Before Disney’s live-action remake initiative became a runaway train of relentless product, someone at the House of Mouse had an idea– Rather than just remake Sleeping Beauty in a live-action format, what if they remade Sleeping Beauty in a live-action format, but told it from the perspective of its fan-favourite villainess? Thus Maleficent was born, hitting theatres in 2014, to a surprisingly middling reception from both critics and moviegoers. The movie was seen as a well-produced, well-intentioned effort that nonetheless felt like a failed experiment, taking a famously irredeemable baddie like Maleficent, and turning her into a merely misunderstood protagonist that meant well the whole time, something that really doesn’t end up meshing with Maleficent’s much-beloved portrayal in the original animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959.

Despite most audiences more or less shrugging at its final product after seeing it though, people still ultimately saw Maleficent in droves, which led to the movie becoming a massive box office smash, and the fourth-highest-grossing movie of 2014 overall, only trailing behind Disney’s own Guardians of the Galaxy, Warner Bros.’ The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, and Paramount’s Transformers: Age of Extinction. Thus, while Maleficent didn’t join the billion-gross club like Disney’s recent remakes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King ultimately did, a sequel would nonetheless be guaranteed, after Maleficent’s highly lucrative $758 million worldwide earnings. That sequel has finally arrived in theatres for this Fall, that being Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, a follow-up that ultimately breaks away from the story foundation of Sleeping Beauty, in favour of telling its own story that expands upon the established lore of the Maleficent universe specifically.

Considering that Maleficent was very definitively wrapped up with a blatantly closed ending though, one can imagine that Angelina Jolie’s particular anti-hero rendition of the character pretty much has nowhere else to go at this point, and that’s a feeling that’s all too prevalent throughout Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. This is ultimately a very assembly-line Disney sequel, one that feels like a design-by-committee product that’s solely been produced to squeeze even more money from Maleficent’s audience, despite the shaky reception that the original movie often got. Now that this sequel can break away from having to somewhat follow the story of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty however, it does at least provide a more tonally and thematically consistent storyline, though at the cost of completely losing anything that separates it from your run-of-the-mill Disney-branded blockbuster.

CHARACTERS

If nothing else, Angelina Jolie continues to play the role of Maleficent very well here. She remains perfectly cast, and demonstrates an equal ability to be nurturing as she does to be terrifying. Despite Jolie once again being an obvious draw in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil however, her Maleficent nonetheless feels weirdly sidelined in her own movie here. Again, this could be symptomatic of the fact that Jolie’s Maleficent has virtually nowhere else to go in the narrative after the first movie’s events. She had a closed, properly resolved character arc that didn’t merit further exploration in this case. Since Disney is forcing out this cash grab sequel however, it’s going to throw open the big book of cliches to give Maleficent something resembling a competent character arc. Maleficent pissed about Aurora wanting to get married because she’s too protective? Check. Maleficent running afoul of a kingdom that wants to exterminate her formerly-unknown race of dark fey because they looked at the royals funny once? Check. This being a family-friendly Disney blockbuster, so the resulting war has to be fought not with actual violence, destruction and loss, but with colourful magical bullshit that’s friendly for the kids? Checkity-check-check!

It’s really frustrating that this Maleficent movie does pretty much nothing to get you to care about its titular character. As much as the original Maleficent could be very flawed, it at least kept the focus squarely on Maleficent herself for the most part, and as such, delivered a story that was ultimately about her. In Maleficent: Mistress of Evil however, Aurora and Phillip now feel like the main characters, with their desire to get married now being the main focus of most, if not all of the character arcs, and Maleficent is just along for the ride. Elle Fanning reprises her role as Aurora, on that note, but Phillip has been recast in this sequel too, with Harris Dickinson taking over the role from Brenton Thwaites, likely because of Thwaites’ ongoing commitment to DC Universe’s flagship television series, Titans. Fanning actually manages to turn out a pretty sharp performance in this sequel too, now playing Aurora as more mature and sophisticated, while also having more conviction and independence. Dickinson meanwhile is a fine Phillip, but there isn’t really much to Phillip’s character once again, so it’s not exactly a demanding role to fill.

It’s ultimately the women that steal the show in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, with ‘dark fey’ leader, Conall being the exception to this, played in another standout role by an unrecognizable Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ejiofor makes up for his short-changed Scar portrayal in this past July’s live-action remake of The Lion King with a character that’s nicely complex and appealing, which is why it’s once again frustrating that Conall gets so little screentime. Even the trigger-happy Borra, played by an equally-unrecognizable Ed Skrein, seems to get more focus in the storytelling, even though he mostly exists just to keep provoking Phillip’s home kingdom of Ulstead. There’s at least a little bit more depth attempted with Michelle Pfeiffer’s main antagonist, Queen Ingrith, Phillip’s mother and the proper ruler of Ulstead (because that decent king, who contributes virtually nothing to the plot, just won’t do what’s necessary with those troublesome magical creatures that are blocking Ulstead’s sun or something!), but even Ingrith’s motivations feel disappointingly shallow, doing little more than following the expected script for a boilerplate Disney blockbuster.

In fact, considering all of the bellyaching over ‘the Moors’, the place where all of the magical creatures in this world live, which is allegedly protected by Maleficent and her crow man-servant, Diaval, once again played by Sam Riley in this follow-up, it’s tough to invest that much in the fate of these creatures. All of them are blatant CGI effects without much semblance of real personality, and the only exceptions are characters that cross completely into the realm of sheer annoyance. This unfortunately means that the three fairies, Imelda Staunton’s Knotgrass, Juno Temple’s Thistlewit and Lesley Manville’s Flittle are unfortunately back in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (again, I have no idea why Disney changed the names of the fairies from Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, especially when those original names are far better), being more irritating than ever, and this time contributing even less to the storytelling, outside of a brief set piece during the climax. We should care about the fate of these creatures, but even the movie itself seems to shrug at them. There’s never a question that they’ll work things out in the end, nor is there a question that Aurora wanting to get married will ever truly threaten them. The Moors in general exists purely as a macguffin, a forced obstacle through which equally false characters can fight over the hope of an altogether false victory.

PLOT

To the credit of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, it does at least manage to separate itself nicely from the story foundation of Sleeping Beauty. Now, the movie is free to keep building on this world’s own unique mythology, presenting a follow-up storyline that can keep expanding the Maleficent lore, while no longer needing to respect pretty much anything from Disney’s timeless 1959 animated classic. Some of the core ideas behind this sequel’s story direction are pretty decent too, namely exploring Maleficent’s sub-race of ‘Dark Fey’, and how Aurora’s impending marriage to Phillip may affect Aurora’s time as an established authority over the magical creatures of the Moors. At the very least, this sequel’s story treatment has had some effort put into it.

Disappointingly though, it all just adds up to the same predictable Disney formula that you would expect. It almost feels like there’s nothing to spoil in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in fact, since the movie’s plot has so few surprises, at least beyond its weird lack of emphasis on Maleficent herself. There’s ultimately very little to say about the storytelling in this sequel, which amounts to another humans-versus-monsters fable of tolerance, and coming to terms with what one doesn’t immediately understand. Again, this somewhat feels like a logical extension of the previous movie wanting to re-frame Maleficent as a misunderstood anti-hero, but these themes of tolerance and understanding have been done before, and done better, in so many other movies, from Disney and otherwise. Frankly, if Disney has a storytelling trope in fantasy media, it’s probably present in some form in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which ultimately funnels all of its initially promising story hooks into the same unremarkable mission to fight for true love and the cute things.

DIRECTION

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is directed by Joachim Ronning, this time without his usual directing partner, Espen Sandberg. Ronning and Sandberg previously co-directed 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales for Disney, which was their breakout English-spoken Hollywood blockbuster at the time, and similarly, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil stands as Ronning’s first high-profile solo directing effort for a feature film. Much like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales however, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil kind of feels like mere work-for-hire for Ronning, who appears to be directing the movie according to Disney’s specific desires for it, without crafting much of his own vision to stand out. Seeing as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales felt very similarly Disney-fied, it’s likely that Ronning was hired simply because he wouldn’t rock the boat for Disney’s latest fantasy blockbuster.

Regardless, Robert Stromberg’s more distinct direction from the original Maleficent is kind of missed here, since Ronning seems to go for the most expected direction decisions throughout much of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, including shooting a lot of scenes in the dark, to reflect the supposed struggle with evil facing the main character, or simply parroting the same visual flourishes from Sleeping Beauty whenever they’re needed. There’s at least a solid sense of workmanlike vibrancy and charm realized in the performances and style of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but nothing about its direction stands out at all. By contrast, even during its lesser moments, at least the original Maleficent felt like it had an assured directing hand, whereas this sequel definitely feels like a paycheque for Ronning. Ronning’s direction is certainly good enough to make par, since Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is immediately recognizable as a live-action Disney blockbuster, but that’s probably the most noteworthy achievement that this sequel’s direction ultimately manages.

MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK

Despite the reasonably shady score behind the original Maleficent, James Newton Howard doesn’t ultimately return to compose the music for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Instead, Geoff Zanelli takes over the duties of providing the music for this follow-up, having previously worked with director, Joachim Ronning on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales in 2017. Zanelli’s score doesn’t ultimately strive for the same degree of haunting flourishes that Howard’s score at least attempted as well, settling for blending with the rest of this sequel’s style, namely by being a music suite that does its job, and doesn’t try anything fancy. It feels like a very boilerplate Disney blockbuster score, and that’s probably fitting in a boilerplate Disney blockbuster.

The rest of the audio work also reduces the punch and intensity a bit from the first movie, which was already being careful not to frighten young children in most cases. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil on the other hand feels like it’s completely lacking in engaging sound mixing and audio work, furthering the feeling that the movie is just delivering a bunch of disposable fantasy fluff, without much substance behind it. Even the handful of combat-driven moments feel disappointingly lightweight, with the dark fey audio carrying a bit more imposing intensity, but still not a whole lot, all things considered. There just isn’t much to say about the audio of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in the end, which feels like it’s going through that reliable Disney checklist as much as the storytelling and the visuals are.

VISUAL EFFECTS

As with the original Maleficent, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil compensates for its storytelling flaws to some extent by at least being mindless eye candy. There’s a minor budget reduction with this sequel, but it’s not terribly evident, especially when this world still feels lively and well-detailed. As much as places like the Moors don’t feel like they ever manage any true narrative stakes, everything at least looks really well-produced, in true Disney fashion. Some of the CGI creatures in the Moors look better than others (the three fairies in particular almost look a little downgraded compared to the original movie, in fact), but the make-up and wardrobe work is still pretty great, especially with Maleficent herself, the Dark Fey, and Warwick Davis’ villain assistant, Lickspittle. The colourful CGI work will definitely hold kids’ attention, but it’s when Maleficent: Mistress of Evil uses practical effects that it often looks its best, coming closer to that sinister-looking, but still surprisingly charming vibe that the original Maleficent could sometimes achieve at its best.

I also happened to see Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in 3D, and while the 3D work is certainly not bad, it’s also frequently dragged down by the persistently dark cinematography. The scenes in the Moors and at the upper floors of Ulstead Castle are the exceptions, but outside of these scenes, a huge amount of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is shot at night, or in dark caverns or corridors. This really hurts the appeal of the 3D, since any 3D effects are very difficult to notice when scenes play out in the dark. You’ll get much the same visual experience if you just watch Maleficent: Mistress of Evil flat in 2D, frankly, and similarly, you can probably skip the IMAX cut of the movie too. The ‘action’ and visuals are too fluffy and unremarkable to properly exploit the bigger IMAX screen, despite the half-hearted attempts at shady, darkened cinematography in many scenes, so just save your money and stick with a standard digital screening if you have that option, and are that dead set on watching this sequel in a movie theatre. The extra bells and whistles aren’t really worth it here, particularly when Maleficent: Mistress of Evil looks polished and competent enough, but ultimately doesn’t do much to truly stand out from a technical standpoint.

THE VERDICT

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is the very definition of a by-the-numbers Disney blockbuster, as well as a big-budget movie sequel that doesn’t truly need to exist. There’s nothing really wrong with this movie, save for its baffling neglect of the titular character, but there’s also nothing really distinct about it either. It feels like a factory-engineered Disney sequel that was primarily put together in response to the commercial success of its predecessor five years ago, and has no greater agenda beyond that. Sure, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is pretty harmless, and there’s no reason to really take offense at its existence, but there’s also not much of a compelling reason to rush out and see it on the big screen either, especially in a year that’s already been stuffed to the seams with live-action Disney revamps, and with yet another one on the way to coincide with the Disney+ launch in a few short days.

In fact, the greatest accomplishment for the acceptable, but never remarkable Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, outside of its passing moments of more distinctly entertaining distractions, is the fact that it retroactively gave me a bit of a higher appreciation for the original Maleficent, despite its failings. The original Maleficent may have been repeatedly tripped up by its faulty script, as well as its perpetual inability to reconcile the former evil image of Maleficent herself with this attempt at a more sympathetic, misunderstood take on the character, but at least it tried to be something different within Disney’s longstanding cinematic legacy. It didn’t totally work, but Maleficent is nonetheless trying to stand out, whereas Maleficent: Mistress of Evil does pretty much nothing to stand out, ultimately playing it much safer, even if this also makes it more reliable and tonally consistent.

So, like the original Maleficent, opinions may vary somewhat with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Some may consider this sequel to be slightly better than its frustratingly uneven predecessor, while others may see it as purely disposable, unnecessary Disney fluff that isn’t worth their time. I can guarantee that pretty much no one is going to fondly remember this sequel after they’ve seen it though, which begs the question as to which is better– A forgettable movie that more consistently achieves its simple goals, or a movie that fails at much of what it wants to do, but at least sticks out in your memory for its better moments. Regardless of where you land though, I think we can all agree that we don’t need more Maleficent movies, especially when this sequel is still afraid to make this character as lovably wicked as her animated inspiration.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Review
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a by-the-numbers Disney blockbuster sequel that's more consistent than its contested 2014 predecessor, though at the cost of being much less memorable.
CHARACTERS75%
PLOT65%
DIRECTION65%
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK65%
VISUAL EFFECTS80%
THE GOOD STUFF
  • Jolie is still fantastic as the titular anti-heroine
  • Fanning's Aurora has effectively matured as a character
  • Some really amazing costumes, makeup and practical effects
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
  • Weirdly sidelines Maleficent in her own movie
  • Very boilerplate, forgettable men-vs.-monsters conflict
  • Direction is listless and fails to stand out
70%Overall Score
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