Sad to say, but it’s not often these days that Disney has an original idea. So, after years (and years and years… and *sigh for many more years to come) of the Mouse House recycling their old animated movies into live-action flicks, it’s almost shocking to see something fresh arrive at the cineplex under the Disney banner. Sure, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is building on the Sleeping Beauty brand (and, yes, a sequel), but it’s a new story, and that’s saying a lot these days.
Mistress opens five years after the events of the first film, with Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) still the local pariah, going about her days using her magic to keep an eye on the land’s many fairy critters. Meanwhile her goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) is enjoying life as Queen of the Moors, and, after accepting a marriage proposal from Ulstead’s Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), she and Maleficent are invited to a celebratory feast hosted by Phillip’s parents, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer).
The Queen is still suspicious of Maleficent’s dark magic, and the two trade barbs at the dinner, culminating with Maleficent losing her temper and seemingly putting a curse on the King, knocking him unconscious. Shunned, Maleficent ends up far off in her homeland, where she meets a fellow dark fey named Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who wants to work with her to find a way to bring peace to the land. War cannot be avoided, however, and eventually the humans and fairies/feys clash in a climactic battle, pitting Maleficent and Aurora against each other.
Director Joachim Rønning (co-director of 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) goes all out, and, with the help of Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos and Costumer Ellen Mirojnick, creates a fantastic and breathtaking world full of sumptuous scenery and eye candy galore. Mistress is a true visual treat so stunning that the tacked-on upcharge for 3D glasses isn’t even required to enjoy it.
As for the script, writing partners Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (Amazon’s Transparent) beefed up the first draft by original scribe Linda Woolverton, and though the finished product relies a bit too much on established “once upon a time” tropes, it still manages to get the job done with flourishes of creative storytelling. At the very least, it’s far and away better than the dreck Jeff Nathanson gave us in Disney’s embarrassing live-action The Lion King this past July.
Mistress, of course, is the Angelina Jolie show, and she of the razor-blade cheekbones and chameleon eyes takes the flick and absolutely runs with it. Give Pfeiffer her due, too—she stands toe-to-toe with Jolie and even nabs a few scenes from her, offering up a deliciously villainous performance.
All told, the film is a fun fairy tale that will help you remember the way Disney used to do things, and it manages to distinguish itself as one of studio’s better offerings in recent years. Admittedly, however, based on the studio’s recent past, that’s a fairly low bar.