Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
2019, PG, 118 min. Directed by Joachim Rønning. Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Ed Skrein, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
REVIEWED By Sarah Marloff, Fri., Oct. 18, 2019
In 2014, Angelina Jolie – once considered a god among actresses – gave us our first true, arguably perfect, glimpse at a live-action Maleficent, one of the original Disney villains from Sleeping Beauty. In the budding era of live-action remakes, Jolie’s version of the iconic witch in Maleficent had depth, beauty, humor, and a much-appreciated feminist twist on the classic children’s fairy tale – after all, Sleeping Beauty is, in fact, asleep for most of her story. In the retelling, Maleficent, who isn’t evil, accidentally adopts her foe’s child and it’s her kiss – not some prince’s – who wakes the sleeping princess Aurora.
Cut to 2019 and many a Disney live-action do-over later, and you’ll find Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Jolie returns, as does screenwriter Linda Woolverton (joined by A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood scribes Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster), while Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales co-director Joachim Rønning replaces Robert Stromberg in the director’s seat. The storyline picks up where the first left off: Aurora (Fanning) is now queen of her godmother’s magical Moors, benevolently ruling over her mythical friends. But the plot soon takes a predictable turn when Prince Philip (Dickinson) – who she doesn’t marry at the end of the first film – asks for her hand and she happily gives it to him. (Why did we even bother waiting until the sequel then?!) Over the next two hours, drama of life and death proportions arise, war is waged by two new parties, and a few somewhat muddled morals are argued.
Visually stunning, Mistress of Evil achieves full fairy-tale splendor – flowers glow, trees walk, and fairies of all shapes, sizes, and colors take flight. The elaborate costumes, especially those worn by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Queen Ingrith, are noteworthy and will surely inspire many a Halloween look. In short, this is where the second Maleficent excels, an instant crowd-pleaser for any fantasy-loving child or adult.
The storyline, however, lacks the depth of the original while also relying on the character development from the first story to carry it forward. (The film, thankfully, opens with a “last time on Maleficent” to bring you up to speed.) And, in what feels like lazy filmmaking, the movie simply repeats history, retelling the same plot arc as the original (Is Maleficent bad or good?) but with more fairies and a bigger, badder, bad guy. Like the first, Mistress of Evil strives to focus on women’s strength, but even that gets lost between the impending nuptials, Pfeiffer’s near-mad queen's ire à la season 8 Daenerys Targaryen, and a dearth of dialogue. Usually, fewer lines means greater action, but that too, is not the case in Mistress of Evil, which feels weighed down by a backstory that didn’t really need to be told.
But the film, largely considered a “children’s movie” as most Disney projects are, isn’t devoid of character. Like any movie worthy of the Disney moniker, the animated creature-sidekicks are squee-worthy, and Jolie’s quippy one-liners – not to mention the moments capturing her own wide-eyed amusement at herself – offer welcome comedic relief. Meanwhile, Fanning continues to own the role of sweet, naive, and optimistic Aurora, and Pfeiffer, like Jolie, is clearly having fun with her evil mastermind persona.
As a movie made for youths, it’s easy to cut Mistress of Evil some slack for its mesmerizing world and well-intentioned message to trust in others and embrace differences. Yet, where the first managed to put an intricate new spin on an old tale, the sequel, despite its strong cast, can’t help but feel a bit like a tired storyline being retold for a quick cash-in.