1.5 out of 5 stars.
“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” sounds like a pretty straightforward title: it’s a movie about Maleficent, one of Disney’s most memorable and fearsome villains, and she’s evil. But in fact, this sequel to 2014’s “Maleficent” neither features her as being a mistress of evil, nor features Maleficent much at all. This story, which is set five years after the first movie and the events of the “Sleeping Beauty” story we’re all familiar with, struggles to find its footing without the source material from the original animated Disney classic to draw from, resulting in a generic and flat-out boring fairytale that fails its talented cast.
Joachim Rønning takes over directing duties for this sequel, opens with Aurora (Elle Fanning), who rules over the woodland creatures along with her adoptive mother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) as Queen of the Moors, being proposed to by Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson, taking the place of Brenton Thwaites). Their alliance has the potential to unite the human and magic realms, but neither of their mothers are particularly enthused. While Maleficent is afraid of losing Aurora, Philip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), is secretly scheming to frame Maleficent as a villain and wage war on the fairies. A dinner party gone awry forces both Aurora and Maleficent to rethink their desires and their relationship with each other, as Maleficent finds other Dark Feys like her who have been forced into hiding by the humans.
For the most part, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” looks every bit the fairytale. Every scene is populated with either mystical beings, gorgeous gowns, colorful woodland settings or austere castle hallways. But in substance, it lacks the magic of one. The story may promote a message of tolerance and found family, but it’s a dull journey to get there, one that experiences bizarre shifts in tone (ultimately, everyone and everything perceived as bad is portrayed in a comical light) and culminates in a generic battle on the castle grounds. This story may deviate from the “Sleeping Beauty” we know and love, but it still manages to be incredibly predictable. Whereas the first film turned a lot of fairytale tropes on their head, this one plays right into them.
One thing that the first film did that this one continues, however, is present a story that is focused on women. While their relationships with men occasionally drive the action (in the first movie, Maleficent sought vengeance because she was wronged by her love), this movie focuses more on the Maleficent-Aurora-Ingrith triangle, with each woman taking charge of her respective kingdoms. As a result, however, this movie feels less focused on the titular character (not that I timed it, but I would put money on Aurora having more screentime), to the point where long periods pass without Maleficent being seen on screen. And we don’t really learn anything new about Maleficent, or see any significant development in her character, outside of finding out a weird thing about her powers. It’s a shame, not just because this movie is supposed to be about Maleficent, but because Jolie’s performance is the one good thing about this series. The other actors range from great to dull (Dickinson really plays the cardboard Disney prince to the fullest), with Fanning employing just the right combination of sweetness and smarts as Aurora, and Pfeiffer always plays evil well. There are some other great additions to the cast as well, like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein as the other Dark Feys Maleficent comes in contact with. But Jolie really embodies the spirit of the animated character we’re so familiar with, while making it her own. Her voice and presence are commanding in every scene, so much so that Maleficent can’t seem to pop into a scene without having some grand entrance. But here, she almost becomes a supporting character in her own movie, and, like the first film, the script never permits her to get as bad as she could.
I didn’t enjoy the first “Maleficent” film when it came out either, but it is interesting to reflect on that film now. Besides Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” “Maleficent” was really the start of the Disney live-action remake phenomena, and after seeing so many remakes over the last five years hew so closely to their predecessors, it’s intriguing that “Maleficent” was taken in the direction that it was. It isn’t a remake so much as a retelling, twisting our expectations rather than playing into them. Even if it still wasn’t a great movie, I wish I could at least say that much about “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.” Instead, it will likely go down as a forgettable curiosity sandwiched between a slew of splashier movies in what is one of the biggest and most productive years in the Walt Disney Company’s history.
Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG.