I have very mixed emotions towards 2014’s Maleficent. On one hand, it was a modern reimagining of Sleeping Beauty that seemed to focus on the best aspects of that original movie by casting a fantastic actress in the title role while simultaneously giving it a jolt in the arm by turning the entire movie into a rape allegory. On the other hand, everything outside of that was messy at best and if we were going to continue viewing the movie as a rape allegory, then the ending leaves an almost vile taste in my mouth because of it. Still, I can give Maleficent credit for taking a risk and attempting to add meaning to a story that was originally based on a fairly simple Disney movie, which itself was based of a beautiful but rather basic ballet.
Fast forward five years and we have a sequel in the form of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, a sequel which both remains faithful to the 2014 update and robs it of any of its originality and chutzpah. Instead, we get a rote fantasy epic that is so predictable and lifeless that I’m having difficulty even remembering what happened an hour and a half after I left the theater.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Director: Joaquim Ronning
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Set five years after Maleficent, Aurora (Elle Fanning) is now queen of the Moors and seems to be taking care of her kingdom fairly well. Suddenly, her lover Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) proposes to her not only out of love, but to create a peace between the Feys of the Moors and the humans. Once they’re engaged, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) invites Aurora and Maleficent to their castle, only for Ingrith to frame Maleficent for putting a curse of her husband and initiates a crusade against the Fey/fairies of the Moor because if the movie can’t do a rape allegory, might as well do a race one.
Right off the bat, this is a Maleficent movie without actually starring the titular witch. While Angelina Jolie dominates whenever she’s on screen, her presence this time has been reduced significantly to the point where the movie isn’t even about her. For most of the runtime, she’s off doing her own thing and barely interacts with any of the main cast, instead opting to bum around with a new supporting cast of Dark Fey, aka Maleficent’s race. It comes across as forced world-building at best and a pointless device to keep Maleficent out of the main plot at worst. Jolie’s performance is the heart and soul of the movie, so it confounds me why anyone would try and keep her out of it.
This leaves a charisma vacuum that needed to be filled, but hardly any of the cast can compare to what Jolie delivers. Fanning and Pfeiffer both do admirable jobs and deliver okay performances, but they’re severely crippled by being so damned predictable. From the very first scene we’re made aware that Aurora is innocently sweet while Ingrith is a cunning and cruel manipulator. That would be fine if they developed over the course of the film, but both women go through little to no change.
Pfeiffer’s character on her own is a bit of a mess and is a huge step down from Maleficent’s King Stefan. Stefan was a despicable character who slowly lost his soul to hatred and bigotry, but we saw his fall from grace in real time and came to terms with him ultimately becoming the villain of the film. Here, Pfeiffer struts on, nudges and winks to the audience how evil she is, then proceeds to have no subtlety in being murderous and genocidal because that’s just how she’s written. She’s your basic “the ends justify the means” villainess with a mentality of killing “The Other” because reasons. I kept waiting to hear her elaborate her backstory in the attempt at offering up some form of sympathy for her, but it feels half-baked to the point where even the other characters call bullshit on her, to which she just shrugs her shoulders and moves on. If the movie can’t bother to give its villain a believable backstory or motivation, then I can’t bother to care about her either.
Large segments of the plot are dedicated to either watching Ingrith be evil, Aurora preparing for her wedding, or Maleficent hanging out with the Dark Fey. Very few of these plotlines connect with one another until the end, with the Dark Fey storyline being the most expendable. You could tell that the filmmakers wanted to do so much more with that avenue, but for one reason or another it was ignored almost as quickly as it was brought up. The Dark Fey live on some island in the middle of nowhere and have a bunch of different races within their society, but they just serve as bodies for a climactic final battle for the sake of having a climactic final battle.
It almost feels like the Mistress of Evil is going through a checklist of dark fantasy tropes a la Game of Thrones to knock out, including but not limited to having a cute animal sidekick, having a dragon thingie show up at the final battle, and various political alliances to create a false sense of plot progression. You know how in good movies those relationships and alliance develop over the course of the entire film so you can feel how a character grows or regresses? Well Mistress of Evil wraps up nearly all of its character development in a nice little bow so that its cast can have a lasting ending regardless of if it makes sense or not for that character’s development.
The absolute worst thing about Mistress of Evil that is also unfortunately the most depressing bit of it all is that the movie feels so toothless. While the first movie addressed some pretty heavy topics albeit poorly, at least there was the attempt to make the movie dark in a way that you don’t see all too often. It’s PG in the same way that The Secret of Nimh was PG. It could get real serious real quick to the point where it could have bordered on a PG-13 if they tried hard enough.
Mistress of Evil is decidedly more kid friendly with nothing comparing to the darkness of the original. There’s more of a focus on comedy this time, which isn’t the worst if it’s done well. Surprise, surprise, it’s not done well. Most of the humor falls on the comic-relief characters, including the groan inducing fairies and Maleficent herself trying to “act nice,” which should say plenty about how this movie is such a sad departure from the original.
At the end of the day, I would rather have a movie that tries to take risks and fail at it than have a movie that plays things safe. Not only does Maleficent: Mistress of Evil play it safe, it seems like its actively trying to sabotage itself by making all of the wrong decisions. Jolie is sidelined for most of the movie, the underwhelming supporting cast is left to do the heavy lifting and simply are not up to the task, and it all leads to an ending that feels more obligatory than deserved. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a sequel for sequel’s sake, offering nothing new to the table outside of reminding you that this is a series that Disney is trying to push as a new franchise for some reason.