By Leah Greenblatt
October 15, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT
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If Maleficent didn’t already exist, we may have had to invent her for Angelina Jolie. That’s how supremely suited the actress — with her cut-crystal cheekbones and soul-scorching stare — is to the role. Though her dark queen may be the one with the horns and the teeth and the bat-black wings, beneath the barbed Morticia Addams wit she’s only lonely, and misunderstood.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil‘s script, sadly, is another story. Or not much of a story at all really: Instead, it mostly registers as a series of elaborate fauna-drenched screensavers stretched to fit across two hours of vague Disney myth. That myth may have paid well enough to merit a sequel to the 2014 original, but in a world where Wicked is still a Broadway smash more than 15 years on and Joker soft-shoes all over the box office, Mistress feels like an oddly enervating entry in the antihero canon.

As the movie opens, Maleficent’s onetime target–turned–beloved goddaughter, Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning, a cupcake double-frosted in frothy pinks and blues) is communing on the Moors with CG creatures great and small, and soon accepting the proposal of the handsome, fatally earnest Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Their union will unite the kingdoms of mortals and their supernatural brethren — or at least that’s the idea. Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), has other plans, most of them involving dastardly gases and mass fairy genocide.

Why does she want them all dead? We hardly know, because the stakes, laid out by company veteran Linda Woolverton (she penned both live-action Alice in Wonderlands and co-wrote the original animated Lion King), are so broad and ill-defined. Things mostly happen, it seems, because they need to in order to get this dusty spindle spinning once again.

Norwegian director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) keeps it moving as well as he can with so little plot, and so few corners uncrowded by green-screen shenanigans. We are taken to the homeland of Maleficent’s be-winged tribe, led by the noble Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and walked through more tiresomely chirpy fairy banter (what a waste of Oscar nominees Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville); we meet a man-crow (Sam Riley), and a handful of anthropomorphized dandelions and mushroom caps.

For kids maybe this is still magical; grownups, though, will waste many long, busily bedazzled minutes wondering why the powers that were able to bring Pfeiffer and Jolie together on screen couldn’t do at least marginally better by them both, and give them parts to truly sink their movie-star teeth into. What they’re left to do instead is make what they can of Mistress’s thin, glossy gruel. They both deserve a movie drawn in more than two dimensions, and their audience does too. B–

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