Once upon a time (wait, actually just this week), Disney released a live-action sequel that literally no one asked for that actually seemed to boast a pretty compelling premise. Hitting theaters just in time for Halloween, and with a perfectly Halloween-ready title to boot, Maleficent: Mistress of Darkness — the sequel to 2014’s Maleficent — pitched itself as a showdown between two of the sharpest-cheekboned witches in all of the land. Would I like to see Michelle Pfeiffer (as Queen Ingrith) and Angelina Jolie (as Maleficent) engage in a battle for matriarchal supremacy while decked out in fabulous costumes (thank you, Ellen Mirojnick)? You know I would — but there’s something of a bait-and-switch going on here.
Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) — taking over directorial duties from Robert Stromberg — has turned in a film that’s essentially a Disney-fied Game of Thrones, meaning any semblance of character development is lost in a morass of complicated plotlines and showy action sequences (that happen to be a lot more violence than one would expect from a PG movie.) Also, although the film is titled Maleficent: Mistress of Darkness, screenwriters Linda Wolverton (a Disney veteran), Micah Fitzerman-Blue, and Noah Harpster give Maleficent very little to do here. The character’s entire arc feels like an afterthought, to the point that it could almost be cut entirely without anyone in the audience noticing.
The gist is this: Five years after the events of Maleficent, the aggressively bland Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) proposes to Aurora (Elle Fanning, who feels incredibly well-cast here) without bothering to seek the approval of her godmother, Maleficent. Maleficent may have been misunderstood for all those years, but she’s still got a temper that’s easily triggered, and she’s not happy at the thought of her beloved daughter marrying a filthy human, even if he is royalty. (“But I’m human,” Aurora protests, to which Maleficent snaps back, “And I’ve never held that against you.”) Prince Philip’s parents, Queen Ingrith and King John (Robert Lindsay), invite Maleficent to their castle for dinner as a gesture of supposed goodwill, but as is often the case when in-laws get together, things don’t quite go as planned.
When Queen Ingrith icily suggests that it will be good for Aurora to have a “real mother” after all these years, Maleficent flies into a rage, and by the time she’s left the castle, King John has been cursed to eternal sleep. Of course, things are not quite what they seem: If there’s a lesson to be learned here for the kids (and adults, for that matter) back at home, it’s that you can’t automatically trust a wealthy white woman dripping in diamonds, even if she’s telling you exactly what you want to hear and is coded to seem noble — and that people who look “different” or stereotypically scary (horns and wings and all) might have kind hearts after all. Not bad lessons by any stretch, but you can probably see where this is going…
The one place Maleficent: Mistress of Darkness does shine is in the costume and set design departments: There’s something especially whimsical and lovely about the title sequence and its sweeping, swooping establishing shots of the lush woodlands and the incredibly detailed super-spindly, spire-covered Gothic castle. Fanning’s costumes and styling are perfectly dreamy without being too on-the-nose, while Jolie’s and Pfeiffer’s wardrobes feel truly fit for their characters’ diva personas. One can’t help but think: If only the filmmakers had spent the same amount of time worrying about the storytelling.