“What do I remember about Maleficent?” Spellbindingly puzzled, I tried to recall the half decade since the Angelina Jolie fronted reimagining of the familiar Sleeping Beauty fairy tale played to audience. Five years, especially now, drowns one like a waking nightmare. The climate surrounding Robert Stromberg’s initial take: one of contrition—cedes to today’s recognition of diverse narratives and an acceptance of differences. Joachim Rønning’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil succeeds when addressing the former, spinning a wheel of stunning imagery to match the picture’s new varied universe, but struggles when rolling with the expectations of the fairy tale genre.
Since crowed by her godmother Maleficent, Aurora (Elle Fanning) rules over the Moors: a portion of grassy land filled with magical beings. Here, happiness reins supreme—made exceedingly so when the smitten Phillip (Harris Dickinson) proposes to Aurora. A wedding is in order, uniting the two kingdoms. In the background, however, unbeknownst to Aurora, human poachers are hunting in the Moors—kidnapping the magical creatures to a castle. And while Phillip and Aurora are madly in love, the parents are not. The strong-horned Maleficent won’t easily give over her daughter to a human man, not after Stefan’s previous actions. While Phillip’s parents: King John (Robert Lindsay) and especially the cold Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer, who slays as a villain adorned in Ellen Mirojnick’s luscious costumes)— are equally as incredulous. Moreover, the entirety of Phillip’s kingdom still believes the stories of Maleficent as a plague bringing blood thirsty witch, putting them on edge of any proposed union.
The totality of the fairytale’s initial machinations would fill the entirety of the 118-minute runtime, yet Rønning still adds further subplots. Because as Queen Ingrith enacts her sinister ends of destructively targeting fairies, and Maleficent is driven away, his picture shifts from a prototypical game of palace intrigue and matrimonial jitters to a world-building epic in a bloody medieval struggle for power.
While kids make up the primary audience for Mistress of Evil, to arrive at such heights Rønning is stuck conforming to common storytelling tropes. Much as the filmmaker might want to ditch the film’s cliche wedding: the narrative’s frame, he abides by allowing Aurora and Phillip’s love and struggle to see their respective parents’ true ambitions to dominate large swaths of the story—never hinting at more than a perfunctory cheer.
Instead, Maleficent’s arc—and for that matter Jolie’s sharp delivery— carries Mistress of Evil. The film’s second act becomes an origin story for the winged sorceress, as she’s taken in by her race led by Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor). These winged creatures live underground, disparaged and exiled by humanity. Patrick Tatopoulos’s wondrous production design enlivens both this multicultural array of beings, as does his work regarding the Moor. The fanciful yet provocative subplot of a mostly brown-skinned race driven underground by largely Anglo-Saxon overlords makes for a searing portrait of intolerance that’s far more compelling than the fairytale tropes at the narrative’s heart. Moreover, whenever Jolie and her apathetic sense of humor leaves our gaze the story falls flat. Without her, Mistress of Evil would never lift off the ground.
While the varied components of Rønning’s picture do coalesce to altering levels of success, concluding with a final battle sequence whose editing lacks coherence, there’s enough magic dust made of sass and a decent amount of political relevance for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil to fancy the imagination—making the first and second film of this series intriguing before-and-after time capsules.