Maleficent: Mistress of Evil was directed by Joachim Rønning from a script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, and Linda Woolverton (who also receives story credit), and is a sequel to the 2014 box office smash hit Maleficent, which took its story’s inspiration from the characters and events of Disney’s original 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty. Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning once again star as the titular Maleficent and sleeping beauty Aurora, respectively, with the latter having assumed the throne of the Moors at the end of the last film. In this installment, Aurora rules over the Moors with a firm but fair composition, making a fitting Queen by whom the two kingdoms she and Prince Phillip share could be united; not long after the idea crosses her mind, a surprise proposal by Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), with Aurora’s enthusiastic acceptance and promise to marry him, upsets Maleficent, as she has always had trouble grappling with her emotional connection to Aurora. Unprepared to let go of her goddaughter, she reluctantly attends a dinner with Phillip’s parents, meant to celebrate the occasion. But when the dinner goes horribly wrong, Maleficent is thrust out of Aurora’s life, and into a new one with which she is unfamiliar – one with her own kind. With war between humans and Moors-lings looming on the horizon, Aurora and Maleficent must unite the kingdoms before it is too late and all is lost, for they may be the only ones who can. The film also stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Sam Riley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ed Skrein, and Robert Lindsay.
I watched the first Maleficent directly before going to see this one. It was…okay. There were a few things I liked about it (particularly the performances of Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning), and Disney attempting to do what essentially boiled down to a rape revenge tale premise by way of stripping the titular character of her wings (they really weren’t subtle with the symbolism) was a pretty ballsy direction to go. Considering that most of the mouse house’s live-action remakes have really only used their stories to “fix” problems with them not having been as “woke” in the past (Lindsay Ellis has a great video about that here), and otherwise played out as mostly straightforward re-tellings of the exact same stories, the ideas Maleficent presents and wants to play around with warrant enough interest to give Disney credit for even attempting to go the route they did. Unfortunately, the shorter run-time didn’t leave much room for the character development or pacing needed to flesh out a story as complex as the one Maleficent clearly wanted to tell, especially under its PG constraints and lack of thematic subtext past the first half or so. Compounding that with the fact that Sharlto Copley’s villainous turn as Aurora’s father, Stefan, hardly had any development past the first twenty minutes (Maleficent sees him a few times in this movie after the wings thing happens and hardly reacts to him at all) despite Copley turning in a seriously understated performance, as well as a lack of visual style beyond colorization and some choppy editing, it just didn’t leave as much of an impact as Disney had hoped in terms of critical reception. With a box office haul of $758 million worldwide, however, a sequel was bound to follow, and five years later, we have Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which is…also just okay.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t particularly dislike either film as much as I was disappointed by the first and unimpressed by the second, but it’s a real shame that Mistress of Evil seems to suffer from the same core issues the first one did. The fact is that the film’s ambitions are so high, its thematics so dense, that a Disney-fied script with mostly flat production design can’t really hope to match its lofty ideals. This film is better-paced and far better looking than the first one, to be sure, but that will only get you so far; the story still needs to have a greater appeal, and beyond a noticeably higher budget, there’s not much in Mistress of Evil that can seem to reach as high as the franchise’s improved overall production values.
One of those core elements missing from this entry into what Disney is surely hoping to turn into a trilogy is any sort of sensible motivation for Maleficent to become the “mistress of evil,” or to even object to Aurora and Phillip’s wedding at all. Sure, she doesn’t really know Phillip exceedingly well, but there’s an understanding at the beginning of the film that she is aware of him and his affection for Aurora (something we saw at the end of the last film), so she must know that he would never do her harm, especially considering the five-year gap between films. One could say that her hesitation with Aurora forming a romantic bond is due to her previous trauma from her own romantic relationship with Stefan in the first movie (in fact, she says “love doesn’t always end well”), but this is really only hinted at and then never brought up again. Occasionally it can seem as though Mistress of Evil would be a genuinely great sequel with a few tweaks and a much stronger predecessor, but as it is, the movie can’t seem to get out from under its own weight, having to behave as though the previous film already explained everything perfectly for this one to move forward, unaware of the 2014 film’s shortcomings.
But the biggest way in which Mistress of Evil drops the ball is in the same manner the previous film did: its antagonist and side characters. If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know that it’s pretty much the Jolie v Pfeiffer show for this sequel, and while Pfeiffer plays the role quite well, there’s hardly any reason why she does most things, and her ultimate “plan” is so elaborate, requiring so many things to go exactly as they do in the movie (some of them antithetical to what she actually wants earlier in the film), that it borders on more unbelievability than the villain’s plan in Skyfall. The side characters also get almost no room to work since the movie is already so crowded by its main ensemble, and the ones that do stand out have almost no distinct personality traits, despite the higher-than-usual amount of screen-time devoted to them. (Also, let me just say that in terms of thematics, I understand what the movie was attempting to say, but those attempts don’t seem to carry much depth or weight beyond retroactively justifying the lack of character development and getting us to the next action set-piece, the last of which is admittedly pretty cool to see, despite some occasionally hard to follow camerawork.)
One of the things that I did really like about this movie (apart from, once again, the performances of the two main stars and the improved visual appeal/production design) is how it expands Maleficent’s world and introduces us to some of the other fairies, who have been driven into hiding by the human’s world of warfare and fear of fairy-kind. The expanded mythology counts for a lot of the more interesting elements of Mistress of Evil, and I wish we got more screen-time devoted to exploring the social dynamics of the fairies’ world. There’s so much to learn there that we never get to explore, and although Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein do their best to carry those sections with Jolie, their characters essentially boil down to Ejiofor’s great acting chops and Ed Skrein’s eternal smirk. That being said, these sections make up the bulk of the second act, which help a lot when it comes to the film’s pacing issues.
Apart from being an overall better executed effort than the first film, though, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil simply doesn’t have that much to offer beyond yet another ambitious take on its source material. The pacing and visuals have been greatly improved, and the performances are as good as they ever were, but this sequel seems to have repeated the same mistakes as its predecessor, with a lack of character motivation, muddy thematics, and a story that can’t quite seem to soar to the heights it definitely seems to want to. I didn’t exactly dislike the film entirely, and I do give Disney a lot of credit for trying to do something actually new with this adaptation/franchise rather than just telling the same story again, but unfortunately, I can’t give this movie the praise I’m sure it might have deserved in more adept hands.
I’m giving “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” a 5.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.