As much as the idea of Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer squaring off against each other holds tremendous appeal, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil falls solidly into the terrain of “sequel that no one but accountants asked for.” Competently if unspectacularly directed by Joachim Rønning (one half of the duo that brought you the last installment in Disney’s equally mechanical Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), the film exists purely to capitalize on the success of the 2014 original. Which itself was not a great film either but at least it benefited from being a clever twist on a well-worn fairy tale.
This time out, Rønning and the screenwriters (three are credited, but we suspect a whole lot more took a whack at this) concoct a hodgepodge that uses the characters to propel a story along for one reason only: to get to an overextended third act battle that is part Game of Thrones (at least a PG version) and part Avengers: Endgame–someone even meets their demise by getting “dusted” in what looks like a leftover shot from that film’s climactic snap.
As the film opens, Maleficent’s (Jolie) adopted daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) is presiding over the Moors and its multitude of fairies and other creatures, with Maleficent herself acting more or less in the background as protector and enforcer. But their delicate balance is upset when Prince Phillip (a bland Harris Dickinson, replacing Brenton Thwaites) asks for Aurora’s hand in marriage. His father, King John (Robert Lindsay) sees this as a happy way to unite their two kingdoms, but Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Pfeiffer), has another plan in mind. One that she hopes will end the fairy realm forever.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil has one of those scripts where people act illogically just to push the story along. In the crucial scene where King John and Queen Ingrith invite Maleficent and Aurora to dinner so that the two families can meet, it’s clear from the get-go that Ingrith has it out for Maleficent; she hurls insults almost as soon as they sit down for appetizers (even the food is insulting–they serve bird to winged creatures of the forest). When things go south rather quickly, Aurora inexplicably sides with Ingrith. It’s a betrayal against any rational, character-based motivation she might have.
Eventually cast out, Maleficent comes upon a hidden tribe of her own people, led by a peacemaker (an underused Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a battle-hungry upstart (Ed Skrein). That sets up the war that consumes the entire last act of the film, with guess who set up as a chosen one? But everything about it is so predictable that even the rather shocking (for what is essentially a family film) inclusion of subtexts about refugees and genocide fail to stand out.
Jolie is as striking and imperious as ever, but Maleficent’s own hazily drawn motivations render her a cypher for most of the film. Pfeiffer does enough heavy-lifting on her own to make Ingrith a more deliciously sinister figure, but the rest of the cast, despite all working hard, are imprisoned by the schematic, pre-chewed nature of the material (returnees from the first film include Sam Riley as Maleficent’s snarky, cynical right-hand fairy and Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, and Imelda Staunton as Aurora’s pixie caregivers).
The most interesting part of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is the production design. Rønning and designer Patrick Tatopolous expand upon the Moors of the first film quite a bit, adding a lot of eye-popping details, and the labyrinthine nest of Maleficent’s fairy-people is also a unique addition to the mythology. Maleficent’s wings and blazing green bolts of fire and lightning remain impressive as well.
But in the end, even though this is in many respects an original story (in terms of taking off in a new direction from the Sleeping Beauty source material), the ultimately derivative nature of the tale being told makes the entire affair seem pointless. The first Maleficent didn’t exactly soar, but it managed to get itself off the ground based on its clever conceit of seeing the familiar story from the other side. Without that, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil remains grounded, with only the title character’s impressive wingspan to remind us of how formidable she used to be.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is out in theaters Friday, Oct. 18.