In some ways, this sequel to 2014’s Disney villain reboot is nearly review-proof in its predictability. It ups the star power, lowers the emotional impact, and offers little more than a feast for the eyes and a few chuckles along the way. As a spectacle it remains spectacular, from star Angelina Jolie — with her femme fatale lighting and almost-completely-unnecessary prosthetics — to everything else that isn’t Angelina Jolie, burdened with the unenviable task of keeping the audience entertained until Jolie swoops back onscreen again. It’s lush and fantastical and… colorful? The costumes are superb. And the plot, uh, certainly is a thing that happens. Basically, whatever your feelings were for the first one, you’ll probably feel again only knocked down a peg or two this time around. It’ll still keep kids entertained, and give your eyeholes something really pretty to look at for two hours. Beyond that, I guess the question is: what were you expecting? Because I for one wasn’t expecting Disney to deliver the kind of “don’t trust political propaganda” message that Maleficent: Mistress of Evil offers up — and I’ll admit, it made my bleeding liberal heart bleed just a teensy bit harder. It’s a shame that message comes swaddled in a load of nonsense, but hey, it’s never too early to teach your kids a lesson in peace, love, and not trusting government agendas.
The biggest hurdle the sequel faced was where, exactly, to go after the first movie’s happily ever after. Maleficent reimagined the story of Sleeping Beauty to focus on a compelling, flawed, but ultimately redeemable anti-hero, and in doing so burned through all the familiar fairytale source material. To return to this world, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil needed to invent wholly new problems to plague Maleficent and her goddaughter Aurora, and the result is sort of a revisionist history of what was already a revisionist history of the tale. The sequel picks up about 5 years after the events of the first film, with Aurora (Elle Fanning) presiding over the fairy denizens of the Moors as its oh-so-human Queen — until her beau, Prince Philip (now played by Harris Dickinson), proposes to her. Their marriage is one of love, but it is also a political union, with the promise of forging everlasting peace between the fae and the humans hanging in the balance. Maleficent remains unconvinced that love — or humans — are worth placing too much stock in, but she begrudgingly agrees to attend a celebratory dinner with Philip’s parents, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). And that’s where everything goes pear-shaped. By the end of the evening the King lies in a cursed slumber, Maleficent is shot down while attempting to flee the castle, Aurora chooses to side with her new human in-laws, believing her godmother is to blame for the King’s coma, and Ingrith… looks entirely too pleased with herself.
Naturally, not all is as it appears. Unless it appears to drag, because that is EXACTLY what the middle section of this movie appears to do. Maleficent is rescued from the brink of death by the “dark fae” — a pan-racial tribe of winged fairies that, um, look a whole lot like Maleficent herself. She’s found her distant family, just as she’s come to question her own place in the world and in her daughter’s heart. And these ancestors see her as the weapon they need to finally defeat the humans and reclaim their place in the skies once more. Or at least that’s what the war-hungry guy (Ed Skein) wants. The nice one (Chiwetel Ejiofor) thinks Maleficent represents their only hope to bridge the differences between the species and find common ground, the way she did with Aurora. Both of these very fine actors are completely wasted in these nothing roles, but they look incredible with the horns and the wings and that counts for something, right? The problem is that, for the whole time Maleficent is with their clan, she too is wasted — meaning Michelle Pfeiffer has to pick up all the scenery-chewing evil lady slack over in human-ville. Thankfully, she more than rises to the occasion.
Ultimately the twist on “love conquers all” here is one about accepting your neighbor, and the choice not to fight — to lay down past prejudices and present xenophobic zealotry and try to move forward together. Ingrith is the real mistress of evil in this tale, and it’s revealed that she spread the legend about Maleficent being the mastermind behind Aurora’s curse to whip up fear against the fae all along (the fact that Maleficent did curse Aurora is somehow less significant that the propaganda around that fact). But everything in the film hinges on the frailty of the ties between Maleficent and Aurora, and that’s unfortunate. Their love was true enough to break the curse in the first movie, and yet all that character work is disassembled only for them to reforge their bond once more. Maleficent once again has to discover within herself that shred of kindness that makes her more than the feared villain, and Aurora once again has to affirm her belief that Maleficent truly is a good person as well. But hey, it worked the first time around — and isn’t that what sequels are all about?
Header Image Source: Disney