When it comes to the soulless, lifeless Disney remakes, Maleficent is one of the only ones that gets a pass. Instead of being a nearly shot for shot rehash of something we already know (except done far worse), it actually attempted something different by switching the story of Sleeping Beauty over to the villain’s perspective, and the result was…alright. The casting of Angelina Jolie was as perfect as it could possibly have been, and thanks to some earnestly mature themes presented in its text (the scene of Maleficent awakening to her wings having been cut off by her lover is still rather powerful), it felt like a movie with something to say beyond being “the story you thought you knew”. Frustratingly, these positives got bogged down by the film’s messy second half, but there still remained more good than bad, even if it was only slightly.
The sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, isn’t nearly as interesting in terms of theme or character motivations, but it is afforded more freedom than any other live-action film to come from the House of Mouse recently. However, that freedom is continuously squandered by a generic plot, boring characters, and the baffling decision to have Maleficent, the best part of these films, be out of commission for the majority of it all. There are plenty of pieces scattered throughout the film that could make for a fun and interesting narrative as well as some great dynamics between characters, but they never come together in the way they should.
Following the events of the first film, Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is now queen of the Moors, an enchanted land full of magical creatures. Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, replacing Brenton Thwaites, thought I doubt you’ll notice) has asked for her hand in marriage, with the hopes of uniting the Moors and his own kingdom of Ulstead, which is, hilariously, right next door. The upcoming wedding prompts an invitation from Phillip’s parents, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), for Aurora and her surrogate mother, Maleficent (Jolie), to join them for dinner.
Maleficent is untrusting of humans to start with, and her disgruntlement at Aurora seeking marriage puts the two of them at odds. The story of what happened to King Stefan in the first film has spread throughout the lands, with Maleficent being painted as the villain, so the distrust is mutual from Ulstead’s rulers, especially from Queen Ingrith. The dinner, predictably, goes horribly awry, ending with King John placed under a familiar curse and Maleficent fleeing the kingdom. She soon discovers a fairly large group of fairies just like her, the last of their kind, led by two opposing idealists, Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Borra (Ed Skrein), with the latter seeking war with the humans who have driven them from their homes and the former believing in unity and peace.
Jolie is as good as she’s always been, and her banter with Sam Riley, returning as the shape-shifting Diaval, is a standout. The two of them shooting off clever one-liners, especially at the start of the film where Diaval is attempting to teach Maleficent proper manners and how to smile without scaring anyone, is great entertainment and a display of how well utilized the chemistry between the two talents is. Mistress of Evil promised an equally as fun showdown between Jolie and Pfeiffer, as the two opposing mother figures seemed poised to face off to determine who has the stronger cheekbones, but apart from the dinner and a brief confrontation at the film’s end, the two never get the chance to interact. It’s a significant disappointment, especially considering that every other character is as dull as can be.
That said, the aforementioned dinner scene is a highlight, and the two talented actresses use their one chance to set the appropriate tension and battle of words and wit. The film’s first act, with the dinner acting as its end / inciting incident for the remainder of the film, is solid if not overly predictable, but what good favor it curries is quickly extinguished by an incredibly drab second act and a wildly incoherent third. Maleficent has little to no lines during her time with the other fairies, instead, she’s stuck as a mere observer to tedious exposition and clunky world-building laid out by two characters we’re never given a reason to care much about. Meanwhile, Aurora’s time in Ulstead with Ingrith drags just as much.
The third act, a large scale battle between Ulstead and the fairies, is surprisingly violent for a kiddy fantasy like this, not in terms of blood but in sheer death toll, and it wraps up far too nicely directly after what amounts to a full-fledged massacre (a character literally describes it as such). Maleficent is also completely absent from all this until the very end, leading me to think that the movie maybe should’ve changed its title. Perhaps paying Angelina Jolie to speak more lines wasn’t in the budget, as it’s obvious that all of the money went towards the massive production design. To its credit, the film’s sets, costumes, and overall look is tremendous – everything feels grand, regal, and tangible, matching the fairy tale epic it’s trying to be. It’s all incredibly pleasing to the eye, apart from a couple of cutesy CG creatures that feel exhaustingly artificial.
Ever since Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland made over one billion dollars, Disney has constantly been attempting to start their own epic fantasy series. All of them, such as the sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, or The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, have had annoyingly similar aesthetics and have floundered at the box office. The Maleficent films certainly are in the same vein, but feel a step above thanks to its titular character and the actress playing her. But the significant lack of her having something to do in this sequel, paired with an already bland script, make for a film that feels like a frustrating waste of talent and expensive, fantastic visuals. It’s not as bad as it could be, and it’s certainly better than the other live-action Disney rabble, but it still fails to reach the potential it has.
2.5 / 5
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is now playing in theaters everywhere.