Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick describes Angelia Jolie's Maleficent as iconic, the "black and white movie star" of a fairytale universe. (Supplied: Walt Disney Studios)
Once upon a time, before Disney decided that straight-up remake of their animated classics was a more lucrative proposition, there was a time when Hollywood studios were clamoring to reimagine fairy tales.
This dark, turn-of-the-decade phenomenon yielded such destined-to-be-unloved money-makers as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and of course, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Mouse House's billion- dollar juggernaut that had executives scouring timeless fantasies in a rush for fool's gold.
And so was Maleficent (2014), Disney's crack at reconfiguring their own Sleeping Beauty (1959), based on Charles Perrault's own tale for presumably modern audiences.
Elle Fanning plays Princess Aurora, also known as Sleeping Beauty. (Supplied: Walt Disney Studios / Jaap Buitendijk)
It was a neat enough idea: some refreshing sympathy for the devil, with a dose of non-traditional maternity. But the film, directed by Alice's production designer Robert Stromberg, groaned under mechanical execution, more memorable for the jagged cheekbones that conferred a rhomboid imperiousness on Angelina Jolie's already striking presence.
The five years since feeling like an eternity in studio franchise years, and this belated sequel arrives in a sea of The Lion King, Aladdin and the endless Pixar-Marvel product look like an unwanted stepchild, feeling less like an event movie than a ready-made tile on Disney +.
A make-up artist crew of up to 70 was required daily to get the dark fey characters screen ready.
Swooping majestically over the mountain ranges, malicious bad-girl-turned-good Maleficent – Jolie, who's not infancy one day – has been living in harmony with her adopted daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) and a CGI critters manager , but the neighboring human clan has once again relegated itself to evil incarnate.
"For some reason she was hated after all this time," the narrator informs us, papering over the lazy screenwriting that elects to reset the character rather than develop it.
The set for Castle Ulstead spanned five sound stages, and was inspired by Medieval and Gothic architecture. (Supplied: Walt Disney Studios / Jaap Buitendijk)
Aurora's engagement to Prince Phillip – Brenton Thwaites seamlessly swapped out for Harris Dickinson because one blond white guy deserves another – doesn't go down well with Maleficent, especially when she's invited to meet future in-laws, the feeble King John (Robert). Lindsay) and his scheming wife, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who's busy cultivating war against the fairies with her basement-dwelling mad scientist (Warwick Davis).
Ingrith's designs on mischief – with Pfeiffer in a disdainfully regal, eye-rolling mode – are promising, but the family summit is an early sign of trouble: if a movie can't generate diva sparks over a dinner banquet, then the kingdom has bigger problems than a civil war looming.
Michelle Pfeiffer says her character, Queen Ingrith, has been damaged by the numerous men who betray her. (Supplied: Walt Disney Studios / Jaap Buitendijk)
Cast into the wilderness after another electro-charged tantrum, Maleficent is rescued from the ocean depths by Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, straining under a cascading mountain of dreads) and taken to meet her long-lost kinfolk – a race of fairies living in exile in an ashen nest of tunnels where they rise up debate against the humans who've shunned them.
It's the film's most fascinating passage, as Maleficent discovers it to be a favor to this abandoned race, a disenfranchised minority – literally known as the 'fey' – whose grievances against humankind, which hint at racism and environmental pillaging, seem entirely justified.
Underdeveloped as most things are here, however, this chapter also covers Maleficent sidelines for a fatal stretch, leaving her glowering in the shadows.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Conall, a dark fey pacifist leader, forest warrior and ally to Jolie's Maleficent. (Supplied: Walt Disney Studios / Jaap Buitendijk)
It's anyone's guess what Jolie's got to reprise this role, though she'll definitely move Halloween costume units and effectively spook her kids. While her career behind the camera has moved in compelling directions – not least her fascinating, and unjustly dismissed, Euro-portrait of marital dissolution, By the Sea (2015) – she's barely acted this decade, a situation that surely ranks as one of the great tragedies of modern Hollywood.
Has anyone so gifted and visually arresting – a goth queen dream – been so ill-served by a pair of movies so aggressively dreary?
The film's production design and cinematography is divided into four distinct worlds: the world of the dark fey, the fairy world of the Moors, the town of Ulstead and Queen Ingrith's castle. (Supplied: Walt Disney Studios / Jaap Buitendijk)
But perhaps Pfeiffer – one of American cinema 's greatest living actors – is squandering the real crime movie – yet another thankless role that requires her to perform a one-dimensional villainy with none of the complex fragility in which she excels; a mean-spirited, and insufficiently sassy matriarch saddled with a vague streak of white supremacy.
(That said, her many ensembles – a velvet blue, Ladyhawke-like cloak, a spectacular, pearl coat-of-arms gown – are almost worth the price of admiration, as are many courtesy costume designer Ellen Mirojnick costumes.)
Like its predecessor, also co-scripted by Disney's go-to girl power scribe Linda Woolverton (Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast), the film's half-hearted delivery doesn't have the courage of its conceptual conviction, indulging ideas of revolution but too often ensnared by the pull of traditional romance.
Sam Riley (right) plays Diaval, Maleficent's loyal shapeshifting raven, who serves as her eyes and ears in the human kingdom. (Supplied: Walt Disney Studios / Jaap Buitendijk)
A more inquisitive, or imaginative film might have picked up on these ideas and run with them, but director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Kon-Tiki) seems content to grind out the action by numbers.
Imagery that should linger – the flight of a fairy flock over apocalyptic skies, or a phoenix menacing or embattled castle – just sits in the noise assembly, another scene waiting to be rendered on a computer with little feeling.
By the time the dutiful underlings have gathered to cheer on the inevitable vanilla wedding – the feys showing up for the straights – Mistress of Evil appears to have abandoned all pretense of the subversive, steering a supposedly reimagined fairytale back toward something suspiciously familiar.
With Jolie's fearsome virago reduced to a doting, soon-to-be fairy grandmother, one might be forgiven for wishing that Maleficent and her queer horde had wiped out those pesky humans for good.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is in cinemas from October 17.