This sequel has got a great cast. It’s not just Angelina Jolie reprising her post-fairytale turn as Maleficent from the 2014 film, the wicked witch from the Sleeping Beauty story who isn’t quite as wicked as all that and whose reputed wickedness may simply be a function of patriarchal mythology. There’s also the estimable Elle Fanning back again as Aurora, the demure princess who has now made up with Maleficent, regarding her as a godmother. Plus we now get Michelle Pfeiffer on decent form as Aurora’s mother, Queen Ingrith. Aurora moreover has a stepfather these days, King John (Robert Lindsay) to replace the caddish and now late King Stefan (played by Sharlto Copley) from the first film, who turned out to be the real baddie. The three digitised pixies are back – Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville – and Chiwetel Ejiofor now has a cameo as one of the horned, winged creatures from the Moors, that disputed land adjacent to the humans’ kingdom where Maleficent hails from. Sam Riley returns as Diaval, Maleficent’s raven-turned-humanoid familar.
But the awful truth is that despite all this star-power, Maleficent 2 is a bit weak, and it runs out of narrative steam before the halfway mark. Maleficent is not the mistress of evil: most of the evilness has now been deconstructed out of her, and the mistress-of-evil position is clearly going to be usurped from Maleficent by a certain someone else, someone who will be presented to us as genuinely bad but whose evident depravity may yet be explained or backstoried away in Maleficent 3. For now, it’s a question of being plain bad, and therefore a bit of a scene-stealer. Maleficent herself has become about as scary or revisionist as one of the Addams Family films. Mistress of Evil increasingly explains her reputation in terms of her coming from the Moors: a tribal or ethnic difference: she is alienated, marginalised, othered.
The situation now is that Aurora’s boyfriend, young Prince Phillip (played now by Harris Dickinson, taking over from Brenton Thwaites) has now proposed marriage, infuriating Maleficent, and somewhat disconcerting King John and Queen Ingrith. With some misgivings, they suggest a peacemaking engagement-celebration dinner at their castle, at which Aurora and Maleficent will be the honoured guests. But this diplomacy ends in calamity.
The main problem is that the film gradually collapses, as if in a sort of storytelling entropy, into a final battle – like an awful lot of MCU movies. What began as a visceral contest of personalities, with actors given interesting or funny things to say or do, becomes a big CGI warfare scene: a clash of digitally created armies making for a big ho-hum spectacle. Jolie’s character is also less interesting this time around: the digitisation of her face, with its Max-Headroom-type flat cheekbones, further flattens her performance. This Maleficent is disappointing, although Jolie certainly sells it hard, as does Fanning, who takes it as seriously as anything else in her career.