‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’ Review: Sleep, Sleep, My Lovelies

‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’ Review: Sleep, Sleep, My Lovelies

The happily ever after delivered by Disney’s “Maleficent” has vanished like a puff of bilious smoke, as its unhappy, reactionary sequel makes depressingly clear.

Released in 2014, the first movie is a satisfying rethink of “Sleeping Beauty” — both Disney’s and Charles Perrault’s — that showed how intelligent intervention could upend centuries of oppressive ideas about women. In its revisionist take, the titular dark, dangerous fairy played by Angelina Jolie isn’t naturally evil or merely spiteful in bestowing a curse, but exerting her power with a vengeance.

Played by Jolie with slinky verve, voluminous wings and two magnificently crowning horns, Maleficent is the earlier movie’s greatest special effect. She’s also its most inspired disruptive stroke, having been wronged once upon a time by a suitor, the type who usually bails damsels out of distress. Instead, he secures the throne by seducing and drugging Maleficent, and then clipping her wings, a startling metaphor of violation. The most bracing thing about the original “Maleficent,” though, is that it shifts the narrative weight from the love between a sleeping princess and a rescuing prince to that between the princess and her fairy godmother.

Maleficent is back and so is Jolie, who, with her augmented cheekbones and perfectly calibrated hauteur, remains the only reason to bother with it. Much else has changed and not for the better, whatever this hash insists. At the end of the last installment, Maleficent enthroned her adored surrogate daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning) — who had grown up to become the cursed and liberated beauty — and given her the Moors, a computer-generated peaceable and enchanted wonderland. Aurora rules benevolently from her flower throne, smiling over a menagerie of flowery, floofy and leathery creatures great and small, cutesy and stately.

The sequel’s problems are tipped by its title, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” which sounds as if our great horned one had landed a gig as a dominatrix. More worryingly, it suggests that, contrary to what you learned last time, Maleficent is, yes, very bad, a gambit that’s presumably meant to keep new viewers guessing about her character. But if she is evil, as this sequel promises, it makes you wonder about all the other dismal, stubbornly enduring clichés that the first movie jettisoned, specifically that reliably sexist duo: the wicked female usurper whose power inherently challenges ye olde patriarchy and the innocent maiden who needs a prince to rescue her.

You don’t wait long to be disappointed. Generic from start to finish, the sequel was directed by Joachim Roenning, whose credits include the forgettable sea adventure “Kon-Tiki” (I had to look it up, and I reviewed it), which is probably what got him the job heading up the most recent “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment. It made a mint and that may explain why he was tapped for “Mistress of Evil,” though he does little but move stuff around, leaving the heavy lifting to Jolie and armies of special-effects workers. (The writers are Linda Woolverton, who wrote the original movie — and whose voice is scarcely heard — Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue.)

If “Mistress of Evil” had any of its predecessor’s flashes of self-aware humor, embellished beauty or basic filmmaking intelligence, it might be easier to take or at least ignore. But it’s a clotted mess. It’s also dispiriting because it has traded a fairy tale about female solidarity for a war movie about what happens when women assume power. It opens with a bent knee and ends with an ever-after kiss, but much of the rest is a convoluted brawl filled with noise and computer minions who are tossed like darts. At center is a grasping, malignant queen (Michelle Pfeiffer), the very stereotype that the first movie rejected. She even comes with an awful mini-me (Jenn Murray).

Female villains have long been useful scapegoats, repositories for social and cultural anxieties about men, women and power. The original “Maleficent” pushes against that stereotype with a protagonist who’s at once hero and villain, which means that she’s finally neither. Much like “Frozen,” it insists that women can be complex and that even a princess doesn’t need a prince to justify her life. Women can work together, love one another, find their own way. In 2014, when Maleficent — rather than the prince — delivered the kiss that roused Aurora, it felt like an awakening. This new flick doesn’t just feel like a retreat, it also feels like a poisoned, candied invitation to sleep.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Rated PG for bloodless war violence. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.


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