Movie review: ‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’ undermines important themes with goofy camp

It seems that Angelina Jolie’s current pet cause is rehabilitating the image of notorious “Sleeping Beauty” villain and evil fairy Maleficent. The 2014 live-action stand-alone film positioned the curse-bearing mistress of evil as a misunderstood and abused guardian of the natural world and all the magic it contains. There’s certainly something interesting and lovely about finding empathy and compassion for this otherwise maligned creature. And while “Maleficent” wasn’t exactly a great movie, Jolie was certainly fun to watch.

In the follow-up, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” things devolve into kooky as this wild, surreal and wacky escalation spins out of control and our leading lady fades to the background. In the sequel, penned by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and original screenwriter Linda Woolverton, Maleficent is forced out of the Moors and into war as her goddaughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), plans to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson), merging the fairy and human kingdoms. Of course there’s only one real problem: her future mother-in-law. Typical.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays the icy Queen Ingrith, whose slinky side-eye line delivery screams that she’s definitely up to something. It’s fun watching Pfeiffer and Jolie out-diva each other over a spiky family dinner, but for the most part, the film keeps them apart. While Ingrith schemes and plots in her castle, Maleficent gets to know her roots with a trip to the land of the “dark fae,” where she finally encounters her people and learns her true power.

What worked about the first “Maleficent” was Jolie herself, trying on something softer, even funny, her face, enhanced with prosthetics, half of the visual spectacle. But “Mistress of Evil” crowds Jolie. Maleficent fades to the background, eclipsed by full-camp Pfeiffer as the evil, Trumpian dictator queen, an unholy combination of Slobodan Milosevic and Imelda Marcos. Equally distracting are the dark fae, led by an outlandish Ed Skrein in full winged, ab-revealing indigenous drag. The mind reels at the thought that Jolie is the least interesting person on screen.

Much of the appeal of “Maleficent” and “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is the visual spectacle, where humans mingle with computer-generated animals and fairies in a fantastical landscape. But director Joachim Ronning, who also directed “Kon-Tiki” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” badly bungles this. The shots are confounding and messy, and the whole thing is too quickly edited. Far too many scenes take place under the cloak of darkness, so dark you can barely tell who is who. Chiwetel Ejiofor has a whole character arc as peace-loving dark fae Conall, not that you could ever tell it was him under the dreads, horns, makeup and dim, dim lighting.

Ronning somewhat saves it with a visually inventive battle scene, punctuated with puffs of red smoke, but this is where the script veers off the rails. Too much happens, all the time, with a great many different tones battling on the screen. It’s a little bit “A Princess Bride,” and a lotta bit “Fern Gully,” with heavy metaphors for violent colonialization and the genocide of native people under a greedy, fascist government laced throughout. The messages that undergird “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” are important ones. If only they didn’t come wrapped in this goofy, chaotic package.

"Maleficent: Mistress of Evil"

2 stars out of 4

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Ed Skrein, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Director: Joachim Ronning

Run time: 1:58

Rating: PG for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and brief scary images.