I think it is safe to say that the original Maleficent film is a bit of a mess. Not an entirely terrible one, but a mess all the same. The film didn’t exactly go through a production hell, but the original vision seems to have been scrapped a bit through editing and piles upon piles of revisions. Slap on a first-time director and a somewhat problematic screenwriter and you can see why reviews were somewhat mixed. And yet the film proved popular in the mainstream, bringing Angelina Jolie back into the public eye as well as heralding in the recent Disney live-action trend. The film’s success even saw a sequel green lit by the mouse house, something that I, and many more questioned. How could they possibly do a sequel to a film that in of itself was something of a prequel? Well they did and honestly it’s pretty damn good.
The film picks up only a few years after the events of the previous film. Aurora still rules as queen of The Moors, a land brimming with various fairy-tale creatures. Still in love with her Prince Charming, Aurora soon finds herself engaged and set to meet Phillip’s parents, King John (Robert Lindsey) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). Hoping to bring peace between the kingdoms, Aurora also invites her fairy god-mother Maleficent (Jolie) who is not thrilled by the match. Soon things take a sour turn when Queen Ingrith accuses Maleficent of slaughtering innocent peasants and cursing the king, leading the mistress of evil to meet the rest of her species and start a war against the humans.
And I was honestly surprised by the amount of depth and imagination that went into this story. Whereas the first film went through the motions of trying to retell the Sleep Beauty myth through the eyes of its villain, Wicked style. This new film concocts a completely fresh plot that brims with magic, pathos and beauty. And yet the film’s plot also delivers some well created fantasy action and a whole plethora of engaging new characters. I actually find it ironic that this film boasts a more cohesive narrative than its predecessor, when this film was penned and revised by a total of four screenwriters – with Linda Woolverton’s script receiving some heavy editing back in 2017. And for good reason as writers – Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Jez Butterworth – all seem to add something that makes this film a more enjoyable and exciting watch. In all honesty you can almost see where the different writers’ ideas shine through, especially if you are aware of their work and aesthetic. But again this mix-up helps to solidify the film as a new and invigorating fantasy flick.
The film is also gorgeous to look at, with the various setting and monsters coming together to give the film the same look and feel as a beautifully illustrated fairy story. In only four short years you can see the evolution of the special effects used before, with the creatures in this film looking far more real and solid than they ever did before. The films beautiful visuals build upon what the first film established while also adding just a pinch of the usual Disney pixie dust. From the stunning landscape of The Moors, to the oppressive kingdom of Ulstead, to the world of the Dark Fey, this film delivers a world and mythology that rivals any classic fantasy film. A delicious addition to a world that never felt that fleshed out to begin with.
The direction here is also strong, with Joachim Rønning being given a second chance at directing a major Disney release, after having previously directed the fifth (and unsuccessful) Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The addition of an already seasoned and talented director shows, making the previous instalment look almost amateur in comparison. The film also maintains the feminist undertones that make its predecessor so note-worthy. Although this new release may not present itself as Disney’s first ever rape-revenge fantasy, it does show a plethora of woman in roles of power. Demonstrating once again the difference between people who use power and those who abuse it. The subtle delivery of these messages and themes work in the film’s favour, making it feel more organic than preachy, an issue I had with Woolverton’s Alice in Wonderland and it’s subsequent sequel ( again thank you to whoever hired more writers for this thing).
The performances in the film range of stellar to half-way decent. Jolie once again electrifies in her leading role, even though she often takes a backseat to Elle Fanning’s Aurora, who seems to be shaping up as Disney’s first Hippie princess. But both actors are fantastic playing these particular iterations of these characters, with Jolie even allowing for some humour and shadiness in her performance. While on the other side of the river, you have Michelle Pfeiffer as Queen Ingrith, who also gives a strong little performance even if her character is robbed of any interesting layers or emotion. Sam Riley does what he can with the underwritten role of Diaval, who literally has nothing to do in this movie, and Harris Dickinson is a decent replacement for Brendon Thwaites. Phillip manages to still be a less interesting version of his animated self but Dickinson does inject some warmth into the now expanded role.
In a world where audiences now seem to side with the villains more than the heroes (here’s looking at you Joker) I find it interesting that the character of Maleficent is robbed of any of her true malice and evil. I understand that these characters are not and were never meant to be the same as their animated doppelgängers, but subheading your film with Mistress of Evil is just cruel if you aren’t going to follow through. But in the end Jolie delivers another enjoyable film, one that outmatches its predecessor in both story and style, and proves to be the best Disney film I have seen this year. A film that may not address the same heavy subjects tackled in Maleficent 1, but keeps your interest engaged and your heart pounding until the very last second. This film came to me as a delightful shock and I would honestly recommend it to anyone who loves Disney, loves fantasy and to anyone who loves stories filled with heart and fairy dust.