Walt Disney Studios is fast approaching monopoly territory. Regardless, that hasn’t stopped them from putting out quality product from time to time. Mistress of Evil is a significant step up from the rote origin story and murky CGI of its 2014 predecessor. Corny and predictable though it is, especially near the end, Angeline Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer elevate it beyond the typical realm of a Disney live-action remake.
Joaquim Ronning, not-so-hot off the worst Pirates of the Caribbean movie, brings a magical and magisterial beauty to the sequel, letting it breathe and letting us stare in awe at the many fantasies on display: fairies and woodland creatures flopping, flying, and hopping around the Mores where the former Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning) rules as queen of the land. Where the first picture thought it was a good idea to cast a shadow of grey and muted colors over it all, so desperately striving for serio-darkness, Ronning opts for vibrant colors and high-contrast shadows. Mistress expertly combines impressive set design and computer-generated wonders, art direction and cinematography standing out in the home of Maleficent’s brethren the Dark Feys (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ed Skrein) and where the fairies like to frolic among a special type of flower.
Despite her long absence, Jolie is still a commanding screen presence, able to convey so much with a little smile or a scowl. This time around she has a proper adversary in Pfeiffer’s Queen Ingris, the mother of the man hoping to wed Maleficent’s goddaughter Aurora. It’s been a while since she had a plum role to sink her teeth into, and Maleficent, of all movies, gives it to her. Her ability to mask contempt with courtesy is put to good use as a conniving, intolerant ruler. There are moments in the film that might remind one of Cersei in Game of Thrones, right down to cross-cutting between Ingris in her castle, silently scheming, and the fruits of her terrible labor taking place across the kingdom. Harris Dickinson is an ounce too earnest as Aurora’s would-be betrothed Prince Phillip, but Sam Riley is just the right amount of earnest and affable as Maleficent’s sidekick Diaval, returning for more wisecracking about transfiguration. A transformation of his will elicit cheers in the midst of a climactic struggle.
Following the obligatory final battle, Ronning’s magisterial touch devolves into something more akin to a corny Saturday morning cartoon, complete with treacle tunes by composer Geoff Zanelli and one-liners that fall flat on their face. It’s inevitable that at some point the Disney machine would force-feed a sugarcoated ending. On top of a great cast, they’re fortunate Ronning has such an eye for fantasy world-building.