After helming the underwhelming “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” Scandinavian director Joachim Rønning returned to Disney to navigate “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.” His creative interest was piqued by the maternal war between Michelle Pfeiffer’s divisive Queen Ingrith and Angelina Jolie’s conflicted Maleficent, along with with the introduction of the oppressed dark fey (led by Chiwetel Ejiofor).
At Disney’s D23, Jolie said that the much-hyped sequel to the 2014 hit is about families “being pulled apart by their differences” and fighting “for the belief that what makes you different, makes you stronger.” Rønning echoed the political relevance with his own assessment of Queen Ingrith as a Trump-like ruler. “I do think that it was so interesting to see Michelle Pfeiffer as Queen Ingrith dictating the narrative of the story and how it resembles a little bit today’s society,” he said in a recent interview with IndieWire.
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Trump’s fanatical preoccupation with Twitter also found its allegorical way into Linda Woolverton’s timely script. “Whoever controls the narrative, kind of controls the world, especially now with social media,” continued Rønning. “And with the push of a button with your finger, you can send your whole narrative and control the story, control the conflict. And she’s really using that to divide humans and fey and humans against nature and creating fear and chaos. It absolutely reflects today.”
While the director was often preoccupied with the requisite spectacle of VFX-intensive battles and CG creatures (courtesy of MPC), Rønning pointed to a confrontational early dinner scene in the royal dining hall as a delight to craft. The Queen deliberately provokes Maleficent with racist remarks and the declaration that Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) will “finally get the love of a real mother.”
“It is one of my favorite scenes because it’s all in camera,” Rønning said. “When you make this movie, it’s a lot of blue and green screens, big sets, and hundreds of extras. It gets very intense. But here we had a week to shoot this whole scene around a dinner table. And suddenly you can really have fun with the characters, and there’s room for drama. And you have these amazing actors playing off each other, and I was able to shoot with many, many cameras. It’s very tricky to do a seven-person [dialogue-driven] dinner scene.”
The other reason Rønning took the assignment, not surprisingly, was because of the chance to explore the ethnographic world of the dark fey, who have been driven underground. Whether directing “Kon-Tiki,” “Marco Polo,” or “Pirates,” Rønning finds himself drawn to unique locales that can’t help but influence his storytelling. “I need that combination of unique backdrops and interesting characters to trigger me,” he said. “It’s world creating. You sit there with a production designer [Patrick Tatopoulos] and everything is possible a year before shooting, talking about what this could be, finding some sort of a system, high up in the mists of the sky.”
The inspiration for the dark fey were bird nests, and they researched how various species build their nests with branches, twigs, and saliva to create the whiteness. “And, of course, the dark fey are very much representing nature in this film with different volumes,” said Rønning. “You have the tundra forest, the jungle, the desert, and all of that is in the nest.”
Yet, for Rønning, it’s ultimately a story about unification as a hopeful message for our divisive times. “At the end of the day, if there’s one word that I want this movie to be about, it’s kindness,” he said.
Disney will release “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” in theaters on Friday, October 18.
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