Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a fantasy feast for the eyes

The sequel to the Disney spin-off is a heady blend of fantastic escapism and feminist leanings anchored by a trio of strong leading ladies.

Remaining one of the few Disney outliers in that it’s a spin-off/reimagining in a landscape dominated by live-action remakes, the first Maleficent movie was an admirable feature upon release in 2014. Four years later, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil remains even more outside the cookie-cutter format of taking an original Disney feature and simply revising it with A-list stars.

Mistress of Evil certainly rests comfortably on leading lady Angelina Jolie, but the script takes several gambles in its storytelling to create a rich and lush backstory for Jolie that ends up saving the rest of its fairy-tale narrative.

Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is comfortably living life as Queen of the Moors, the fairy folk living separately but pleasantly with the bordering kingdom of Olmstead. When Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) proposes marriage, Aurora is ecstatic, though her “godmother” Maleficent (Jolie) isn’t thrilled. When Maleficent runs afoul of Olmstead’s Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) and is blamed with cursing the King, it sets her on a path of self-discovery and an impending civil war.

There’s hardly any connection to the first film aside from the same characters, so if you skipped Maleficent but know the story of 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, you’ll be able to follow along.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil isn’t the stereotypical story of a mother refusing to let her daughter grow up, though that angle permeates Aurora and Maleficent’s relationship once Queen Ingrith prepares to accept the girl “as my own.” But this isn’t a tale of competing parenting styles; it’s more about women’s autonomy and how they’re maligned throughout history for wanting something different.

The script is credited to original Maleficent screenwriter Linda Woolverton, as well as Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster who wrote for Transparent and Marielle Heller’s Mr. Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It starts with a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty myth. As the narrative takes hold, it becomes apparent this is a story about how women are labeled based solely on perception. Maleficent was sold to the people as a witch — as the literal mistress of all evil — and history has retained that knowledge. But how did that story get started? What societal factors create a hero or a villain:? It’s pretty heady subtext for a movie that has pixies.

There are two distinct halves to Mistress of Evil that should divide audiences into “either/or” storytelling. Once Maleficent is blamed for the King’s demise, she’s nearly killed, only to be saved and taken to the home of the “Dark Fae,” a race of fairies like her who are a dying breed of phoenix descendants. In the grander arc of the movie, it makes sense; the Dark Fae give Maleficent more history on herself but also become the other side of the war being fought by Queen Ingrith. But it also leaves Jolie to react, reacting at the awe of seeing others like her or reacting to the horrible tale of their banishment.

But really the Dark Fae exist to be the persecuted other in a story rife with political subtext regarding tolerance and abuses of power. Queen Ingrith staunchly believes the residents of the Moors are freeloaders who should be exterminated. (Sound familiar?) Her goal is to instigate a war through mass genocide, drawing some uncomfortable comparisons to the Holocaust in the process. Pfeiffer revels in her badness, gliding through a string of destruction in some wondrous costumes designed by Ellen Mirojnick, though there are not nearly enough moments of sparring between her and Jolie.

In fact, the tolerance plotline is placed further in the camp of Princess Aurora, who initially feels shame in regards to her godmother, asking her to cover up her horns before going to the castle. As Aurora prepares for her big day, it causes her to question how much of her she can retain in a landscape conditioned to be normal. Her upbringing has been anything but, thus Aurora battles with her individuality versus that of the kingdom. Fanning is the living embodiment of a fairy princess already and gets several moments to save the day, but she’s really the third wheel in the powerhouse that is Pfeiffer and Jolie.

The issues you had during the first Maleficent will probably be there, particularly how frightening the fairies (led by Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) still are. Since this movie has such little to anchor it to the original Sleeping Beauty story, though, these characters are nothing short of background noise, leaving their fates contingent on how much you enjoyed them previously. The new male characters, led by Chiwetel Ejiofer and Ed Skrein are fine, but considering the “us versus them” mentality is already better defined in the women, they’re pointless. Ejiofer only seems to have a handful of lines in the entire film.

If you didn’t enjoy the first Maleficent you might be surprised by Maleficent: Mistress of Evil because of how tangential it is to the first feature. Because of that, it can take grander risks in the storytelling, with a powerful tale that should impact everyone who sees it. Jolie and Pfeiffer are fantastic, but they need more scenes together. And, seriously, Elle Fanning is a rainbow.

Next: 7 things we learned during Disney’s Frozen 2 press event
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil hits theaters on October 18.
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