Movie Review | Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
By Adam Bumas
The quick take: It’s fun for the inner fantasy geek in all of us, but not strong enough beyond that to be worth your time.
The first Maleficent was a very odd movie, and has only become more so with time. It came out just over five years ago, in the spring of 2014, but that already feels like another age, especially where this realm is concerned. Back then, Disney occupied a very different space in culture: For reference, the first trailer for the movie was released alongside another Disney princess movie with smaller prospects, where the trailers had most people making unfavorable comparisons to Brave and dreading how important the comic relief sidekick seemed to be.
Of course, as Maleficent taught us, stories are a matter of perspective, and the story looks quite different in retrospect: The other movie that people thought looked bad turned out to be Frozen, which revived the princess movies–so well that we’re apparently getting a live action Little Mermaid now–and so Maleficent’s very academic and bitter take on the same classic story feels like an outlier. The movie was well-received for what it was – a weird revenge story about how the evil witch from Sleeping Beauty was really the hero of her story all along, and also played by Angelina Jolie with so much contouring you could slice your hand open on her cheekbones – but it’s so weird that it’s hard to imagine it fitting in anywhere, much less something as carefully curated as Disney.
That’s probably the main reason why Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is such a normal story – in a way, so normal it kind of loops around to becoming strange. For a start, the movie’s title is kind of ironic: Jolie’s Maleficent is an unfailingly moral character, always looking to help the people she cares about, especially Elle Fanning as her adopted daughter Princess Aurora (a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty). The first movie established that Maleficent was the only one who truly cared for the princess, and all the business with the curse to sleep forever and turning into a murderous dragon was a mix of miscommunication and anti-witch propaganda.
Speaking of which, anti-witch propaganda forms the main spine of the plot: The story is about how Princess Aurora’s marriage to her Disney Prince of choice kicks off a conflict between the untamed CGI fairylands of the Moors where she rules, and the prince’s heavily militarized human kingdom that’s ruled over by Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), his haughty and hawkish mother. Ingrith tricks Maleficent into seeming as evil as possible to turn the people against her, and she’s forced to fly away. As conflict brews between the queen’s army and the unaware but powerful fairies, Maleficent discovers that she’s just one of a lost tribe of magical beings, who all look just like her: either Disney villains or Rob Zombie band members, depending on your reference points.
The story that follows has many strange and exciting concepts and events: City-sized caves containing prehistoric dragon skeletons preserved in amber, a crow-bear hybrid who later apologizes for mauling everyone, an old father figure who pulls a Mufasa on Maleficent (Linda Woolverton seems to have forgotten she already wrote this dialogue back in 1994), a deadly church organ, cult legend Warwick Davis as a mad scientist with elf ears, and people talking about open borders and race traitors with a tone that suggests it’s supposed to make all that other stuff serious.
The problem with all that fun is that a movie should be more than just the sum of its parts: It has to come together with a story that matters to you and characters who you feel for, and Mistress of Evil is so busy with all the magic war business that it only has time for the most basic plot and character arcs. It feels like an inevitability, when you write a sequel to a story that ends “happily ever after” – there’s only so much you can do without reducing the story to “Another problem comes up, but then it gets fixed”. The effort leads to all that wonderful weirdness above, but if you take a look absolutely none of it has anything to do with the original conception of the fairy tale. Fans of fantasy and camp will appreciate the effort, especially since so few stories are forced to invent this much on such a high budget, but there’s not much to recommend on its own terms, let alone those of the original.