Two out of four stars
If you exclude the three installments of the animated “Kung Fu Panda” franchise (where hers’ was a supporting role), Angelina Jolie hasn’t had a bona fide hit since the first “Maleficent” in 2014. As “Maleficent” grossed $758 million internationally, a sequel was a lock and Jolie said as much before the first film even opened.
Far better at being a movie star, model, global activist and mother (good for her) than actress, Jolie (much like her ex-husband Brad Pitt) never takes on a role that is beyond her limited range. The title character in the two “Maleficent” productions are a perfect fit. Angular, exotic, buxom, rail thin and mysterious, both Maleficent and Jolie have a commanding presence and choose their few words carefully. No one will ever accuse either of them of using gallons of verbiage to express spoonfuls of thought.
More so than the titular character from the French novel “La Bell au Bois dormant” by Charles Perrault or the subsequent 1959 animated Disney flick “Sleeping Beauty,” Jolie’s Maleficent bears more in common with Elphaba, the lead anti-hero witch from the musical “Wicked,” something which is likely more than a coincidence. There are many other instances here where “The Wizard of Oz” — the source material for “Wicked” – influences Jolie’s character and set designs far more than “Sleeping Beauty.”
As with most recent Disney live-action reworkings of their classic back animated catalog, the somewhat misleading title “Mistress of Evil” isn’t nearly as dark or as dangerous as you’d expect from a movie so steeped in destruction and black magic. Hampered by the limitations of the generally safe as milk “PG” rating, the movie – while still relatively tame – should have probably been rated “PG-13.” While the majority of the target demographic (preteen girls) will love what they see, some impressionable viewers under 10 might be regularly frightened; something to consider for possible full family outings.
If solely based on the visuals, “Mistress of Evil” would be a big winner. While there are a few instances where the nighttime and underwater imagery is a tad too monochrome and flat and the faces of the adult actresses (Juno Temple, Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville) playing the miniaturized fairy godmothers range between laughable and creepy, everything else is pure, full-tilt pastel Disney eye candy and more than fits the larger-than-life storybook setting. Most children will be so wowed with what see they won’t even notice the incredibly lightweight and unimaginative screenplay.
Cobbled together committee-style by veteran Disney scribe Linda Woolverton and the team of Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (the upcoming Mr. Rogers bio-pic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), the script offers nothing remotely original or daring, which, again, is probably good for young girls. But for adults – the other half of the “family” audience — it’s mostly a lost cause. The normally rock solid Elle Fanning – in reprising her role as Princess Aurora — is a clingy klutz prone to sobbing, and the once reliable Michelle Pfeiffer – the real Mistress of Evil in the story – is a shrill and icy stereotype.
Offering sturdy but unremarkable support are Chiwetel Ejiofore and Ed Skrein as Maleficent’s stalwart brethren horn and wing warriors who lend the production only minor edge and danger and the comical Sam Riley as Diaval, her righthand gofer who morphs into both a raven and a grizzly bear.
The finished product is about what we’d expect from Joachim Ronning, the Norwegian director whose only previous English-language feature — “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” — was an equally flashy, overlong and empty calorie affair.
As the first live action family friendly production of the fall season and, based on the popularity of the first installment, “Mistress of Evil” should do big business at the box office this weekend and, in keeping with Disney movie franchise history, this probably won’t be the last word in the “Maleficent” saga.