One of the legendary Disney villains, Maleficient seems like an incredibly interesting character to build a film around. With Angelina Jolie taking on the famed witch, there was plenty of reason for excitement when Maleficent came to theaters in 2014. Despite ravaging the box office, the first film left little impression on pop culture and most of us collectively shrugged. That made it that much stranger that a sequel, Maleficient: Mistress of Evil would be released in 2019. Whether Disney wanted to stay in Jolie game or cash in on the first film is irrelevant. Surprisingly the pseudo-franchise takes a step forward thanks to newcomers and a surprisingly progressive plot. Even so, it still falls short of mediocrity, a far cry from the promise of the character.
Maleficient: Mistress of Evil picks up as Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Prince Philip (Harrison Dickinson) become engaged. For Maleficent (Jolie), the engagement evokes feelings of betrayal. These emotions do not subside after Philip’s family becomes confrontational during their first family dinner. After Philip’s father becomes ill, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to kill Maleficient. Wounded, the famed witch falls into a river, only to be saved by Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his hidden band of fairies.
Mistress of Evil suffers from many of the worst aspects of the other Disney live-action films. While the idea of retelling a story could yield interesting results, director Joachim Rønning always makes the safe choice. Most of the footage reeks of pre-vis concept art, which remains better in practice than in actual execution. Little character development occurs over the course of the film, instead hoping a few moments will satisfy your nostalgia for the story. With most of the original story burned off, the narrative even bends over backward to tell the audience that everyone has already forgotten that Maleficient was the hero the last time out. It does not help the story land, and instead seems like a fake assumption to create problems for the characters.
For Jolie, the return to the sequel is baffling. There’s no doubt the last decade has not been kind to her, despite her evolving career as a Director. Other than two Maleficient films and two Kung Fu Pandas, she disappeared from the spotlight. Raising a family and directing will do that, but to make your return in a prosthetic driven character does little to boost her reputation. Jolie certainly deserves to get better projects at this stage in her career. Even with a slight meta-ness to the film’s choice to have false rumors swirl around her in the public discourse, Maleficient remains an imperfect vehicle to recognize her immense talent.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film comes late in the story. As Pfeiffer continues to take power, it becomes clear she has spread rumors and used propaganda to create false narratives about the non-human creatures in the story. In this case, its easy to assume that an immigrant or LGBT narrative could stand-in for the mystical creatures, creating a repressive state that mirrors many countries in the real world. While less exciting than Dumbo‘s metacommentary earlier this year, Mistress of Evil at least has a point of view on the world. That’s more than you could say for almost any other Disney live-action remake this year.
On the flip side, the fact that Disney of all companies made this film makes you question Mistress of Evil‘s intentions. Even though the cast and crew likely embrace and champion the diversity present throughout, there are many moments Mistress feels disingenuous. Perhaps none feels more frustrating than the use of Ejiofor, who has no purpose in the film than to be a wise black man. There were ways to make Maleficient embrace its storytelling in a non-cynical way, but its hard to find them executed well in this story.
Maleficient: Mistress of Evil could certainly be worse, but that does not make it a good movie either. Despite fine performances from Jolie and the crew, it feels fairly lifeless from the word go. The biggest takeaway is undeniably the strong makeup work, so the Oscar nomination feels fairly deserved. For Disney, it represents another creatively shallow concept that could have been more interesting in the hands of more capable storytellers. Sadly, it seems we’ll never get the full-blown evil Maleficent we always wanted.