If Disney uses the Marvel movies as a gatekeeper of modern pop culture, I suppose the Maleficent franchise (since everything, apparently, must be a franchise) is the arbiter of humanity’s darkest ills. Whereas Marvel is the brightly colored happy machine, Maleficent is the bleak engine that chugs through cultural decay and human suffering. I suppose it’s good to maintain balance in your media monopoly.
Truth be told, dark themes in fairy tales are quite common, and if any legacy Disney animated character were appropriate for such a treatment, it would be Maleficent. But there is a fundamental disconnect in these films between the vibrant fairy tale setting and the relentless dark cloud of disturbing thematic underpinnings – like the murkier aims of the screenwriters clash with the corporate demands for family-friendly IP. The resulting experience is often uncomfortable and always confusing.
2014’s original Maleficent leaned into the discomfort in spectacular fashion, crafting a tale about patriarchal usurping of female power via heavy-handed allegorical references to rape and female circumcision as key plot points, all wrapped in a contradictory PG presentation. Now comes Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, a sequel that faithfully maintains the indelicate balance upon which this franchise seems destined to teeter. This time around, amid the flitting fairies and the glossy glow of the storybook-inspired CG environment, Maleficent is mired in a racial conflict and the threat of genocide – the ideal fall family movie experience.
Make no mistake: racism and violent authoritarianism are about as clear and present as any modern danger, and they are valid themes for artists to reckon with. The problem with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is not its very well-intentioned exploration of galling social issues, it’s the violently jarring manner in which those issues collide with the film’s pointedly cartoonish aesthetic. Stylistic choices within the Fantasy genre run the gamut from darker, earthbound visual atmospheres to bright, CG-laden fantasticism. As directed by Joachim Ronning, now reliably in the Disney stable after helming Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil resides safely within the latter category, with so many layers of CG permeating every sequence it feels like it’s still rendering. For a story with such crushing real-world relevance, the cartoonish world of this film, replete with impossibly cute creatures and wise-cracking fairies, is the sort of tonal clash that almost disrespects the material. Whether this aesthetic was an internal creative decision to soften the edges of the screenplay’s prickly content or an unwavering directive straight from the Mouse Ears is unclear, but whatever the case, this is a film at war with itself.
Aptly, war is baked right into this story, with the human kingdom on the brink of a clash with the bordering Moors, the enchanted forest realm watched over by Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and ruled by her goddaughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning). There is hope for peace between the two factions when Aurora accepts Prince Phillip’s (Harris Dickinson) marriage proposal, a union that could join the two kingdoms as one. There is some early awkward levity, as Maleficent nervously meets Phillip’s parents, the rulers of the human kingdom. But that’s quickly dashed when the king (Robert Lindsay) falls ill and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) accuses Maleficent of casting a spell against him, driving a wedge between Aurora and Maleficent, escalating the tensions between the kingdoms, and threatening a war that would surely decimate the Moors forever.
It’s no spoiler to note that Queen Ingrith would welcome such an extermination. In fact, it’s her end game: the complete eradication of the fairy creatures using an onslaught of weaponry loaded with iron, which is lethal to fairies. Pfeiffer seems to have a ball in this role, gnawing on every scene in which she appears as this person of pure evil with absolutely zero nuance. However, the character itself is a misogynistic regression – the 2014 film was all about mislabeling women’s power as evil, only to lead to this new film, in which this powerful woman is undoubtedly the most viciously evil character to grace cinema screens this year. Curious also is the relative objectification of Maleficent herself – not in a sexual manner, but in a narrative context. Jolie doesn’t speak many lines throughout the film, and her magnetic presence is stifled by the passive state Maleficent embodies for the majority of the film, hemming and hawing between fighting to unite the two kingdoms…or just doing nothing. Her decision is telegraphed – this remains a Disney film, after all – but there isn’t any substantive transformation beyond normal plot machinations.
Oddly enough, the title character’s downgrade into an ensemble role sort of makes Maleficent: Mistress of Evil moderately more watchable than its predecessor, with the focus pivoted from Maleficent’s constant suffering and tilted toward’s Pfeiffer’s gleeful hysteria. But the fact remains that this is a film about hatred and mass slaughter, and the fact that the intended victims are cartoony CG creations doesn’t make that pill any easier to swallow for audiences – in fact, it makes it harder.