Among the Mouse House’s stable of live-action remakes, this sequel to the 2014 prequel goes down a lot smoother than its contemporaries.
Once upon a time, in a soundstage far far away, Disney live-action remakes used to be more than just retellings of their source materials with some self-referential metatextuality added in. They used to be films that used known characters and settings to tell new stories. These types of remakes have fallen to the wayside in favor of safe nostalgia cash grabs, but Joachim Rønning’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a logical continuation of the Maleficent franchise that takes its characters to new places.
Taking place five years after the 2014 film, this latest installment focuses on the continuing tension between the human and magic races. Despite the fact that the fairy kingdom of The Moors is ruled by the human Aurora (Elle Fanning, A Rainy Day In New York), the human Kingdom of Alstead still fears the magical creatures, and the two kingdoms have closed off their borders. The kingdoms are set to be united, however, when Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson, County Lines) proposes to Aurora. While Philip’s parents seem to approve of the union, Aurora’s literal fairy godmother, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie, Kung Fu Panda) is none too pleased.
Despite her reservations, Maleficent agrees to dinner with Alstead’s royal family. Unfortunately, after being belittled by Philip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer, Avengers: Endgame), Maleficent lashes out in anger, seemingly cursing Philip’s father, King John (Robert Lindsay, Plebs). This altercation puts Maleficent and Aurora on opposing sides on a battle between fairies and humans.
The main draw of the Maleficent series is the revisionism of its title character. The Maleficent of the 1959 film was a campy one-note villain: fun, but not at all complex. The 2014 film gives Maleficent a sympathetic backstory in which Maleficent was betrayed by Aurora’s father, and softens her curse by cursing Aurora to sleep, not death (in the 1959 version, Maleficent’s death curse was softened to sleep by another Fairy). In this current franchise, Maleficent isn’t evil, just guarded and cynical due to the evil done to her by humans. In many ways, the Maleficent franchise has more in common with Wicked than it does with Disney, and that’s what makes it feel refreshing over the rehash remakes Disney is currently producing.
Unfortunately, Mistress of Evil doesn’t spend that much time on its titular character. The first film was a character-driven story where Maleficent changes by learning to love Aurora: the story is hers and hers alone. By contrast, Mistress of Evil is about a conflict between nations, and it contains a large cast with multiple plotlines. This gives the sequel a much more coherent plot than its predecessor, but it comes at the cost of seeing less of Maleficent. This is a shame because Jolie is a joy to watch. Whether Maleficent is menacing, tender, or painfully awkward, Jolie throws herself into her performance and makes even the sillier aspects of the movie feel grounded.
The characters who take screen time away from our protagonist are a mixed bag. Fanning’s Aurora is charming and easy to root for, and she even delivers some great performances, but Prince Philip is bland (to be fair, he was bland in Maleficent, and I barely noticed that they changed actors between movies). Pfeiffer’s Ingrith is conniving and fun to watch, but she would have been better served if she went the camp route. It’s obvious from the start that she is power-hungry, manipulative and villainous, but Pfeiffer’s performance, while good, just doesn’t have the presence of Jolie.
Using the word “genocide” may seem like an overreaction, but it really is an apt term for what is happening to the magical creatures in the film. The Dark Fae have been driven out of their homeland into hiding, their numbers dwindled, and it’s not a stretch to draw parallels between their treatment and the treatment of indigenous people in colonized cultures. Even more explicit are literal acts of genocide when Ingrith has her henchmen develop weapons that are only deadly to fairies.
Jolie throws herself into her performance and makes even the sillier aspects of the movie feel grounded.
The subdued nature of Pfeiffer’s antagonist isn’t too much of an issue since most of Maleficent’s screen time is spent with her hiding out with a band of renegade fairies (or Dark Fae, as they’re called). As human kingdoms become larger and larger, the Dark Fae have retreated to a hidden cave that birthed their species. Much of the group’s subplot is dedicated to the split between the two leaders: Borra (Ed Skrein, Alita: Battle Angel), who wants to make war with humans; and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Lion King), who wants to make peace. Both Fae want Maleficent on their side, as her magic can help end the possible genocide of their race.
Mainstream movies generally tend to blame bigotry on individuals as opposed to systems, and Mistress of Evil is no exception. While the villagers of Alstead are certainly prejudiced, the movie makes it clear that their bigotry comes from a very specific royal source that tells lies about Maleficent, and that Prince Philip and King John definitely don’t know anything about Ingrith’s genocidal machinations. It’s frustrating that a film that wants ending prejudice to be its main theme would give such a superficial reading of it, but it’s not surprising.
Of course, most audiences won’t be mind Mistress of Evil’s less-than-woke critique of bigotry, and that’s fair. This is an escapist movie, and it delivers what you’d expect: likable characters, exciting action, decent special effects, and lavish costumes and sets. More importantly, it won’t make you wish you were watching the movie it was based on, and compared to the most recent Disney remakes, that’s a magic more powerful than anything Maleficent could conjure up.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil cackles its way into theaters October 18th.