Brief Thoughts: The Maleficent Road To Zombieland 2
I really enjoy putting my reviews together. I honestly wish I could delve deeper into certain movies, but alas, I get incredibly busy and can sometimes only deal with films to a briefer extent than I would prefer. This is why I write these occasional "Brief Thoughts" posts on movies I have seen, as I want to at least offer some of my own perspective on them. They may not be as polished, but I can at least get my opinions out there. This edition of "Brief Thoughts" features thoughts on Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Zombieland: Double Tap.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil: 3 out of 5
While 2014's Summer box office take was big enough to earn it a sequel 5 years later, the film left a lot to be desired. Outside the key casting of Angelina Jolie as the infamous Disney villain, the film was a mess to watch (and post-production was supposedly just as much of a nightmare). However, it is much to my surprise to say Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is more than just a killer title. Despite some notable issues, the film delivers what any viewer would want and more. Dare I say that, against the odds, of the four live-action fairy tale films Disney has released this year, the Maleficent sequel is somehow the best of them.
The plotting is relatively straightforward. Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) proposes to Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning). She accepts, and now it's time for everyone to meet the parents. This means bringing Aurora's godmother, Maleficent (Jolie), to see the King (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). Little does anyone know, the Queen has her own agenda, which includes setting Maleficent up to be on an opposing side, with a war brewing between humans and fairy tale creatures.
While Maleficent was hobbled with problems that included its very thin story and muddy visuals (despite some strong practical make-up effects and costume design), this sequel has more going on. Yes, one could likely poke all sorts of holes in the story, but the various turns in the plot are merely ways to get characters into specific and visually terrific situations. Mistress of evil looks excellent throughout, to the point where I would have been curious to watch this film with the high frame rate utilized in last week's Gemini Man.
A vital part of the fun early on is getting Maleficent and Queen Ingrith in the room together. Jolie and Pfeiffer revel at the chance to snipe at each other until things get too far out of hand. The film's mid-section slows things down a whole lot, with new developments as to the origins of Maleficent's species, and the human characters determining how to proceed. This becomes a mix of fantastical visuals that recall Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon 2 and 3 on one side, with the other detailing dynamics of a situation that is kid-friendly coded for the struggles of race relations.
All of this builds into a spectacular third act the delivers a giant battle that properly understands who to best utilize the various magical creatures and weapons that can take them down. Not hurting is how high the stakes are and seeing Disney not back down from showing the devastation that comes from a war of this nature. It's a real trip to watch, as Mistress of Evil does what's needed to push its PG rating.
Given my lack of appreciation for the first film, I had no real reason to expect much from a sequel. However, director Joachim Ronning stepped in this time around to prove to me there's a story worth telling in regards to the further adventures of Maleficent. Additionally, Jolie is still having a ball of a time in the title role, with Pfeiffer joining in on the fun as well. Nice support as well from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, and Jenn Murray, who plays an offputting royal assassin with a musical sequence that's as elaborate as it is ridiculous.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil may have seemed unnecessary, but it delivers terrific visuals, and the fairytale costume drama characters you can be entertained by.
In the ten years since the original Zombieland hit theaters, my appreciation for the film has somewhat waned. I liked it well enough at the time, but I've always felt the film was more of a gentle warm-up of a zombie comedy to one with far more nourishment (Shaun of the Dead). Not that I don't enjoy a fun zombie movie (the more, the merrier, I say), but I believe part of the issue comes down to how empty the film ends up feeling, beyond its gags and violence. This is all a way of saying Zombieland: Double Tap continues in the tradition of the first film by offering little in the way of substance, despite having its share of amusing moments.
The film plays like more of an extended sitcom episode than anything else. After living together for ten years, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) ditch Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). The reasons are simple enough, but it's basically a way of introducing a status quo similar to the first film. Despite launching a variety of new characters and locations, much of Double Tap plays as a "more of the same" kind of sequel, with the added benefit of continued strong chemistry between the cast members, and some fun ideas for zombie-based action sequences from returning director Ruben Fleischer.
Another new wrinkle are the evolved zombies who present a more significant threat. This doesn't amount to much, as the film never really finds time to push forward a stronger momentum. Jokes land here and there, and one action sequence framed as a single take allows for some visual inventiveness, but much of the film feels like a road trip movie stuck in cruise control, rather than putting the pedal to the metal. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I also kept wondering if there was more to latch onto beyond the reunion of this cast.
There is some fun in some of the other new elements, namely the new cast members. Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch get to have their share of fun as doppelgangers for Harrelson and Eisenberg, but writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Dave Callaham clearly had more fun creating Zoey Deutch's character, Madison. She plays an airhead blonde cliche of a character, but the comedic performance from Dutch matched with the sarcastic nature of the rest of the cast makes for some of the film's more enjoyable comedic bits. Rosario Dawson also matches well as a love interest for Harrelson.
Despite the inherent value of zombies working as whatever you need them to in terms of social commentary applying to the times, the Zombieland films seem to have no real care for this. So, there's little to this film beyond cool kill moments when it comes to zombie deaths, and the character-specific comedy and drama. There's never too much worry over whether or not the core cast will live or die, and despite having been together for a decade, there's little in the way of character growth for any of them. It all comes down to whether or not audiences want to see this crew together again.
I was fine having this chance, but the film doesn't offer all that much to feel fresh and energized. Despite some creative set pieces and a few funny bits (discussing the "rules" continues to be fun, and there's a very funny Portishead joke here for some reason), Zombieland: Double Tap isn't much of a sequel, even after reloading the original to see why that one worked the first time around.
(All of that said, there are two end credit bonus bits, and they are pretty hilarious.)