The first Maleficent film had its snagging points, but delivered on emotion and fairy tale reimaginings far better than many of Disney’s subsequent live-action remakes. But a sequel? Did we really need a sequel, complete with Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent gnashing her teeth at a domineering Michelle Pfeiffer?
Truth is, if Disney had a little more guts, they would have made this a trilogy, and given it the care that other major fantasy epics receive. Because Maleficent: Mistress of Evil only needed a bit more investment to make it one of the better fantasy films of the decade.
[Some spoilers for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil]
Several years after the end of Maleficent, Aurora (Elle Fanning) has been ruling the Moors just as Maleficent wanted. Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, in a recast that works out in the movie’s favor) finally gets up to courage to ask Aurora to marry him, and she agrees, which doesn’t sit well with Aurora’s godmother. Phillip’s parents, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Pfeiffer) invite Aurora and Maleficent to the palace, where Ingrith attempts to muscle in on Maleficent’s role as Aurora’s family. The king falls into a coma at dinner, and everyone accuses Maleficent of putting a curse on him. The truth is easy enough to predict—Ingrith has no love for her husband, and she is hoping to foment war between their kingdom and the Moors so they they can have the land’s resources. As the battle approaches, Maleficent learns of her true heritage as a Dark Fey, and Aurora finds out that her would-be mother-in-law is not the doting parent that she seems.
With all the markings of an epic, the sequel has far too much ground to cover to be truly successful, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable film. In some areas—particularly throughout the ending—it outstrips its predecessor entirely. The biggest problem with Mistress of Evil is that all of its storytelling mechanisms veer into deus ex machine territory because the audience is given so little time to sit with new information. Background on Maleficent’s people, her own bloodline, and the background given to Pfeiffer’s merciless Ingrith are only a fraction of what should have gone into the film. There’s also a great deal of narrative time given to the creation of weapons that can harm fairy folk (an R&D task carried out by the always-marvelous Warwick Davis in the role of Lickspittle), but its oversimplified on a plot level when it really needed some better explanation and history attached to it.
On the other hand, many aspects of the first film that didn’t work are either played better in the sequel, or less noticeable overall. For instance, Aurora’s three fairy guardians are still rendered in that deeply uncanny CGI style of the first film, but they’re used sparingly on this outing. The goofier renderings of some of the Moor folk come off cuter this time around, and fit the tone better. There’s a helpful balance to the humor in Mistress of Evil, as well as greater consideration given to the look of the world and its overall cohesion. On the computer effects front, the wings of the Dark Fey are expertly animated, with Maleficent’s often serving as a clue to how she’s feeling or what she’s focused upon.
True to the spirit of the first film, the roles of women in this world are largely reversed from your average fairy tale tropes. Yet again, Phillip—and his father as well—are revealed to be largely useless to the overall plot (Phillip tries, poor guy). Maleficent, on the other hand, runs the gamut of roles: villain; mother; champion; ruler; monster; friend. She also gets involved in some Beauty and the Beast-esque training, trying to learn how to properly introduce herself to Phillip’s parents. Watching Jolie vacillate between Maleficent’s confusion, her warmth, and her rage is riveting throughout, and drives many of the film’s greatest moments. Sam Riley’s turn as Diaval stands out again in the sequel, playing the role of Maleficent’s confidante, but most importantly, her chosen family. Ingrith herself is a villain built on appearances, with regalia to match, a pinnacle of weaponized femininity that is often delicious to behold. She has her own yes-woman in the form of Gerda (Jenn Murray), a truly disturbing second-in-command who steals every scene she’s in.
The film has some distinct problems in its depictions of race, specifically racial tropes in the two main parts played by people of color. On the one hand, there is Phillip’s friend and kingdom general Percival (David Gyasi), who is put in the position of being a black man who is “racist” against the magical creatures of the Moors. While showing racism in an allegorical context isn’t flat-out wrong, it’s still distressing when the person who embodies that attitude is played by a person who also comes from a disenfranchised group. Then there’s Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Conall, a member of Maleficent’s people, the opposition to Ed Skrein’s warlike Borra. Conall is desperate for peace, for humans and Dark Fey to live and work together, and he tries to convince Maleficent on that front. But he dies saving her life, and ends up stuck in the position of “wise person of color who inspires the white protagonist before sacrificing themself”. It’s unfortunate because Ejiofor is always incredible, and could have been better used in a story like this.
There is one other oddity that is impossible not to highlight, given the success of Maleficent’s key story change. In the first film, it is Maleficent’s “true love’s kiss” that awakens Aurora, the love she has for a girl she counts as something akin to a daughter. King John is afflicted with that same curse, pierced by the original spinning wheel that put Aurora to sleep by his scheming queen. Phillip suggests that his mother, Queen Ingrith, kiss his father to awaken him, not knowing that his mother is responsible for their predicament and obviously incapable of offering such a magical boon. Later on in the film, we see Phillip lamenting his father’s absence, sitting at his bedside. It seemed the perfect moment to try something new again—to have Phillip kiss his father’s hand, his cheek, his forehead, and break the curse with another bond that went ignored. While the film has very little need of Prince Phillip to resolve its plot, it would have been wonderful to offer that same moment of platonic love, this time between father and son. It’s strange that it never comes back around.
Many of these issues shrink away once we arrive at the final battle, a section that has the distinction of being crisper and more distinct than most fantasy wars on film, while delivering blow after emotion-laden blow. Though it may have needed more space to breathe, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil has its heart right where it needs to be, and is deeply affecting for it. The quibbles don’t prevent it from being exciting, moving, and an unrivaled amount of fun.