By Derek May:
YIN: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
It’s been five years since Disney and Angelia Jolie reimagined the story of Sleeping Beauty by focusing on the humanity underlying the villain of that classic tale, the magical Dark Fey Maleficent. I wasn’t the biggest fan of that first outing, mostly because the plot was gratingly thin and the ending rushed and anticlimactic. That said, I did enjoy the exploration of Maleficent as a being not born of evil but driven to evil acts through pain, loss, and tragedy. Yet for our heroine, love (as it often does) overcomes and lights her path back to goodness; in this case the love for the young princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), who Maleficent herself had cursed (irony!). The theme of maternal rather than romantic love being the truest form is a beautiful sentiment and by far the best element of that film. If only the rest had been as equally well-developed.
Now, on the 60th anniversary of the release of Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty, we get more than a sequel—we get the movie we really wanted first time round.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil picks up directly from the events of it predecessor but isn’t necessarily slaved to them. Despite its faults, the first film got all that tedious exposition and relationship establishment out of the way so that we can get to the real meat here. Aurora, having been made queen of the Moors and its collection of magical creatures, is ready to leave the nest and marry her love, Prince Philip (recast with Harris Dickenson). As you can imagine, Maleficent is less than thrilled. But like a good mother, she agrees to meet the potential in-laws, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer). And in the grand tradition of typical family get-togethers, that’s where things go horribly, horribly wrong . . .
It’s all deliciously Shakespearean in its various power plays, familial manipulations, and blind desires for vengeance. There’s a richness of plot and theme that truly elevates the fairytale narrative and provides plenty of intrigue and fascinating characters for the audience to engage with. One element that really struck me is how refreshing it was that the major active forces centered on the three main characters, who happen to all be female, while many of the menfolk were given significant but more passive roles traditionally assigned to women. And as should be no surprise, everything still works just fine. Aurora finds herself caught up in the machinations of her seemingly ideal human mother-to-be, Ingrith, and her borderline-evil godmother, Maleficent. But that’s really just a kicking off point. Beyond that is a much larger battle between the two matriarchs, which in turn extends out to the broader uneasy truce between humankind and fairy-folk, culminating is a clash long in the making and unmasking repressed yet ever-present prejudices.
And speaking of fairy-folk, this time round we actually get to explore more of the magical realm and its inhabitants. In the first installment, most were relegated to set dressing, with only the conscripted crow/occasional human Diaval (Sam Riley) and the three Aunties (Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, and Imelda Staunton) getting any notable attention. This time, those favorites are not only joined by a bevy of fantastical creatures given some real moments of significance (including a pair of mini-creatures of delightful cuteness) but by Maleficent’s own species, the winged Fey.
There were always questions surrounding Maleficent’s origins and people: where they were, what they were like, and whether her power was typical of their kind. Turns out, it’s not. As Maleficent becomes increasingly estranged from both Aurora and the human realm, she finds herself drawn back to her marginalized community desperate for help in persevering their last haven in this world. We get a lot of information for the limited time we spend in the sanctuary, learning of the diversity of the Fey as well as their plight. Presented as none-too-subtle allegory, Maleficent is herself caught between the factions driven to fight for their survival, led by Borra (Deadpool’s Ed Skein), and those wishing for unity and peace, led by Conall (Doctor Strange’s Chiwetel Ejiofor). Once again, I was struck by what wasn’t there; in this case, the typical manipulation of the female by two alpha males. Instead, they understand that Maleficent is far too self-confident, as well as far too powerful, to coerce and instead make their cases in fairly straightforward, if emotionally tinged, presentations, leaving Maleficent’s choice in her own hands.
Thus we’re free to see how actions are stronger than words; and no actions are more powerful than the tragic sacrifices of several characters. These moments of genuine, heartfelt ignobleness are what ultimately lift the characters to decisive action and determine the requisite distinctions between heroes and villains. The idea that the scary, magical creatures are often the kindest and most compassionate while the humans can be the most vile, greedy, and truly evil is a cornerstone of the franchise and embodied here with classical clarity yet modern dimension.
I struggle to recall a character that isn’t given some level of depth. Jolie, of course, is simply brilliant in the role, finding nuance in the subtly of a look and a fanged smile. Her ability to navigate menace, love, heartbreak, and authority is second to none. But this time, she gets a worthy sparring partner in Pfeiffer, who seems to relish her role as an antagonist. Her conflict with Jolie is titanic as the two heavyweights battle it out, reflected perhaps no better than in their initial meeting trading barbs that dig deep into each character’s vulnerabilities. Each has been wounded by fate and circumstance, but Maleficent makes the hard choice to rise above the hate and anguish. There are some nice parallels between the women, and their conflict is as thematic as it ends up being physical.
And when the action lets loose, it goes for broke! After that anticlimactic sputter of an ending last movie, we now get the full-blown battle royale we’ve been hankering for. Both films have always been beautifully shot, but the spectacle and effects are finally risen to their truest, proper levels. Norwegian director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) knows how to work a visual story while keeping sight of the characters’ emotional journeys. And thus we get an effective balance of grandiose pageantry and granular, personal relations.
With its breadth of story and intimacy of development, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil gives us everything we could ask for in a fairytale epic while expanding and endearing these beloved characters. The plot itself may not be the most original, but it also doesn’t have to be. That’s part of fable storytelling. The important part is that it is given proper development, has a few surprising turns, and is filled with characters you enjoy watching and, in particular, can relate to. Those core-value themes so vital to children’s growth are given fresh voice and work as a needed reminder to us all-too-cynical adults. My biggest complaint here actually might be with the title of the film, as Mistress of Evil really feels like a misnomer. How many times does she have to prove herself before she’s given a break, eh? Then again, I suppose Maleficent: Occasionally Wicked but Mostly Misunderstood Product of Circumstance doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? Oh, well, maybe in the third film.
YANG: Little Monsters
Halloween season is in full swing, and you know what that means? Plenty of little kids and scary monsters. Depending on how you feel about it, you may find yourself dressing up alongside the little tykes in nostalgic joy or preferring to be the terrifying creature that keeps them up at nights. So what better way to satisfy everyone than with movie that combines both!
Australian writer/director/actor Abe Forsythe and HULU join forces to bring us Little Monsters, a modern spin on the classic tale of a zombie outbreak during a school outing to a family friendly petting zoo. So typical . . . It’s up to schoolteacher Miss Caroline (Black Panther and Us star Lupita Nyong’o), famous kid’s show host Teddy McGiggle (Frozen’s Josh Gad), and ne’er do-well horndog uncle Dave (Alien: Covenant’s Alexander England) to keep the kinder pack uneaten until they can figure their way out of this undead mess.
Taking its cues from horror comedies such as Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead, the film strikes a careful balance between absurdist chuckles, visceral gore, social commentary, and a few tender dramatic moments. At least, it does once it gets going. Inexplicably, the first 30 minutes focus not on Nyong’o but on England’s character, Dave. The movie sets up his lack of scruples, motivation, direction, and responsibility, clearly establishing him as the protagonist of the piece despite England’s lack of real charisma or his character’s likability. At first, we thought we’d stumbled into the wrong movie, as the trailers gave almost no notice to his presence whatsoever. In any case, Dave conscripts his young nephew as wingman in order to get close to the beautiful Miss Caroline when he volunteers to chaperone alongside her on the field trip. And that’s where the movie finally reveals its true self.
From that point on, Dave (thankfully) takes a backseat to the more enchanting star power of Nyong’o and Gad. Miss Caroline’s comical struggle to keep the kids calm and safe while pitchforking zombies and decapitating the undead is worth the price of admission alone. I’d argue it’s a rare actress who can believably play sweetly patronizing for the good of her flock while believably leading the charge through a horde of flesh-eating monsters. Oh, and all the while spurning Dave’s advances while leaving a hint of possible true affection without it seeming inevitable. Wow. I’m not sure exactly how they got a powerhouse like Nyong’o on board this little film, but it’s to their credit they did, because she truly saves the show while proving her limitless range.
Likewise, funnyman Gad steals many a scene as a Jekyll-and-Hyde children’s show host. All goofy voice and cheesy smiles at first, when the intestines hit the fan he locks the doors, pops the middle fingers, and leaves Miss Caroline and the gaggle of zombie fodder out to fend for themselves. His stream of pathetic, vile narcissism is hilariously despicable, and seeing Miss Caroline slap him around justly is half the fun.
Both Nyong’o and Gad seem to be having a blast going for broke and chewing the scenery, and that may have been what drew them both to the project. Their exuberance and commitment is infectious, and really drives an otherwise cute but somewhat undercooked story. The bigger mystery is England’s casting. While believably douchey in an Australian Dane Cook sort of way, he doesn’t strike me as anyone’s first choice, making me wonder if he has some sort of cache down under we’re not privy to.
The children themselves aren’t given too much to do save Dave’s nephew, Felix, played by rosy-cheeked munchkin Diesel La Torraca. With the impossible cuteness of an angelic tyke and the naïve determination of a young hero, La Torraca takes on the brunt of the kids’ story duties. Impressively, his character really does effectively contribute to the film, providing both timely information, a few well-placed obstacles to overcome, and some heartwarming Star Wars-tinged enthusiasm.
In all, Little Monsters is a film that’s punching above its weight class but somehow comes out relatively unscathed. Despite a clumsy and misleading first act, the story pulls itself together and sprints to the finish, thanks in large part to the effectiveness of its true stars and the playfulness of its tone. However, those thinking the presence of children might make it safe for kids should beware; this is R for several very good reasons. The language and graphic eviscerations are not for innocent eyes and ears, yet for adults who like a little unabashed naughtiness, it should prove a wild and enjoyable ride to satiate your Halloween lusts. So kick back with a bowl of peeled grapes and slimy spaghetti and settle in for a night of blood, brains, and Lupita Nyong’o being flat-out awesome. Happy Halloween!