Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’ Casts an Effective Spell

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a roiling mess of a movie. A fantasy action movie that fails when it tries to excite us with action but manages to capture our attention when it’s characters are allowed to talk with one another. Though if not for the likes of Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer playing to the rafters the leaden script may have sunken the whole film.

The first Maleficent was the first of the now multibillion-dollar trend of cannibalizing its own properties by adapting them to live-action; with varying success. Maleficent was different from all that followed in that it was more than just a mere remake, it was a re-imagining. Jolie’s evil witch was revealed to be a tragic hero. More than anything the first film’s look at the bonds of platonic love between women was rare by any standards.

Maleficent 2, however, doesn’t really engage with the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora (Elle Fanning). The script is flawed, but so was the first one. Though the director this time around Joachim Ronning seems adrift in his first feature, unable to decide to tackle the powers of myths and stories or instead tell a fable about the very basic human lust for power.

The result is a middling effort saved by the performances. Fanning’s Aurora is the one ignored the most. Now, Queen of the Moors, the land where the fae lives, she sits about holding town halls and addressing issues of the day. In fact, it is Fanning’s Aurora who is one of the film’s weakest points. Not the performance, Fanning, tries her damndest but she doesn’t have the material to do what she needs.

The evil Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) has a plan to conquer the fae and destroy the Moors. Aurora, for a woman raised by a woman as observant and wise as Maleficent, seems to side with the Queen over her mother just almost immediately. Ingrith pricks her husband King John (Robert Lindsay) with the same spindle Maleficent pricked Aurora and then frames Maleficent for it.

I should mention that Prince Phillipp (Harris Dickinson) has proposed to Aurora and her acceptance does not sit well with Maleficent. So, while at a dinner at King John’s castle, Queen Ingrith plays Maleficent like a fiddle and goads her into losing her temper. With the frame up in place, Maleficent flies away only to be shot with an iron ball (bullet) her weakness and falls into the sea. 

Maleficent is shot by Gerda (Jenn Murray), a near-silent Girl Friday for Ingrith. Though her name is never mentioned and we have no clue what her story is, Murray imbues her with a sense of classic cinematic villainy. At one point, after the fae has been trapped inside a church with an organ that sprays a cloud of toxic dust that kills magical creatures, don’t ask, she plays the organ as if she were the Phantom of the Fae. With her eyes rolled back and a rictus smile on her face Murray somehow sells a character all but glossed over by the writers.

A trio of writers who clearly never consulted with the others hobbled together a story that could have been fascinating. Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, and Micha Fitzerman-Blue take the concept of myths and stories and how they can shape our perception of events and then drop it until the third act. The whole kingdom of Olmstead knows the story of the witch who cursed the young Princess. But they ignore the ending, the part where Maleficent realized she was wrong and saved the girl. 

This is actually a common phenomenon. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is about Ebenezer Scrooge, a name so enshrined into popular culture, we use it to describe the cold heartless rich who’d rather save a buck than show a grit of kindness. Except that’s only Ebenezer in the beginning. By the end, he’s changed his ways and reformed. But that’s not the part of the story that sticks.

The script introduces this notion early on during the opening narration but it’s never mentioned again until the final battle where Queen Ingrith confesses to Maleficent that she’s the one who’s been spreading the story about her and Aurora and playing down the ending. In between all that the writers have shoved in an origin story for Maleficent.

Remember when I said she was shot and fell into the sea? Well, she’s rescued by Conal (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a fae much like herself. We come to find out that Maleficent is far from the only one of her kind. Furthermore, they have been hunted to near extinction by humans and are on the verge of going to war with them. Maleficent, as you can imagine, is a tad taken aback.

Maleficent is born from the ashes of the last Phoenix before it’s death and that’s where her powers come from. Just what every fairy tale needs, explanations and back story. If it not for Jolie and her magnetic cheekbones along with Ejiofor’s charm and presence most of Maleficent 2 would have been a wash.

But Jolie and Pfeiffer can’t help but command every scene they’re in. The script may be eye-rolling silly but in their capable hands, we become enraptured. Which is why Maleficent 2 soars when Ronning just steps back and lets them have at it. Jolie and Pfeiffer volley death stares, and hisses, back and forth in such a  delightful way we groan when Ronning tries to dazzle us with action.

Henry Braham has shot movies such as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and The Golden Compass. He excels at capturing largely CGI movies and bringing them to life. Maleficent 2 is colorful and at times gorgeous, Braham doesn’t seem to be allowed to give the movie any sense of perspective or point of view.  For a fantasy film, the movie is visually rote and functional. He is able to frame some pretty shots but rarely do they do anything to further or deepen the story or the characters.

The action is shot and edited in such a way as to diminish any and all tension. But to the film’s credit, it understands the purpose of special effects. Oftentimes directors will try and edit a scene into fragments so as to give the illusion that something magical is happening. But to paraphrase Ebert, the point is not to make us believe what is happening but to make us understand what is happening.

Making us believe Maleficent is flying is well and good but it misses the point. The point is Maleficent is flying! Unlike most big-budget studio fantasy films, Maleficent 2 doesn’t get lost in the spectacle. It remembers to allow us to be in awe; a choice that is largely responsible for why the movie works.

I couldn’t help enjoying myself, flaws and all. Jolie, Pfeiffer, Murray, Ejiofor, and even Fanning when Aurora finally gets a clue and grows a spine, in the end, make it work. The real magic is how movie stars can sometimes save a dullard script. Though the ending almost used up all of my goodwill. I won’t go into details despite to say Maleficent breaks a spell in a way we were told she couldn’t in the first movie. 

Logic has no place in fairy tales and fantasies but even storytelling logic is the backbone of the whole enterprise. Maleficent 2 ignores its own internal logic explicitly set out in the first movie in favor of an easy resolution. It dampens what should be a rousing good time in spite of all it gets wrong. 

Maleficent 2 is more of a mess than the first Maleficent but it’s also every bit as fun and weirdly intriguing with some of the themes it hints at and explores. Not to mention, as mentioned before Angelina Jolie is worth every penny of the ticket price and throw in Michelle Pfeiffer and it becomes a bargain. 

Despite all its flaws, I found myself enraptured throughout most of the movie and even a little relieved when Maleficent pulled off one last trick. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a stupid and misleading title but in the end, it does what movies do better than almost anything else. It takes us back to being a kid again when all we needed for a story were magic, witches, princesses, and action. Some things never get old I suppose.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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