Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is the boldest of Disney’s films this year.
The sequel to 2014’s baddie-turned-goodie Sleeping Beauty origin story, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is the rare live-action Disney movie that actually take some risks. Directed by Kon-tiki co-director Joachim Rønning and co-written by returning Maleficent scribe Linda Woolverton (with “Transparent” writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster), the film is a bonkers mixture of fairy tale romance, catfight-laced soap opera and war epic. And, thanks in no small part to the insanely charismatic Angelina Jolie and a delightfully nasty Michelle Pfeiffer, it ends up being pretty darned entertaining.
In the years since the original Maleficent, the winged, horned queen of darkness and her adopted daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) have been kindly ruling over the magical fairy kingdom of the Moors. But when Aurora’s longtime beau Prince Philip (Beach Rats’ breakout Harris Dickerson) proposes, things get a bit complicated. Philip is from the neighboring kingdom of Ulstead, a much more human world ruled by King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). The new engagement calls for a meeting of the families, instantly turning the first act into a fantasy version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Jolie and Pfeiffer play off of each masterfully in these scenes, which the film’s best written. In addition to allowing the movie to pass the Bechdel Test, it is also satisfying to see these two legends, more referenced for beauty rather than talent, show what makes them such skilled screen actors. Both can cycle through dozens of emotions with a glance or the curl of their famous lips.
Dinner, of course, goes very badly. King John ends up cursed and Aurora is tricked into turning on Maleficent, much to our grumpy heroine’s chagrin. As it turns out, Queen Ingrith has a genocidal plan for Maleficent’s Moors, and she’s lured the mistress of evil into a trap. Maleficent is forced to seek refuge with her fellow dark fey, as well as fairy godmothers, talking plants, trolls, goblins and, of course, her snappy shapeshifting sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley). War erupts, which allows Rønning to stuff even more CGI into every scene and gives costume designer Ellen Mirojnick the chance to put our leading ladies in a variety of stunning, over-the-top ensembles.
It’s important that to note that Maleficent is a Hollywood blockbuster with a woman in her mid-40s as its protagonist and a woman in her 60s as its villain. Jolie’s star power is proven, of course, but she hasn’t starred in a film since her 2015 disappointment By the Sea. And Pfeiffer, though consistently first-rate and exceptional as recently as 2017’s Mother!, has made appearances in big films in recent years but not in a leading role. This is the kind of data often used by studios and producers to defend the lack of meaty female roles and projects for female directors, and of course it is hogwash because we’ve seen men appear in dud after dud and still get hired again and again. So while it is sad to commend Disney for treating women even almost the same as they would men, it is better than many other studios are doing.
Not everything works in Mistress of Evil: the quality of the visuals is uneven (though Maleficent and her powers look suitably impressive throughout) and the swerves and subplots of the script, though charming for their craziness, sometimes lack coherence or explanation. But the film is consistently entertaining. Jolie’s characterization of Maleficent is impossible to look away from, and in Pfeiffer’s Ingrith they’ve given her a worthy adversary, unlike the first film’s rapey King Stefan.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is the boldest of Disney’s films this year, and though it often wins strictly as the result of its talented leads, it’s a treat to see a franchise product that isn’t afraid to get weird. After the dull Dumbo and painfully faithful adaptations of Aladdin and The Lion King, it’s fun to have Disney once again take us somewhere we haven’t been before.