It is fair to say that the world of family-friendly corporatized entertainment has never created anything as odd, unconventional and delightfully Goth as Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, the title character in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, the second in a series of films meant to remix and reimagine the fable of Sleeping Beauty.
Introduced by the narrator as a “powerful fey”—which sounds like a Tinder category to which only premium subscribers have access—the character makes wonderful use of Jolie’s dark singularity and otherworldly sensuality. Her cheekbones and collarbones are as sharp as lines of cocaine cut on a hand mirror at Studio 54, her lips are as billowy as poppy flowers, and her shoulders, sharpened to unnatural points, look like the tips of locked and loaded hypodermic needles. Seeing Jolie embody this character in a Disney movie feels a little like bringing your most dangerous new college friend home for Thanksgiving and then dropping acid right before sitting down for dinner.
It’s no wonder then, that the movie has no idea what to do with her. Not only is she inexplicably absent for long spells of the story, when she is around you can feel the movie actively trying to tamp down or even ignore her pleasingly weird energy. The film from director Joachim Rønning, one of a pair of directors behind 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, seems much more interested in the worn out tale it’s trying to tell about its barely sketched out dewy faced prince and princess (Harris Dickinson and Elle Fanning). The constant chattering, fluttering and cooing from the indistinct magical creatures that live in the enchanted land over which Maleficent rules is no more engaging, but at least it is more interesting to gaze upon.
It’s not just that Jolie’s character is more captivating and engrossing than pretty much anything else in the movie, it’s that her clothes are too. After she is wounded she wears a blouse made of gauze and, when she returns, she is clad in a blown apart top that looks like something Rudi Gernreich would have sketched on the back pages of his notebook.
Despite having the dramatically aloof appearance of Italian runway models, none of her fellow fey, who wage an air battle against their bellicose human neighbors, manage to register the way Jolie does. Even in a year where he voiced one of the dead-eyed creatures in The Lion King, the talents of the great actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing a peace-loving fey with a face tattoo, have never been more criminally wasted then they are here.
MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL ★1/2
The movie also features one of the most troubling sequences I can recall seeing in a family-focused film, when all of the existing forms of fairykind are locked inside a church and poisoned by the pollen of a Tomb Bloom flower, one of the few substances known to kill them. Presumably, the filmmakers would not have made the choice to feature the attempted extermination of an entire race of beings through the use of gas while trapped inside a place of worship if the characters being targeted were played by humans and not ones and zeroes.
Don’t expect any useful lessons to be imparted. As punishment for this attempted genocide, the orchestrator is turned into a goat and made a subject of public mockery. Meanwhile the Chemical Ali of this operation—an abused former fairy named Lickspittle played by fantasy film mainstay Warwick Davis—gets invited to the climatic wedding. (This puts Ellen DeGeneres sitting next to George W. Bush at a football game in a whole new light.)
The movie title would be more accurate if it had an ampersand in place of its colon: the only evil mistress on display here is Michelle Pfeiffer’s warmongering queen. Sporting the air of a tenured professor who is wholly disengaged with her class work, the Married to the Mob actor seems utterly bored with the by-the-book bad guy she is asked to embody. Even so, there are some lively Dynasty-style sparks when Pfeiffer faces off with Jolie at a disastrous dinner party.
In that scene, Jolie proves herself capable of fish-out-of-water comedy—she would be great as a Terminator or the resident alien in a remake of Starman. Indeed, considering its trippy visuals and leaden dialog, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil would work much better with the sound turned off (the music is as ubiquitous as it is unremarkable) and Dark Side of the Moon or a bootleg of a Dead show blasting on the stereo.
In other words, the best way to bask in the dark refractions of the wonderfully strange Maleficent—not to mention the far too under-utilized actor who plays her—is to free her from the banality of the film that bears her name.