The first Maleficent movie wrapped up the revisionist history of one of Disney’s biggest villains, turning Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) into a tragic figure and true love’s kiss into an expression of maternal love. Disney’s sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, gets around the problem that there’s no real story by shedding almost every connection to the original Sleeping Beauty, crossing high fantasy with hijinks-filled romantic comedy, and adding in just a sprinkle of self-insert wish fulfillment.
Last we saw, the fairy and human kingdoms were peacefully united by Aurora (Elle Fanning), whose lineage from a fairy (god-)mother, Maleficent and a now-deceased human father (Sharlto Copley) bridged the gap. Mistress of Evil, directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest), adds another human kingdom to make peace with for the sake of a teensy more geopolitical conflict.
When Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), a pair of cheekbones granted human life, proposes to Aurora, Maleficent is invited to dinner to meet his parents, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). Showing off some of the clearest villain signalling since Michael Keaton in Dumbo — long pauses have never been so sinister — Ingrith gets the fairy queen so riled up that dinner turns into yet another tale of Maleficent’s balefulness. John falls ill and the kingdom immediately takes up arms.
The movie’s rom-com-isms soon fall away to make room for more typical fantasy epic hijinks, albeit with the kind of clunky political signalling familiar to anyone who endured Bright. Ingrith wants to wipe out the fairies — who, in one of the film’s better visual tricks, “die” by reverting into the inanimate objects that inspired them — and the attempted genocide is a little more frightening than you’d expect from Disney fare. Watching a room full of creatures struggle as they’re bombarded with poison powder feels more akin to a war movie than it probably should.
Good intentions (or maybe just ambition) don’t smooth over the way that the remnants of the dark fae — Maleficent’s kin, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein with horns and wings — are coded to symbolize all people of color and similarly marginalized groups. Aurora, Phillip, Ingrith and other “humans” in the film are otherwise Eurocentric, leaning into a colonialist and imperialist narrative that is maybe a little too easily tied up by the end of the film. There’s even a character who briefly touches upon the sometimes-difficult nature of regime collaborators. It’s heavy material for a children’s fantasy film to tackle, which makes it unsurprisingly that it doesn’t really manage to do it well.
The political themes are pointed but unwieldy, unlike the rom-com elements of the film, which are superbly done fluff. Jolie cuts a striking figure as Maleficent, and dispenses the character’s sly bon mots with a campy, cartoonish glee that fits perfectly with her 2D origins. Simply put, she’s funny, practicing her “hello” by watching her reflection in a pond so she doesn’t end up scaring Phillip’s parents, or needling her right-hand man, the raven-turned-human Diaval (Sam Riley).
Pfeiffer doesn’t have any comic material to work with, but commits fully to villainy, serving as a perfect foil to Jolie; her performance is sharp where Jolie’s is smooth, devoting the dangerous energy she had as Catwoman to making declarations of war. There’s something delightful about watching the two of them, world-weary women who have lived long enough not to trust blindly in other people, try to deal with the naïveté of their respective children, rolling their eyes when they once again suggest true love as a panacea. (Based on the title, it should come as no surprise that Phillip and Aurora are zeroes.)
The separate parts of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil don’t quite gel together, with the back half departing from cheerful Disney territory to the fan vision of a Maleficent devotee’s DeviantArt page. So many fairy variants (fae from tropical regions have macaw wings, which, fine), so many shots of Maleficent that could serve as Evanescence album covers. The film is still, however, leaps and bounds more imaginative than most other recent live-action Disney fare, packed with strange creatures and fun performances that at least distract from (if not alleviate) the film’s clumsy attempts at political allegory.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil opens in theaters on Oct. 18.