Wednesday 13 November 2019

CGI fest mars sequel despite Jolie good acting

This follow-up to Disney’s 2014 hit starts well but soon descends into special-effects shambles, says Paul Whitington

Angelina Jolie carries the movie
Angelina Jolie carries the movie
Michelle Pfeiffer as Queen Ingrith
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Formerly of Brangelina, previously of Billy Bobina, Angelina Jolie was once a famous actor. About eight years ago, she branched out into directing and producing, and these days seems to restrict herself to the odd film role: happily, it suits her perfectly.

In the 2014 film Maleficent, she and Disney gave the classic children's story Sleeping Beauty a radical makeover. Originally a southern European fairytale, Sleeping Beauty got the full Disney treatment in a beautifully animated 1959 film in which an evil, but undeniably stylish, sorceress called Maleficent cast a spell on a beautiful princess that would only be broken by the kiss of a true love.

But in Maleficent, screenwriter Linda Wolverton wondered why the sorceress was so very, very angry. Turns out she'd been spurned in love and betrayed by a deceitful human prince called Stefan, who cut off her wings and tried to destroy her kingdom.

That would be the fairy kingdom, a densely wooded moor teeming with sprites and talking plants that abuts Stefan's medieval castle. When he became king, Stefan had a daughter, Aurora, whom Maleficent put a curse on in revenge. But when she ended up caring for Aurora, Maleficent's love for the girl made her change her mind.

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As Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil opens, we find Aurora all a twitter as she prepares to accept the marriage proposal of her beau, Prince Phillip (Harris Dickenson). She hopes this will finally unite the fairy and human kingdoms, but Maleficent (Jolie) is not impressed when she hears the news, and comes thundering down from the heights to admonish her adopted daughter.

Maleficent's distrust of humans runs deep, but she loves Aurora, and Aurora loves Phillip, so she agrees to give her blessing.

In this film's funniest scene, Maleficent reluctantly consents to meet Phillip's parents, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) and King John (Robert Lindsay) at a banquet, gritting her teeth and storming grandly into the human kingdom to sip soup and make small talk.

In preparation, she even asks her faithful man-crow sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) to teach her how to smile in a non-threatening way, but all for naught, because when she gets to the castle, Maleficent is quickly enraged by Queen Ingrith's passive aggressive jibes, and is wrongly blamed when King John collapses into a coma, the apparent victim of a magic spell.

As Maleficent departs in high dudgeon, an event leads her to believe she's not the only one of her kind and, meanwhile, Aurora is left dazed and confused, torn between her devotion to Maleficent and her stepmother's apparent outburst. All is not as it seems, however, and an epic battle is brewing.

Jolie's attachment to the original project was inspired by a childhood love of the original Disney character Maleficent: she liked the cut of the evil fairy's jib, and might have been born to play her. And while the first film had its shortcomings, Jolie was not among them: helped by brilliant costume designs, make-up and prosthetics, she was wonderfully convincing as the wronged fairy queen, bringing humour, poise and menace to a physically demanding role.

She's the best thing about this one too, particularly early on, when the social niceties of a human dinner party allow her to display her underused comic timing. Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil is nice and tight for its opening half hour, charged with wit and bits of Cgi business, but loses its way somewhat once Maleficent is sidelined from the main narrative.

This is a mistake from which the film struggles to recover, and a comparatively Jolie-free zone leaves the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer working furiously to plug the gap. Elle Fanning's Aurora is deadly dull, almost sickly sweet; a side story involving Maleficent's lost tribe is rather stodgy; fine actors like Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are sadly underused; and Mistress Of Evil only recovers its poise towards the end.

The Cgi's good, but there's way too much of it, so much in fact that every character save Jolie's gets drowned in special effects. 

At the Movies: Your guide to all the week’s new releases

Farmageddon (G: 87mins)

Aardman’s exquisite stop-motion clay animations have enduring appeal and irresistible charm. The Britain they depict is equally retro, but less heroic than the version concocted by Brexiteers: the Aardman England is a scruffy, disorganised place whose inhabitants have holes in their socks and shuffle through puddles looking vaguely defeated. Nothing, though, ever defeats Shaun, the canny sheep, whose dopey owner is no match for him, and in this very funny sequel, Shaun and his gang find common cause with a lost extraterrestrial. Farmageddon fairly rattles along and got the thumbs up from our junior reviewer.

Official Secrets (15A, 112mins)

In November, 2003, as Bush and co prepared to invade Iraq on spurious pretexts, a young translator at Britain’s GCHQ noticed an unusual email from Washington. She was Catherine Gun, and the email seemed to exhort British diplomats to bully smaller UN members to legitimise the coming war. Gun’s whistle-blowing is well dramatised in Gavin Hood’s solid drama, which really comes to life when Catherine (Keira Knightley) meets the man who will defend her, human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes). Silly thriller music is occasionally resorted to, but not necessary: this is a story that tells itself.

Dark Lies The Island (16, 87mins)

The dark rural tales of Kevin Barry find robust expression in Ian Fitzgibbon’s flawed but interesting film. Daddy Mannion (Pat Shortt) is a big cheese in the lakeside town of Dromord. He lives in a hilltop McMansion with Sarah (Charlie Murphy), a trophy wife half his age who was once the true love of Doggy (Peter Coonan), Daddy’s oldest son, who fulminates impotently in a nearby mobile home. Doggy’s brother Martin (Moe Dunford) is equally unhappy, and all are bound for an inevitable violent collision. Structurally, Dark Lies The Island is a mess, but good acting keeps it going, and Tommy Tiernan’s great as a silent stranger.

Films coming soon...

Terminator: Dark Fate (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton); Black And Blue (Naomie Harris); The Addams Family (Charlize Theron, Allison Janney); By The Grace Of God (Melvil Poupard, Denis Ménochet).

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