The first Maleficent film, released in 2014, offered a storytelling twist on the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty. Like many a live-action remake from the studio (think Alice in Wonderland or Dumbo), it viewed its animated forebear as a jumping-off point, turning the cold-blooded villainess Maleficent (played by Angelina Jolie) into a misunderstood antihero; she was rewritten as a vengeful but eventually protective godmother to the lethargic princess she curses. Still, Maleficent had the kind of definitive fairy-tale ending required of a Sleeping Beauty adaptation: The princess (Elle Fanning) awakens, the bad guys are disposed of, and everyone gets to live happily ever after.
So what is the purpose of the forthcoming sequel? Maleficent: Mistress of Evil likely exists because of the previous film’s box-office success, but as a result, the new movie is tasked with the job of inventing a second chapter for a story that’s already finished. As with the exceedingly strange 2016 Snow White sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War, the return of Maleficent is a bizarre exercise, a meditation on the geopolitics of a storybook world where an awkward family dinner leads to a potential fairy genocide. It’s not a film that quite rises to the level of “good,” but it is transfixing—a dizzying hodgepodge of ideas powered by the welcome return of Jolie to the big screen.
Since appearing in Maleficent five years ago, Jolie has retreated behind the camera, directing three movies (the last of them a genuinely exceptional effort) and mostly ignoring the limelight. That gives her return in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil some real heft. It’s delightful to have her back in a leading role; though Jolie’s stardom has often been defined by the tabloid dramas that surround her, she’s an actor who can turn the thinnest scripts into something compelling (think Salt or Wanted). Whenever she’s present in Mistress of Evil, boasting jutting cheekbones and fang-like pearly whites, it’s impossible to look away.
Unfortunately, Jolie isn’t a constant presence in this new film, since there are so many pressing matters to attend to in the neighboring kingdoms of the Moors (the fairy realm governed by Maleficent and Princess Aurora) and Ulstead, a militaristic land that’s the home of Phillip (Harris Dickinson), Aurora’s Prince Charming. As Aurora and Phillip plan their wedding, the much-feared Maleficent is invited to Ulstead to meet his parents and broker diplomatic relations. The only problem is that Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), is a snooty human supremacist who sees Maleficent and her magical subjects as a plague to be eradicated.
If this all sounds complicated, well, I’m not even describing half of the manic side-plots that populate the script, credited to Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, and Micah Fitzerman-Blue. There are living mushrooms, a goblin-like mad scientist named Lickspittle (Warwick Davis) who’s working on weapons of death, and a group of horn-sporting, self-dubbed “dark fey” warriors who resemble Maleficent and live in a giant cocoon. Would it be too much to compare the two leaders of this warrior community, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein, to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively? Probably, but that’s the comparison the film is trying to set up.
All of these competing elements lead to conflict as Ingrith tries to simultaneously drive a wedge between her son and future daughter-in-law and wipe out Maleficent and her fairy populace. At one point, it’s suggested that Ingrith’s hatred is driven by an extreme flower allergy, which seems an odd justification for a set piece in which Ingrith locks adorable forest creatures in a church and tries to gas them to death. This is a movie chock-full of heady imagery that it can’t get a handle on, and so the allegories at work don’t quite connect.
The first act of Mistress of Evil is lots of fun—essentially a magical Meet the Parents. The second act is filled with action sequences that take place in near-total darkness, likely a cost-saving visual-effects measure that robs whole scenes of their tension. But the film’s final showdown, a pitched war in which Jolie and Pfeiffer lock horns on the battlefield, is a blast. Mistress of Evil never manages to justify the return of all these characters, but in delving deeper into its fantasy world, it at least avoids the cardinal sin of being forgettable.