There’s a word that sums up the feeling of watching the sequel to 2014’s surprise hit Maleficent: gratuitous. Over the course of two not-entirely-bad but certainly not-entirely-good hours, we learn nothing, understand little, and appreciate some. Who is this for? Who was asking for this particular kind of story? It’s a question the film never definitely answers.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil opens with the engagement of the formerly-sleeping beauty Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), something opposed but reluctantly agreed upon by both Phillip’s mother Queen Ingrith of Ulstead (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Aurora’s fairy godmother Maleficent (Angelia Jolie). After a disastrous meeting of the matrons, Ingrith engineers a war with the fairies living on the neighboring Moors, which pits her against the Mistress of Evil herself. Aurora and Phillip, meanwhile, are caught in the middle of a conflict that threatens to destroy both their homes. They sort of try to do something about it.
The original Maleficent was an interesting if not entirely consistent spin on the classic Sleeping Beauty story, or at least the version told by Disney. Its internal logic didn’t always make sense, and it sometimes twisted itself into knots trying to justify its existence, but it was buoyed by a genuinely captivating and commanding performance by Angelina Jolie, who was basically engineered to play the live-action Maleficent. Mostly-impressive visuals and a few bright supporting roles helped, but it ultimately proved to be only a little better than average. Lindsay Ellis perhaps sums it up best when she lovingly refers to the movie as “My trash.” It’s affectionately, almost impressively disposable.
Mistress of Evil continues this trend somewhat. Whereas the first film’s thesis was that Maleficent was misunderstood and that her actions had legitimate justification, this one opens with narration that indicates that in the years following that film the story of Aurora had spread, having morphed to paint Maleficent as a complete and total villain. The title of “Mistress of Evil” refers to how she’s perceived by humanity and not any indication of actual character. (Although to be fair, Mal here comes off as Chaotic Neutral at best…she’s certainly no good fairy.) It hearkens back to the idea from the first film that the story we know isn’t the whole truth, here applied in-universe as opposed to metatextually.
But that’s about all the film bothers with when it comes to being narratively synced with its predecessor. Very little about Mistress of Evil makes any sense at all with the history established before it. Much like The Huntsman: Winter’s War, another unnecessary fantasy sequel that ignored or invalidated most of its previously-established lore, it adds background information that doesn’t hold up under the slightest bit of scrutiny and rarely even holds together on its own. It really comes off as lazy fan fiction most of the time. Unlike Huntsman however, it does at least make some quasi-noble attempt at merging the two films organically, even it that attempt ultimately results in failure.
Most of this issue centers around the introduction of the Dark Fey, magical creatures similar to Maleficent who have been hiding from humanity. The sequences with the Dark Fey try desperately to explain why Maleficent has magical powers and what her place is in the world, but none of that was essential to appreciating the original. It adds a layer of unneeded exposition that bogs the film down, confuses the original’s narrative, and seems to exist just to pull off a few fancy maneuvers in the film’s otherwise disappointing and anti-climatic finale.
The first time we meet the Dark Fey, however, does lead to one the film’s most striking and impressive visual sequences. We navigate a stark, black-and-white series of tunnels made of countless branches in an eerily-silent atmosphere that wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi or horror film. It’s a moment of arresting beauty, one of the few times director Joachim Rønning goes outside the contractually-obligated, full-color fantasy palette of the original. It’s a far cry from the opening in the Moors, so full of storybook twee that it seems like a Disney executive spent the film constantly screaming in Rønning’s ear: “More fairy!”
The visuals in general are mostly beyond reproach even if they don’t go any further than that. Rønning certainly put a lot of work into making his frames look good, and he occasionally comes up with an innovative angle to film things in, even if it doesn’t stray too far from standard, big-budget spectacle. But the colors are rich, the staging is well-done, and the effects are solid if not remarkable. Even if the film is a narrative muddle, the view is enjoyable.
But let’s face it, most of us are here for one thing and one thing only: Angelina Jolie. Jolie is as sharp and striking as her cheekbones, make no mistake, and she’s clearly enjoying herself. That makes it all the more upsetting that she disappears from the film for massive stretches at a time, and that the film doesn’t seem to give the character much agency. Jolie does what she can with the weak script, and she almost always shines hypnotically in the role, but if you thought Mal was done a bit dirty in the first film, you won’t like what she’s given to do here.
On the other side, Michelle Pfeiffer tears into her role as Queen Ingrith with abandon, devouring scenery in the classiest ways possible. Ingrith as written is so transparently evil, bigoted, and warmongering that she might as well accessorize her gorgeous gowns with a “Make Ulstead Great Again” cap. She eagerly starts a race war against the fairies and even has a diminutive mad scientist on retainer literally named Lickspittle (played by a very entertaining Warwick Davis). But Pfeiffer keeps Ingrith from being a total caricature, consistently magnetic and dignified. She’s Cersei Lannister in Disney Princess drag, and we’re here for it.
It’s nearly impossible for the supporting cast to make much of an impact against these two heavyweights, and only a handful seem to try. Elle Fanning is perfectly fine as Aurora, and she’s much more a proactive than reactive character this time around. But she only gets one or two moments of true excellence, mostly due again to the poor writing. She has zero chemistry with Harris Dickinson, who’s performance is so bland and colorless that it makes Brenton Thwaites’ Phillip from the first seem like the richest and most exotic vanilla in existence. Sam Riley is still a welcome presence as the human form of Maleficent’s raven familiar Diaval, of course, with more personality than any of the rest of the supporting cast. But conversely, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein are completely wasted as the leaders of the Dark Fey, impressively made-up and costumed but barely conceived of as characters.
So we ask again: who is this movie for? Angelina Jolie fans will be disappointed by how relatively little she appears in her own film. Fans of the original will be frustrated by how inconsistent the mythology of this film is with that one. Families might be distressed by how dark the film gets, and by how much death takes place in the final act when the war begins. Even casual viewers might get lost in its confusing lore and shapeless thesis.
In the end, this film is mostly for Disney and its bottom line, which explains why it’s a rushed, jumbled two-hour film and not a proper, eight-episode limited digital series like it should have been. Given time to breathe and grow naturally, Mistress of Evil could have been a dramatic, intriguing exploration of the world established by the original Maleficent. But as it is, it’s just a fleeting, fractured fairy tale that disappears with the dawn.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C