Since appearing in Maleficent five years ago, Jolie has retreated behind the camera, directing three movies (the last of them a genuinely exceptional effort) and mostly ignoring the limelight. That gives her return in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil some real heft. It’s delightful to have her back in a leading role; though Jolie’s stardom has often been defined by the tabloid dramas that surround her, she’s an actor who can turn the thinnest scripts into something compelling (think Salt or Wanted). Whenever she’s present in Mistress of Evil, boasting jutting cheekbones and fang-like pearly whites, it’s impossible to look away.
Unfortunately, Jolie isn’t a constant presence in this new film, since there are so many pressing matters to attend to in the neighboring kingdoms of the Moors (the fairy realm governed by Maleficent and Princess Aurora) and Ulstead, a militaristic land that’s the home of Phillip (Harris Dickinson), Aurora’s Prince Charming. As Aurora and Phillip plan their wedding, the much-feared Maleficent is invited to Ulstead to meet his parents and broker diplomatic relations. The only problem is that Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), is a snooty human supremacist who sees Maleficent and her magical subjects as a plague to be eradicated.
If this all sounds complicated, well, I’m not even describing half of the manic side-plots that populate the script, credited to Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, and Micah Fitzerman-Blue. There are living mushrooms, a goblin-like mad scientist named Lickspittle (Warwick Davis) who’s working on weapons of death, and a group of horn-sporting, self-dubbed “dark fey” warriors who resemble Maleficent and live in a giant cocoon. Would it be too much to compare the two leaders of this warrior community, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein, to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively? Probably, but that’s the comparison the film is trying to set up.
All of these competing elements lead to conflict as Ingrith tries to simultaneously drive a wedge between her son and future daughter-in-law and wipe out Maleficent and her fairy populace. At one point, it’s suggested that Ingrith’s hatred is driven by an extreme flower allergy, which seems an odd justification for a set piece in which Ingrith locks adorable forest creatures in a church and tries to gas them to death. This is a movie chock-full of heady imagery that it can’t get a handle on, and so the allegories at work don’t quite connect.
The first act of Mistress of Evil is lots of fun—essentially a magical Meet the Parents. The second act is filled with action sequences that take place in near-total darkness, likely a cost-saving visual-effects measure that robs whole scenes of their tension. But the film’s final showdown, a pitched war in which Jolie and Pfeiffer lock horns on the battlefield, is a blast. Mistress of Evil never manages to justify the return of all these characters, but in delving deeper into its fantasy world, it at least avoids the cardinal sin of being forgettable.
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