Angelina Jolie’s solemn, angular face suggests more prickly autonomy and wonder than her latest treacly film, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, can dare to contain. With the flutter of her eyes she conveys her signature playful malevolence. With the lilt of her voice she hints at a fearsome wit. With the arch of a brow she better alludes to her character’s internal machinations than the script by Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, and Micah Fitzerman-Blue. But a star — even a great star — can only do so much when the film around her is a haphazard mess on nearly every level, only able to work in fits and starts.
Consider for a moment the very end of the film, when Jolie is called upon to deliver a line that blatantly and harshly opens the series up for a potential third edition. (This isn’t a spoiler; we’re talking about sequels to prequels here.) Jolie does her best, offering a knowing wink and a fanged smile as she hovers far above Earth on CGI wings. The moment calls attention to nearly every tragic aspect of the film that preceded it: the saccharine quality that trips into rank corniness, slapdash editing, a cloying, horrid score, and an adherence to CGI that robs the film of texture and any chance at inspiring awe.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil picks up with Aurora (a touch too saccharine Elle Fanning) as she’s getting engaged to Prince Philip (a dull Harris Dickinson). A major failure of the film is that we don’t get to reengage much with the mother/daughter dynamic between Maleficent (Jolie) and Aurora before it’s disrupted by this proposal, of which Maleficent disapproves. Even then, she acquiesces to Aurora’s desires, attending a dinner with Prince Philip’s parents King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). The latter, we learn, is prone to carefully manipulating people like chess pieces, this time in an effort to prompt a war between humans and fairie kind — a grab for land and resources. The film still gestures at intersecting threads, at notions of motherhood, belonging, and learning to step out of the shadows of your powerful caretaker, but those threads unravel once the story becomes fixated on its muddled mythology and grand world-building, that decrees even the flowers themselves are alive and stirred to war by prejudice.
The main allure of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is the opportunity it affords us to watch its two powerhouses, Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, vamp across the screen. Pfeiffer is an actress who continues to provide some of the most complex, modern depictions of femininity onscreen. Jolie is a cunning master of her own image, with a slinky physicality that demands to be studied. Each provides Maleficent with outsize, charismatic, quicksilver presence and tremendous skill. And in return, they’re given ample material to play with, just not enough together. In increasingly ornate costuming by Ellen Mirojnick and milliner Justin Smith, they appear as singular entities more often than not. Jolie’s impeccable face is framed in one sequence by a collar made of gold-dipped crow skulls, with one dolloping her matching head piece. Pfeiffer’s character wears elaborate gowns and capes, whose saintly coloring of ivory and pearl belie her perspicacious scheming. When she handles a crossbow, she does so with casual elegance, relishing the power of the weapon in her hands. It’s hard not to imagine what they could accomplish in another film, one that would allow their performance room to breath and truly play off each other. Something darker, more grotesque that lives up to the evil in its title. A work, as Matt Zoller Seitz suggested, helmed by a true stylist with keen emotional resonance like Jennifer Kent or Guillermo del Toro. If it sounds like I’m over-comparing the second Maleficent to the movie it could have been, it’s because Pfeiffer and Jolie’s performances encourage such imagination.
The best scene in the film comes early, around the fraught familial dinner table. What starts with tense civility quickly dovetails into emotional and physical warring. Maleficent is uncomfortable with small talk and breeds fear wherever she steps. Ingrith is a gimlet-eyed wonder finding pressure points and utilizing them with maniacal precision. She suggests that with this marriage, Aurora is gaining something Maleficent and her countercultural ways can never give: “a real family, a real mother.” Maleficent responds with vengeance at the suggestion. Fairytales, specifically the modern, flatly construed versions by Disney, often cut out the role of the mother or heighten her importance with a proxy figure. In Maleficent: Mistress of Evil there are delightful twists — the evil fairie is also the fairie godmother — but they are built on expectations that are never quite satiated. From here, the emotional bramble of mothers and daughters takes a back seat to CGI warfare and fantastical creatures.
In the end, joy is in short supply in the film — for reasons narrative and aesthetic. The script is laden with cheap jokes that miss more than hit. (They hit when Jolie unleashes her haughty arrogance early in the film, reminding us that her wicked humor has long been a highlight of her performances.) The story is at once overstuffed with ideas and half-developed. Much of that could be forgiven if the film could inspire any wonder or awe. Unfortunately, the editing is jagged, granting little whimsy to the story. The score is trite and overbearing, as if the filmmakers couldn’t trust the audience to make connections or the actors to sell the emotional dimensions of the story without music holding our hands. Director Joachim Rønning (previously of the dreadful Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) seems uninterested in the thorny corners of motherhood. What sinks the film is its overreliance on CGI that flattens the fantasia of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil rather than giving it the texture and visual complexity it needs. Pfeiffer and Jolie bring such fierce complexity and panache to their performances that it’s a shame the film doesn’t rise to the occasion in kind.