Disney’s Maleficent occupies a strange space in their recent infatuation with fairy tale reimaginings. Unlike the others, it took the notorious Sleeping Beauty villain and flipped the story on its head, positioning the horned-one as an antihero whose tales of evil were just a big misunderstanding! It was all a bit silly, but pretty to look at and Angelina Jolie’s razor-sharp cheekbones were indeed something to behold. Plus, there was at least something interesting in the emergence of Maleficent’s maternal instinct, and how it turns her towards being a force for good.
Maleficent, and Jolie’s cheekbones, somehow sharper, are back for the sequel, Mistress of Evil, which unnecessarily continues the story of her rehabilitation into a full-on hero. Somehow overstuffed and boring, the film is at least notable for the sheer tonnage of CGI woodland creatures crammed onto the screen at once. It’s like the full cast of Lord of the Rings and Carnival Row sharing a two-hour-long group photo, leaving Jolie’s Maleficent a passenger in her own movie.
The new film takes place a few years later, with Queen Aurora (Elle Fanning) now ruling the fairies, pixies, and tree-like creatures (Ripped-off from LOTR’s Ents) in the Moors. After a bit of digital tomfoolery involving her fairy godmothers (the returning Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, and Imelda Staunton), Aurora is proposed marriage by her longtime suitor, Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson, replacing Brenton Thwaites who thought better). This isn’t going to make her godmother very happy. Not only is Maleficent mistrustful of humans, for very good reason, but she’s wary of what a union between the Moors and the kingdom of Ulstead could mean.
Literally gritting her teeth through the ordeal (“Show a little less fang”, Maleficent is told by her terrific sidekick Diaval, played by the underrated Sam Riley), Maleficent meets with Aurora’s new in-laws at a sure-to-be-awkward dinner engagement. The situation is made worse by the frostiness of Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who can’t hide her disdain despite the efforts of her husband, King John (Robert Lindsay). Maleficent’s table manners aren’t too hot, either, and it isn’t long before holy green Hell breaks loose. The king is cursed in the fracas, Maleficent blamed for it, and Ingrith is ready to declare war.
War is what Mistress of Evil falls back on rather than the core relationship between Maleficent and Aurora, which gave the first film much of its heart. While the sequel is more action intense than the previous one, there’s a decided lack of emotional stakes. We do learn that Maleficent’s powers are somehow tied to the mythical Phoenix (not the Dark Phoenix, although I WISH!!!), and her genetic bloodline rooted to a hidden race of creatures that look just like her, two of them played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein in obvious paycheck gigs. Ejiofor in particular tries his best to make something of his Yoda-like mentor, Conall, but the script doesn’t allow that much space for anybody, much less him.
Mostly, this movie is just dull and extremely dark. Director Joachim Rønning may have crowded the opening minutes with fanciful pranks and fairy hijinks, but the rest is doom, gloom, and an extra dose of doom. In one especially Hellish sequence, those same gleeful creatures from the Moors are locked away in a church and…well, something akin to the Red Wedding takes place. The Ulstead soldiers march around like death squads, while fantasy movie icon Warwick Davis turns up as an elvish inventor whose specialty is figuring out ways to kill others just like himself. Oh Willow. How far you’ve fallen.
Fortunately, Pfeiffer’s performance is as gloriously rich with scorn and devilry as we had hoped. She’s clearly having a ball as Ingrith, squaring off against Jolie’s green-eyed fay, but the latter is strangely withdrawn. Everybody is pretty solemn throughout, perhaps owing to the uninviting storyline that focuses heavily on hatred and death. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a real downer, and no amount of magic is going to redeem it.