angelina Jolie who comes off as somewhat subdued throughout a good chunk of the movie.  It’s rather odd how much of the narrative is centered around her and yet she doesn’t have much to do in it, but it also kind of works because the narrative sits upon a the Sword of Damocles that everyone is carelessly batting about like a bored cat, and Maleficent seems to be the only one who knows or cares what any decisive action her part would mean despite so many people egging her on to one side or the other.  As the movie goes along it really does come down to the wire with no clear answer in sight which keeps the film engaging even if a lot of the second act is just milling about waiting for this pot to boil over.  The prejudice of the humans and the barbaric actions they take make it hard NOT to want the all-out war that some characters, particularly Michelle Pfeiffer and a war hungry Ed Skrein, are begging for.  This actually does a lot to make Ed Skrein feel like a genuine character instead of a violent cliché, though Chiwetel Ejiofor as his peace loving counterpart doesn’t have nearly as much to do since his position is more preventative than forward thinking.  You can see the really decent movie about a challenging choice between almost certain doom in defiance versus careful and strategic invisibility in the Dark Fey side of the story, and Michelle Pfeiffer is about the best foil you could imagine for such a conflict to arise from, but then it turns out to only be about a sixth of this movie and doesn’t fit well with everything else; even the other stuff that’s GOOD but from a completely different narrative.

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Maybe in eighty years we’ll get a movie about HER side of the story and find out she was the good guy all along!

Then the third act happens, and HOLY CRAP!  This movie goes off the rails in such spectacular and expensive a fashion that I honestly kind of admire it for having the gumption to go that far with it and then just as hastily take it all back.  The movie turns into something that could plausibly be described as a World War II movie set in Lord of the Rings with a dash of Neon Genesis Evangelion for good measure.  The big battle that takes up the entire third act is about as violent as the opening to Saving Private Ryan (minus the blood which is why this still has a… wait, this is PG and not a PG-13?  SERIOUSLY!?), and it’s not even triumphant in any way; just a waste of human and fantasy creature life that again feels like a World War II film.  They even take it a bit further with a scene that edges RIGHT up to the point of bad taste with something that I thought was A BIT comparable to gas chambers, but that may not have been the intent even if the drama of that scene is similarly horrifying.  I ended up appreciating quite a bit of this because it felt like the storm that had been foreshadowed throughout the whole movie and that everyone was trying to either avoid or prepare for as best as possible, and it’s rather well directed with a lot of moving pieces amidst the chaos.  It’s one of those things that just oozes with enthusiasm and artistic drive which felt quite a bit like the first film, and what they do with Maleficent in this scene… well that’s where it starts to feel a bit like Evangelion; down to the overly tacky and epic in scope symbolism.  THEN THE MOVIE JUST GIVES UP ON ALL THIS AND FORGETS IT ALL HAPPENED in a movie that might be the most jarring tonal shift I’ve seen in perhaps any movie.  With so much destruction and so many moments of abject cruelty from many of the characters, you’d think there’d be SOME consequences or emotional toll that would linger through the ending, but NOPE!!  Everything is more or less fine despite what has to be HUNDREDS OF DEAD BODIES littering the battlefield, and again… I kind of admire the bold faced confidence with which it turns from a WAR IS HELL movie to a Disney happy ending on a dime, and frankly it’s pretty much in line with just how haphazard the rest of the movie is.

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And they all lived happily ever after!

This is a tough one for me because I know what I WANT to say about it, but it would no doubt be the wrong answer.  I WANT to tell you to go see this because Michelle Pfeiffer is so good, Angelina Jolie is STILL good if a bit underutilized, and that ending is completely off the wall, but there’s just not enough GOOD here to justify recommending it.  The movie is all over the place and I barely even mentioned how bad Elle Fanning and Harris Dickinson are in this as the two most useless people in all the kingdom, but there’s a certain charm to the proceedings that at least kept my interest all the way through even if it wasn’t doing a good job of conveying… well ANYTHING really.  Even with the spectacle of the big finale there’s not enough here to see it in theaters, but I absolutely do recommend checking it out at some point.  They’ll probably release a double feature blu-ray set at some point, or more than likely they’ll just throw it up on Disney+ forever and all time, so you can probably wait a bit before seeing just how odd this movie is and if it’s you’re particular brand of oddness.  It was certainly mine, but you should know by now how bad my tastes are!  My Gemini Man review is fresh off the presses if you need further proof!!

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