Film Review: Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil

Revisionist Fairy Tale Returns With Familiar Sequel

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
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Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, the Disney studio was busy cranking out a string of cheaply produced, direct-to-video sequels to its popular animated films (Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, Kronk’s New Groove, Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, The Lion King 1 1/2, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II, Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure). Around that era the company bought out crosstown animation rival Pixar. Given how much more successful Pixar was at the time, Disney basically let the Pixar folks take over the studio. One of the first mandates of the new Pixar bosses was, “Stop making all of these cheap sequels; you’re tarnishing your brand.”

That marked a major creative turnaround for Disney, which is now the biggest company in Hollywood, having swallowed up Marvel, Star Wars and the Muppets as well. After Pixar’s “no sequels” declaration, Disney produced some of its finest original properties:
Brave, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana. Sadly, some 10 years on down the road, Pixar has been fully integrated into the Disney corporate machine. From the looks of it (Finding Dory, Cars 3, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4), Pixar is now suffering from the same bloated, sequel-loving, cash-grabbing philosophy as its parent corp.

For the past few years, Disney’s unwavering plan has been to produce endless live-action recreations of its most famous cartoons (
Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King). The results have been profitable, but much too familiar to those of us who grew up on Disney.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. In 2014 Disney took the Evil Queen from 1956’s Sleeping Beauty and provided her with her own, stand-alone origin story, Maleficent. Angelina Jolie starred as the titular black-clad fairy queen—taking her from evil villain to tragic, misunderstood victim of trauma and betrayal at the hands of greedy, colonizing humans. It was certainly a different take on the traditional fairy, but the film mostly just ended up answering a lot of questions that really didn’t need to be asked. Despite its mixed critical response, it soaked up $241 million at the US box office and $517 million overseas, basically guaranteeing a sequel.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil picks up some five years after the events of the first film. Having gotten revenge on the humans who wronged her, restored the fairy kingdom to its former glory and established Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning, no longer sleeping but still a beauty) as the new ruler of the two kingdoms, Maleficent is now quietly “retired” as evil queen. In the fairy kingdom of The Moor, she’s considered a hero and protector. But over in the human kingdom of Ulstead, she’s still the villain of the tale.

Handsome (but boring) Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, replacing Brenton Thwaites from the first film—not like you’d notice) has asked Aurora for her hand in marriage. Witchy godmother Maleficent, still wary of treacherous humans, counsels against the union. Nonetheless, our horn-headed antihero is talked into a family dinner with future in-laws King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ingrith, in particular, tries her best to rile Maleficent, who takes the bait, loses her cool and seemingly curses the king with eternal slumber. (Again with the slumber.)

Fleeing from the palace, Maleficent is wounded and falls into the ocean. She’s rescued at the last second by a group of winged and horned fairies like herself, known as the Dark Fey. Meanwhile, Aurora continues with her wedding plans, but soon discovers that the nuptials are just a ruse for Queen Ingrith to lure the fairy folk into a massacre, which should kick off a magical race war. (No spoiler alert necessary here. It’s painfully obvious who the film’s real villain is.) Eventually, of course, the Dark Fey (commanded by a righteously indignant Maleficent) go to war with the humans (led by the underhanded Ingrith). The whole thing is overblown and bloodless, and even the kids in the audience will be able to guess the outcome.

Maleficent before it, Mistress of Evil offers up some mildly interesting revisionism on classic fairy tales. Jolie and Pfeiffer do their best to chew the scenery in grand style—although the film’s canned, kid-friendly one-liners do them few favors. (“This isn’t a fairy tale,” Jolie intones on at least one occasion.) Strangely, the titular mistress disappears for much of the film’s runtime, turning the story over to a bloated cast of old and new characters. And most of those characters only add to the wacky slapstick elements aimed directly at kiddie audiences. Norwegian director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) works well with the legions of CGI artists, envisioning piles of epic vistas and fantastical creatures. Clearly, more attention went into the film’s look than into its easily telegraphed screenplay.

With several live-action remakes (
Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, The Little Mermaid, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Hunchback, Lilo & Stitch, Pinocchio) and at least one more “revisionist” villain origin story (the ’70s-set Cruella, featuring a “punk rock” Emma Stone) in the near future, it’s clear Disney has a death-grip on its corporate plan. Unfortunately, the plan is already starting to show signs of weakness, repetition and fatigue. Maybe it’s time for Uncle Walt’s beloved company to get another Pixar-style shake-up.
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