To be honest, 2014’s Maleficent was off-putting to me, but not in a bad way; that it made me feel uncomfortable was one of the film’s strong points. Here was a movie which had the balls to make its bones with metaphors for the patriarchy, date rape, single parenthood, and unwanted children. Maleficent has now been made a franchise with its sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, a new morality tale speaking straight to today’s climate of xenophobia and nationalism. These themes and the resulting overtones pin it toward the darker end of the Disney catalog – not as dark as The Black Hole (RIP Robert Forster), but close – and give the film an almost Peter Jackson-esque Lord of the Rings intensity.
Disney is passing this film off as a children’s movie, a move which might work if your movie didn’t include thinly-veiled themes of full-out war, the power of false narratives, planned genocide, tribalism and racism, police brutality, cultural appropriation, and country-first-at-whatever-cost politics. The darkly magical esprit of the first film – even with its mature themes – is not replicated with this installment, with writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, and Micah Fitzerman-Blue aiming more for a real-world analog which strives for peace through superior firepower. It’s a completely pain-driven story where no one’s happy for almost its entire running time, its characters trapped in an interlocking spiral of conflict due to innuendo and slander.
The majority of it is borne of the tall tales told around the kingdom of Ulstead regarding Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), slowly turned from dark hero to cold-blooded villain after only a five-year lapse. Townspeople have once again grown to fear the Moors – the forest across the river where the fairies (a blanket term for magical non-human creatures) dwell – and Maleficent herself, the sight of whom causes women and children to run screaming in terror. Completing the metaphor for modern-day racism is the contrast between the black-clad Maleficent and the lily-whiteness of her opposite, Ulstead’s Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Caught in the middle are both of their children, Maleficent’s goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Ingrith’s son Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, taking over the role from Brenton Thwaites), who’ve just announced their intent to marry. Every possible sense of discomfort is thrown into their engagement dinner, with the socially-inept Maleficent suffering a non-stop barrage of Ingrith’s unwelcoming, stereotype-filled verbal jabs to the point where she refuses this union. In the confusion, Phillip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) suddenly collapses to the floor, seemingly a victim of the same curse used by Maleficent upon Aurora all those years ago. After denying involvement, Maleficent flies from the castle only to be shot (yes, Ulstead possesses the aforementioned “superior firepower”) by one of Ingrith’s trusted lady-at-arms. A black figure running from a white person with a gun… it’s not that much of a reach to find the social commentary.
If you haven’t gotten the wink-wink-nudge-nudge to modern day society by this moment in the film, we’re taken into an underground cavern where a colorfully-diverse cast of thousands of “Dark Feys” like Maleficent dwell. Forced into hiding by humans, their two leaders are at loggerheads with how to best use Maleficent’s situation. Do they go the route of peace, as top man Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wishes, or do they go with the war Borra (Ed Skrein) craves? Meanwhile, as Aurora tries to figure out what’s what, Ingrith is down the castle hallway revealing how far she’s willing to go to protect her kingdom and her son. Beings like Maleficent don’t belong in the safety of Ulstead, and she’s determined to stamp out this plague of beasts permanently, using her sneaky aide-de-camp and a black army captain to do her dirty work.
Of course, it’s all couched in the garb of a children’s adventure movie, the majority of whom will only see the good guys versus the bad. There aren’t any surprises, as the film telegraphs its punches about an hour before they land, setting the characters firmly in their places for the film’s duration with no ability to deviate. It’s not really Maleficent we’re watching, even though her name’s on the film; there’s no doubt the subtitle “Mistress of Evil” applies to Ingrith, but she’s not the focus of the film, either. Our hearts are truly with Aurora and Phillip, hoping they’ll get hip to Ingrith’s horrible machinations and stop a war from killing innocents on both sides.
The returning cast slips back into their roles with ease, giving us more of the darkness and innocence so well-captured in the first film. Franchise newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer hams it up as Ingrith, a woman so crazed with a lust for power which has blinded her to the consequences of her actions. She rollicks in Ingrith’s skin, her greedy, ugly tones oozing forth from her like sweat. Contrasting her is the calming, resigned voice of reason, Chiwetel Ejiiofor’s Conall, who only wants to live and let live while his people still have that chance. This is a character with which you wish the film would spend more time, as Ejiofor plays him with a solemnity and grace which settles this movie down and gives it time to breathe amid its heavy-handed preaching.
It’s not all politics and shaded commentary, but Maleficent: Mistress of Evil definitely has the feel of a classroom film designed to pass its lessons on via an identifiable entertainment vessel. Lethal decisions are made out of fear and misunderstanding, and we are made to witness the tragic consequences of it all. Like I said, no one’s happy for the majority of this movie, but its sunny and bright look in the Ulstead scenes plays counter to this, resulting in a weird effect where happiness is only implied and forced upon our eyes to make us believe it’s there. It’s like a beautiful world being ruined by those in command, which cements this film’s largest metaphor and ends the lesson with some hope for the future. Yeah, maybe it’s too far-fetched an interpretation, but it’s impossible – as an adult – to see it any other way.