Disney is having a banner year at the box office. The behemoth production studio broke the record for total global revenue in July, after a string of movies that were either massive hits (like “Avengers: Endgame” and “The Lion King,” currently the two highest grossing films of the year respectively) or complete duds (like “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” and “Dumbo”). What there hasn’t been is a lot of merely passible entertainment that makes a relatively middling amount of money and is quickly forgotten. That’s the category “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” falls into; it’s a visually gorgeous movie that’s merely OK.
Jolie’s image meshed well with the Maleficent character. If anyone could pull off an anti-hero equal parts cool and evil, it would be her.
The original “Maleficent,” which premiered in 2014, was part of Disney’s early foray into live-action remakes of old classics. Inspired by the success of Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland,” Disney suits, bless their hearts, still thought these remakes should be creative instead of the shot-for-shot CGI recreations like “Beauty and the Beast” that would follow. It helped that the film featured Angelina Jolie in the title role. Jolie had been absent from the big screen for several years at that point, understandably pre-occupied with raising six young children, not to mention her directing and advocacy efforts. She was ripe for what we might call the “Pirates of the Caribbean” stage of her career comeback.
And much like Depp in Disney’s Jack Sparrow, Jolie’s image meshed well with the Maleficent character. If anyone could pull off an anti-hero equal parts cool and evil, it would be her. The movie also expanded and twisted the original “Sleeping Beauty” fairytale by making Maleficent’s maternal feelings the key to lifting Aurora’s (Elle Fanning) curse. It was a clever and female-centered take on the material that also seemed to parallel Jolie’s personal transformation from a woman who wore a blood vial necklace to a hard-working earth mother. Who can’t relate?
Also like “Pirates,” there was always going to be a sequel. In this case, the second film takes the fairy tale's original romantic ending — Aurora's wedding to Prince Phillip — and derails it. “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” begins with Phillip still attempting to find the right time to propose to his true love, over the objections of Maleficent and despite the machinations of his awful mother.
Maleficent being confronted by the prospect of losing her beloved daughter to a man isn’t a bad dramatic notion. Even without the added goading of Prince Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), Maleficent doesn’t seem like the kind of woman to take this sort of rejection well. Ingrith is the greatest monster-in-law this side of Jane Fonda; she wears her ropes and ropes (and ropes and ropes and ropes) of diamonds and pearls like armor. In quick succession, Ingrith frames Maleficent to look as if she’s cursed the king and manipulates Aurora into subservience to her husband-to-be’s family — all while preparing for war against the magical creatures of the forest.
Unfortunately, this plot would barely fill an hour of TV on the upcoming Disney+ network, so a secondary plot is added. Maleficent is the only one of her kind, you see, a horned and cheekboned creature of darkness surrounded by nattering fairies. But she had to come from somewhere, right? So the film contrives a surprise homecoming with the family she never knew were all of a 15 minute’s flight away. We then spend an excessive amount of time meeting all sorts of dark fairy folk. But while this secondary society is interesting, it feels mostly like a way for the directors to stall until Ingrith’s war can get underway.
Perhaps the best part of this fairy subplot is the costuming opportunities. In fact, there isn’t a single moment when Jolie’s Maleficent isn’t dressed in such a manner that she could easily step to the side and start doing a red carpet interview with Ryan Seacrest. And the actress is clearly having a grand time chewing the magical scenery, whether it’s attempting to act normal at dinner (small talk is not her forte) or failing to understand human wedding rituals. (When asked by Aurora if she’ll “give her away” Maleficent looks horrified at the notion: “Never!”)
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is a muddled mess. Pfeiffer plays the evil queen as if she’s working to earn every jewel she’s been encrusted in. Fanning is blandly good and earnest, which is all she needs to be, although one wishes she’d get a little less wide-eyed over time. But then again, she’s paired with the equally wide-eyed Harris Dickinson as her prince, so it works. (Dickinson is a recast from the first film, because the prince is really more of a prop than a person anyway.) Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein play members of Maleficent’s newly discovered tribe but have little opportunity to do much. We sadly get less of Sam Riley as Maleficent’s sidekick Diaval. But we also blessedly get far less of the irritating trio of fairies from the original cartoon, played here by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville.
That “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is not very good doesn’t mean fans of Jolie should worry. The final moments set up a third film, should box office returns support it. In fact, the franchise will probably keep going so long as Jolie and Fanning are willing to keep turning up to the set. But it’s too bad this is just an ordinary fairytale, the kind where sequels come with diminishing returns.