Five years ago, Maleficent began with a line that sounded like Disney’s marketing plan for the last few years: “Let us tell an old story anew, and we will see how well you know it.” Since Maleficent’s release, Disney has retold many of their famous animated stories almost shot-for-shot, bringing fantasy into the real world. Five years later, Maleficent stands out even more as one of the few unique takes on classic material, reshaping the story the world already knows instead of simply rehashing it. Not only that, but Maleficent felt daring, a story of the powerful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) abused by the man she loved, then trying to take the power away from this man who weakens other people to get ahead in the world. Maleficent was one of the few Disney live-action adaptations that had something powerful to say, a unique vision that didn’t hold its source material dear.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil becomes the first live-action Disney film in recent memory to go outside the source material, continuing after it seemed the “happily ever after” had occurred. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil plays with many of the same ideas of the original, without having the power of Maleficent’s origins, and reiterating the points that were already made. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil wants us to believe that maybe Maleficent could still deep down be evil, despite seeing in the previous film that she isn’t. Mistress of Evil wants us to understand that sometimes the real family is the one we choose, despite already making that point clearly in the first story. Yet even with retelling many of the key elements of the first film in this unexpected franchise, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil still finds a way to stand out among all the other live-action films Disney has recently released.
After the events of Maleficent, Aurora (Elle Fanning, at her most chipper) has become the ruler of the Moors, an area outside the human kingdom where mythical fantasy characters roam free. Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) comes to the Moors and asks Aurora to marry him, a decision that is not taken lightly by Aurora’s godmother, Maleficent. Aurora and Maleficent are invited to the king’s castle for a celebration dinner with King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). When the Queen says she accepts Aurora as her daughter, Maleficent proclaims that there will be no union between Aurora and Phillip, inadvertently starting a war between the creatures of the Moors and the human kingdom.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’s biggest influence seems to be Game of Thrones, as this sequel amps up the fantasy creatures, the in-fighting within the kingdom, and especially dragon imagery that screams of Thrones. Mistress of Evil’s fantasy elements are quite generic and only feel sillier the further the film digs into the history of its heroine.
To continue Maleficent’s origin of sorts, Mistress of Evil introduces her kind, the Dark Fey, led by Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The Dark Fey have hidden from the humans, with the group conflicted on whether they should fight the humans or form an alliance with them. The Dark Fey as an idea isn’t terrible, but seeing these horned, winged humanlike creatures flying in a world comprised of CGI is almost always laughable.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil also doesn’t hide the story’s inherent darkness, as writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, and Micah Fitzerman-Blue craft a story full of double-crosses, murder, and species extermination. Director Joachim Rønning, who last worked on the exhausting Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, does a fine job presenting both the world of the Moors and of the humans. While third-act action usually is the most boring part of these live-action fantasy tales, Rønning’s GoT inspiration makes this one of the few conclusions that excites rather than exhausts.
But the key attraction to Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is clearly Jolie, who plays the title character with a level of disgust and irreverence that makes her always a joy to watch. The dynamic between her and sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) is undeniably charming, and watching her and Pfeiffer go head-to-head when it comes to the fate of Aurora and their respective lands is the source of some of the film’s best scenes.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil doesn’t have the emotional heft of the original film, nor is the retelling of Maleficent’s story nearly as interesting this time around, especially when it digs into her Dark Fey brethren. But Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is still a breath of fresh air in a series of films that thrive at being strictly accurate to their predecessors. Mistress of Evil might lose some of the magic of the original Maleficent, but at least there’s still magic.