Disney’s grand experiment of continuously remaking its animated properties has reached a critical mass in more ways than one. While massive nostalgia plays like The Lion King and Aladdin have recently reaped massive returns at the box office, a boiling point is upon us. Disney doesn’t have an endless cauldron of beloved animated films to remake…unless the studio can turn to sequels and spin-offs as an effort to keep these franchises dominant at the box office.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is far from the mouse’s first sequel to a live-action reimagining, going back as far as 102 Dalmatians in 2000 and as recently as Alice Through the Looking Glass in 2016, to name only a couple. Whatever your poison, the idea to continue these successful “re-franchises” is at least slightly more intriguing than simply remaking them from the ground up all over again.
Why not continue the adventures of Maleficent in particular? Especially considering how drastically Disney remixed her source material in 2014 to a good deal of success, twisting the fairy tale narrative to feature Angelina Jolie in a dynamic performance as a more grounded and sympathetic take on the classic shape-shifting sorceress.
Thus, Mistress of Evil fittingly revisits the character and her cohorts five years later, placing her in a Shrek 2 scenario where it’s time for the mismatched lovers’ families to comedically “meet the parents.” Prince Phillip (recast as Harris Dickinson) has proposed to Aurora (Elle Fanning) after a significantly long courtship, promising a union of two very different kingdoms: the magical wilderness region known as the Moors vs. the somewhat cold, sterile, and traditionally staged castle kingdom with a title I absolutely remember the name of, why do you ask?
As Aurora’s dark fairy godmother, Maleficent has reason to distrust and ultimately defy this marriage and the consequences it may bring to the whimsical creatures she has sworn to protect alongside her goddaughter. And she has further reason to distrust the hidden motivations of Phillip’s mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is seemingly up to no good.
With all this going on, Maleficent finds herself out of the picture completely, coming face-to-face with her own people, the dark feys, who are on the brink of extinction and under the uneasy leadership of hawkish Borra (Ed Skrein) and the more peaceful Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor). In case you were curious, these are the only other dark feys with actual names in the movie.
Mistress of Evil earns its title and genre as a dark fantasy, with Joachim Rønning as director to replace Robert Stromberg from the 2014 film. Rønning co-directed Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales from 2017, which failed to recapture the imaginations of a long-dormant franchise. Sadly, Rønning repeated his mistakes with Mistress of Evil, though arguably to a lesser degree.
A positive carryover between film and sequel here isn’t just Jolie returning to a role she clearly found winning years ago; it’s also Linda Woolverton returning as co-screenwriter, infusing a sense of intrigue and imagination to an otherwise dreary world that is realized onscreen, despite all the fanciful creatures and vibrant colors. Maleficent is a misunderstood character whose problems and reputation haven’t dissolved since the previous film, which plays into a larger theme of the character understanding her place as an outcast with the power to effect lasting change in an unfair world, while simultaneously shirking some of the noteworthy criticisms she failed to reckon with in the previous film, nonetheless.
The main suffering of this film relates to an echo of The Lion King from earlier this year, and that is the lack of emotion or persuasive performance from hardly any actor involved. We know that Jolie, Fanning, Pfeiffer, Ejiofor, and others are all tremendous actors with incredible presence when under the right direction, but Mistress of Evil presents them at their most droll and uninterested. Even the CGI fairies (who admittedly receive far less attention this time) seem to be more mishandled than before. Two notable exceptions are Maleficent and Ingrid’s own right hands: Sam Riley returning as the more self-aware Diaval and Jenn Murray playing the comically stonehearted Gerda.
When Mistress of Evil leans into its darker, more fantastical elements, it gleans closer to an experience worth treasuring, especially for younger viewers on the cusp of appreciating harsher material. But with this tone of death and consequences comes the apparent Disney mandate to balance edge with family friendly endings, including the decision to pair a massacre with a tonally distant event I won’t spoil here, but needless to say it is ill-timed to the point of stunning bewilderment.
Much could be said about the confused ethics and morality of Mistress of Evil, which is just barely worth the discussion considering the pedigree involved. Questions like — who should be punished for crimes involving murder they knowingly abetted — are purposefully brushed aside to elicit the type of happy ending Disney must and shall be known for, especially with its fairy tale proprieties. The opportunity to tell a stranger, more fascinating story about a character who was so fascinatingly re-imagined just a few years ago has been discarded in favor of keeping this franchise on-brand and on the rails of even more profitable installments, which is a darker fate than any character in this film may have realized.
We’ve reached the point where even Disney wants to replicate the success of their superhero shared universe by making episodic features when such aren’t needed, which specifically plays into how Mistress of Evil resets its status quo and foregoes all necessary consequences and narrative movement to keep its continuity from being a wash. The result is a half-baked resolution that ignores all of the ethical implications staged by the film itself. A lukewarm lesson on forgiving your enemies and “both sides have a point ” is fumbled into the text, when a simpler story about a mistress of good, evil, and the gray in between would have been far more compelling for kids, adults, and everyone in between.