Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (PG, 119 minutes)
It's been five years since the first feature length outing of Maleficent - a character from Disney's 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty. In the first film we discovered the "true" backstory of the supposedly evil fairy godmother - with Angelina Jolie turning in a mesmerising performance complete with horns, wings and the pointiest cheekbones in screen history. A global financial hit, Disney announced in 2016 that there would be a sequel, and here we are with Jolie and many of the original cast and crew signed up.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil begins five years after the first film, with Aurora (Elle Fanning) still Queen of the Moors, the land where fairies, pixies and magic reside. It's here too that her Godmother Maleficent lives with her raven sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley), and her ominous powers to hypnotise, heal, control nature and cast spells. When Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson replacing Brenton Thwaites) proposes marriage to Aurora, the swarms of fluttering, flittering folk of the Moors are all delighted, along with Aurora (who has presumably been waiting for this moment for five years). With plans to unite the fairy and human worlds, Aurora seeks out Maleficent to tell her the news. God-mama is clearly not happy. Nevertheless, she agrees to attend a dinner at the castle to meet the future parents in law, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). What could possibly go wrong?
Well, whilst Maleficent has emotional reservations about the union, Queen Ingrith has another agenda altogether. Barely has the main course of roast bird been served (million-dollar sour look from the winged Maleficent), when the mean-girls banter gets underway in earnest, escalating to a green-fused deadly climax, with the King collapsing, cursed. In shock, Aurora retreats to the bosom of her new "family", teary-eyed and wondering why she thought it was a good idea to bring Maleficent in the first place. It's the best sequence in the film by far, the drama sprinkled with some clever, light touches - absent from the rest of the film. From here the story splits into two - with Maleficent discovering she is not the only "dark fae" creature in the universe, whilst Ingrith rolls out her plans to make sure the two worlds remain separate forever.
As a fairy tale for children this taps into all the Disney tropes, including cute creatures, princess weddings, noble princes, evil mothers (God or In-law variety accepted), and an oh-so annoyingly syrupy score. But strapped - not so delicately - onto the narrative is the need to build the story to an epic climax, warring factions battling it out as if there's a visual effects arms race underway. These super-hero-like scenes don't work nearly as well as the quiet moments of conflict: at the film's start, three peasants cross into the Moors under cover of darkness to catch fairies, but when they come across the luminous Tomb Bloom flowers that contain a secret dust, a skirmish ensues that has far more atmospheric drama than the apocalyptic climax.
Norwegian director Joachim Ronning is unafraid to push proceedings into dark spaces, and when the story heads firmly into the territory of ethnic cleansing or genocide, some might squirm in their seats. But this is where Grimm's grimmest tales have always been found, and may just be the kind of message we need to hear if we are going to take better care of our natural world.
Elle Fanning has little to do beyond traditional "princess" duties: saying yes to the Prince, choosing a dress, and screaming for help. C'mon Disney, this is 2019! But the role is clearly secondary to the older women, with Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer a delight to watch. It's just a shame that the overly complicated narrative leaves Jolie off screen or inert for much of the running time.
At just under two hours, with the overwhelming razzle-dazzle of computer-generated vistas, there's definitely something missing. Fairytales are meant to be whispered, invoking wonder and mystery, even at their darkest.
Of course, we know they'll usually be a happy ending, but an emotional journey with some magic and awe is the reward we're after. This one needed much more of the charismatic Angelina Jolie.