‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’ leans into dark roots, loses cohesion

Illustration of Maleficent
Ann Liu/Staff

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

In an age of media dominated by reboots and sequels, it would be no surprise that another movie in that pipeline would be met with eye rolls and cynicism. “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is among the more original additions to this trend, but still being born from the Disney princess classic “Sleeping Beauty,” its announcement was met with mixed reception. The film’s 2014 predecessor was met with the same uncertainty, though was ultimately received relatively well. And in spite of all of the will-they-won’t-they associated with audience patronage, the film made a boatload — almost ensuring that a sequel would be on its way.

This Friday finds the sequel’s arrival in theaters, and audiences who loved “Maleficent” aren’t likely to be disappointed, but audiences who didn’t are likely to dine on a whole new set of disappointments.

To the film’s credit, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is rife with things to love. The story opens five years after the first film, providing a healthy distance from the original while acknowledging audiences who have stuck around. The film soars with impressive visual effects, returning audiences to the world that lies on the precipice of good and evil and reintroducing them to the almost anti, mostly hero Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). 

Jolie is as stunning as ever as the titular character, and the design of her costumes is only one of the ways that the film delivers; in efforts toward world building, the film also offers a microsurrealist treat. And these are only a few of the ways the film flexes its range.

“Maleficent” was celebrated for its delicate handling of incredibly dark themes — many citing the villainess’ backstory as centering on an allegory for sexual assault. “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” similarly tackles heavy themes, with its plot centering on a loose, if not at times messy, metaphor for genocide and the atrocities of war in general. It’s an arc that does seem out of place in a fairytale, but while the film does at times feel like the Frankenstein’s monster of pop culture giants, this does set up a valiant effort to deliver an original and engaging story. In many ways, it does exactly this, but in this concerted effort, the film stumbles over its attempts to tell too diverse of a set of stories at once.

To start, the film revisits Maleficent’s own backstory — this time dealing with a history neither Maleficent nor the audience is aware of. Unfortunately, in setting up and revealing a secret history, the film strives to pave an unmarked road, simultaneously traveling across it. As a result, new characters and plotlines feel half-baked and hollow. What could make for incredibly compelling additions to the world gets crushed beneath the heavy demands of supporting the behemoth of a story. 

That said, new characters shine in spite of their material because of the A-list cast members who portray them. The addition and opposition of Michelle Pfeiffer as Queen Ingrith to Jolie’s Maleficent creates an absolutely iconic duo. The two women share a palpable chemistry, and watching them go head-to-head is a ballad of the mastery of their craft — both incredibly formidable forces. The dimensionality this allows Maleficent as a character is significant. More than once, the mistress of evil is privileged with a stoic and charming obliviousness that parallels Drax of “Guardians of the Galaxy” in humor. 

In the shadow of this growth, however, Aurora (Elle Fanning) is left to shrink. Much of the film relies on her ignorance, which pigeonholes her as a subject of the same damsel-like aloofness that plagued her in the first film. While Fanning is allowed brief moments of heroism toward the film’s end, this underutilization of her character dooms her to repeat the same mistakes audiences already expected her to learn from. For a film that hinges on a curse, audiences are left waiting for Aurora to escape the curse of the corner her character arc was written into. 

Still, in the face of these flaws, the film manages to be chiefly entertaining. Dynamic battle scenes and emotional range make the film a ride from start to finish. Where audiences may find fault, it’s unlikely they’ll be bored. And that is likely to have audiences coming back again and again.

Areyon Jolivette is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].