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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Maleficent-Mistress of Evil, Review: Feynix rises from the ashes

Maleficent-Mistress of Evil, Review: Feynix rises from the ashes

When a studio like Disney decides to give it the works, it usually works. It is difficult to find fault with the execution of the plot in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, unless, of course you begin with the title itself. As viewers will discover early in the film, she is not the mistress of evil. Then you might consider the fact that there are several killings and a full-blooded war depicted, in a film aimed at young children and families. Lastly, you might feel, quite justifiably so, that the climax is an indulgent, never-ending barrage of VFX that takes away the novelty of the climactic twist. And yet, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is one mistress you must serve, especially if you are above 12.

Five years have passed since the first film was staged. Aurora, a human, is the Queen of the Moors, while Maleficent remains the Protector, being a Fey. Her peaceful life takes an unexpected turn when Prince Phillip, of the neighbouring Kingdom of Ulstead, proposes to her, and she accepts. Unbeknownst to all, Phillip's mother, Queen Ingrith, plans to use the wedding to divide humans and fairies forever, by conquering the Moor territory. She piles up a secret arsenal in the dungeons of the royal palace, and gets a de-winged Pixie to create a powder, using a flower called the ‘tomb bloom’, that will kill all fairies and other beings that inhabit the Moors. Ingrith even manages to get benevolent King John, her husband, out of the way.

Maleficent, who is invited to dinner with the royals, is accused of casting a spell on King John, and is shot with an iron pellet. Iron being her nemesis, she drops into the ocean, badly wounded. Rescued by a similar creature, Conall, she discovers a colony of Feys that she never knew existed. They tell her about the great divide between ruthless humans and Feys, and that they are the last survivors. Though now known as a Fey, Maleficent also discovers her roots as a descendant of the legendary phoenix. Both, the Feys on one side and the humans on the other, start baying for each-others’ blood. Thousands of fairies are invited as wedding guests, and then held captive, even as a crazy pianist plays the destructive symphony that unleashes deadly poison every time he strikes a new note. Aurora finds herself trapped on the opposite side of an impending war, while her motherly Godmother Maleficent comes to lead the Feys, in an unequal battle.

Several elements have gone into the script, all of which have, fitted the mosaic well: Screenplay by Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue; Story by Linda Woolverton; Based on Characters from: Disney's Sleeping Beauty and La Belle au bois dormant (sleeping beauty of the woods) by Charles Perrault. Woolverton has worked in the genre for the 10th time, and wrote the screenplay for Maleficent 2014 too. The other two names belong to gentlemen who have had tough going with their first project. Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue wrote the script for A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, about Fred Rogers (TV personality, musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Christian minister), which landed on the Black List in 2013.After a nearly 10-year wait, it is scheduled for release this year, but even before that film, they will have earned some fame from Mistress of Evil.

Two segments that should have been are not developed in detail: first, the making of the killer powder and second, the use of the spindle. Also, why does Maleficent fly off the handle, literally, when she did not cast any spell? Yes, the accusation is provocation, but surely she should have put up some defence at some stage. Also, the total surrender to each other by the lovers seems to indicate that they are unaware of the consequences such a proposed marital alliance might bring upon Moorland. The trick of tying sheets to a bed-post and making guards believe that she has climbed down using them, and then appearing from behind the door to lock them is and escape has been seen a dozen times. In continuation, her landing in the Prince’s chamber is another oft used trope.

There was really no need to mount a full-scale battle in a film that is touted by Disney as having family, and predominantly children’s appeal (it earned a PG rating in the USA, but a clear Universal rating in India!), entertainment, and the multiple climaxes sound good only on paper. Pitting two women against each other was a good move, while the third has an ambivalent position for part of the film. The three main male characters are a peacenik King, a Prince, who can see reason, and a Fey warrior, who is only occasionally human. Oops, I almost forgot Maleficent’s raven, who would rather be a bear, when he is not masquerading as a human. The rhapsody like taking of the crown juggling sequence shortly after the beginning is a tour de force.

47 year-old Norwegian director Joachim Rønning, who co-directed Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, makes his solo feature debut with this film, having made some shorts himself. Maleficent II will be an entry in his CV that will hold him in good stead. Principal photography began in May, 2018, at Pinewood Studios, England, and was completed in four months. That it took 14 months after that to release the film must be attributed mainly to the humungous VFX, and CGI combats, that were incorporated in post- production. The visual effects were provided by Moving Picture Company and Mill Film, supervised by Jessica Norman, Damien Stumpf, Brian Litson, Ferran Domenech, and Laurent Gillet, with Gary Brozenich serving as the Overall Supervisor. Considering the precipitous top angles, the multiple layering and the 3D depth and span, these guys deserve as much credit as the director in giving the film the look it has.

Releasing in North America tomorrow, in 3,700 theatres, including over 2,300 3D locations (I saw it in 3D), 380 Imax screens, 600 Premium Large Format screens and 135 D-Box/4D locations, it is expected to earn over USD45-50 mn in its first weekend. Details of its budget and box-office predictions for India are not known yet, but if the curiosity it generated at the preview and the reactions of kids and their parents are anything to go buy, Disney is not going to spend any sleepless nights on this one. It will probably be the biggest budget the queen of fantasy and fairy-tales, who lives in the Disney castle, has spent on any film, but the ends will justify the means.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent has a tremendous screen presence and killer get-up. If anything, she is under-utilised. Elle Fanning (Super8, Maleficent, Mary Shelley), younger sister of Dakota Fanning, as Princess Aurora has the cherubic freshness and wondrous, lost look that goes so well with fairy tales. She has retained that from the original, which was made when she was 16. Michelle Pfeiffer (now 61) as Queen Ingrith has almost equal footage as Jolie, who is also a producer on the film, and uses it to good effect. Called “villain” in the film, she reminds us of the vamps who adorned the screen in Hindi period fantasy costume dramas in the 40s and 50s, right up to the 60s and 70s.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Conall is the voice from the past who mouths ancient philosophy in present-day turbulent times, but is also a hero, when the situation demands. Sam Riley as Diaval has his share of fun, having a leg each in both worlds, bird and human. Or is that three, if you count the animal kingdom separately? Ed Skrein as Borra, who keeps uttering war cries, is as vociferous as is demanded of him. Replacement Prince Philip, English actor Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats, The Darkest Minds), is a smart substitute for the original, who had date issues.

Robert Lindsay is a weak King John, and weak he is supposed to be. Not very convincing, though. Imelda Staunton (seen in the other release this week, Downton Abbey, where she has performed so well) as Knotgrass, Juno Temple as Thistlewit, Lesley Manville as Flittle, Jenn Murray as Gerda, Judith Shekoni as Shrike, Miyavi as Udo—all cuties from the Moor lands, and Warwick Davis, David Gyasi, John Carew, Kae Alexander and Freddie Wise lend very good support.

Coming five years after the original, the sequel has only one replacement, but a bunch of new characters too, to fill the slots. It does not seem dated or irrelevant, as it all happened in imaginary time-place co-ordinates. One hopes, out of consideration for the sensibilities of children in the age-group of 4-12 (there were many such kids in the cinema), Disney does not make so much fighting and killing a staple for its family-fare. And if it does market such content, it must be mandatorily given a certificate that does not allow children below 12 to see it at all, even if elders accompany them.

See it, by all means, but think twice before taking under-12s along.

Rating: *** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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