In 2014, back when Disney’s remakes of their own animated classics weren’t quite so prevalent, Maleficent offered a revisionist version of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the evil fairy who curses Princess Aurora to her slumber-coma. The title character was a good fit for Angelina Jolie’s imperious screen presence, and the film also hit the key nostalgia beats from the 1959 animation. But it didn’t exactly scream out for a sequel, beyond the obvious financial imperative (Maleficent took $759m at the box office).
Alas, Mistress of Evil never quite makes the case for a sequel being necessary, beyond giving Jolie a chance to don the signature horns and gothic gowns again. Picking up – in real time – five years after the events of the first film, MOE finds Maleficent and Aurora (Elle Fanning) living in the fairytale paradise of the Moors. To power the drama, the plot somewhat reneges on the ending of the first film to have Maleficent largely out of favour with the humanfolk again. When Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, replacing Brenton Thwaites but capturing the blandness of his performance) proposes to Aurora, the stage is set for an awkward dinner party.
The union should unite the two kingdoms, but Phillip’s wicked mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), has other plans, and has been stoking intolerance towards the fantasy creatures that live across the river. This clash will lead Maleficent to return to the world of her own kind, where she finds that certain ‘dark fey’ fairies are just as keen on a war.
Director Joachim Rønning did a solid job of the last Pirates of the Caribbean instalment, but Mistress of Evil never really gels. Even when the war kicks off in the third act, the film never truly soars. One major misstep is that there’s not nearly enough Maleficent – it almost feels like Jolie is relegated to supporting player in her own film. She doesn’t get much dialogue, especially when she returns to the fey realm where she’s mostly an observer on a guided tour conducted by Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose natural gravitas is diminished somewhat by a faintly ridiculous outfit) shows her around.
That leaves Fanning as the nominal lead, and she’s just not particularly compelling here. Pfeiffer picks up some of the slack in an enjoyably wicked turn, but it’s a missed opportunity to not have her sharing more screentime with Jolie. The sidelining of Maleficent feels even more unnecessary in light of how bloated the cast is elsewhere: returnees Sam Riley and the iffily animated fairy trio (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple) wouldn’t have been missed.
Though the CGI sometimes falters, Rønning creates an impressive enough fantasy world, with enough cute creatures and sweeping visuals to just about hold your attention, and a castle that feels suitably vast in scale. But ultimately, the foundations are too shaky for any attempts at emotion to have any impact, and some character motivations will have you scratching your head. This is a Sleeping Beauty reprise that should’ve hit the snooze button.
Want more on Maleficent: Mistress of Evil? Listen to the Total Film team discuss the movie on the Inside Total Film podcast.