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Five years ago, Disney released Maleficent, a live-action update of the Sleeping Beauty story that presented a new version of the classic fairy tale in which the title character wasn't quite so evil after all. Thanks to the magnetic screen presence of Angelina Jolie in the title role, Maleficent soared to box-office glory and earned enough fans to get a sequel. This weekend it finally arrives as Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which features the return of Jolie as Maleficent and Elle Fanning as Aurora, and adds some extra star power in the form of Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Ed Skrein.
The last film took the basic beats of the Sleeping Beauty legend — a baby princess, a curse that can only be broken by true love's kiss, a spinning wheel, a wall of thorns, and more — and remixed them into a story that ended with Maleficent and Aurora as a kind of adoptive family, with Aurora ruling over the human kingdom and Maleficent caring for the fairy realm known as the Moors. This time around, the two women will have to deal with a new threat, Queen Ingrith (Pfeiffer), who hopes to divide the realms of humans and fairies, using Aurora's impending marriage to Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) to cover her tracks. Maleficent and Aurora are divided by the palace intrigue of humans once again, and they'll have to fight to protect both their realms while also trying to save their familial bond.
Now that the film has been screened for critics, reviews are starting to pour in, and they're predictably full of praise for Jolie and the sense of fun she brings to what's become a signature role for her. Maleficent's powers have not dimmed over the course of five years, it seems.
"You may find yourself wishing she had more to do, though Jolie’s poised, nearly silent performance — few actors have extracted as much tension from a single gaze — is as effective as ever, and all the more welcome for its occasional deadpan-comic flourishes," Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times wrote.
"Jolie’s magnetism, plus the way she toes the line between being a fairy version of Batman and a menacing mistress of not-quite-evil-but-pretty-close, is why these Maleficent movies work," Brian Truitt of USA Today said. "She fits the character as well as her endless cycle of evolving costumes."
"If Maleficent didn’t already exist, we may have had to invent her for Angelina Jolie. That’s how supremely suited the actress — with her cut-crystal cheekbones and soul-scorching stare — is to the role," Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly wrote. "Though her dark queen may be the one with the horns and the teeth and the bat-black wings, beneath the barbed Morticia Addams wit she’s only lonely, and misunderstood."
"Jolie reminds you why she's an Oscar winner. She livens up the film any time she's on screen," Kirsten Acuna of Insider wrote. "Whether it's for a mere one-liner or an entire scene, Jolie has the ability to make you fully focused not just on her delivery but engrosses the audience in how she responds to any scenario with the smallest movement in her eyes."
Unfortunately, while critics were still taken with Jolie, and many were also impressed by Michelle Pfeiffer's wickedly fun additions to the story, they weren't so taken with the story that surrounds these two queens as they head to battle with each other.
"It would be difficult to find a contemporary film more overstocked with time-tested commercial 'elements': a lovely princess, her sweet and dashing beau, the silly little elves who flit about and look after them, the aforementioned calculating queen and peons ready at the snap of a finger to cater to the betters or carouse in celebration," Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter wrote. "The one thing giving this mash of influences a measure of distinction is Jolie's title character, whose parentage owes as much to the Broadway show Wicked ... as it does to Disney's (and Charles Perrault's) Sleeping Beauty."
"The war between humans and fairies sets the stage for debate about opposing races jockeying for dominance, but the metaphor grows murkier as it moves along. It’s also fairly irrelevant once the movie finds its way to the battlefield, for a redundant climax undercut by an oddly upbeat finale in which some of the more macabre developments are shrugged off with a creepy nonchalance," Eric Kohn of IndieWire wrote. "Embrace the imagery and Mistress of Evil almost works on its own terms, but anyone grasping for the bigger picture will find that it often evaporates under scrutiny."
"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," Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote. "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."
"The Maleficent series at least attempts to play around with, even actively undermine, Disney stories rather than erecting redundant monuments to its iconography," Jesse Hassenger of The A.V. Club wrote. "The movies might be more successful at this if they weren’t so eager to acknowledge it, forcing poor Jolie and Pfeiffer to huff through lines about how this isn’t a fairy tale, love doesn’t always work out, and Aurora can’t go 'running around barefoot with flowers in [her] hair.' As before, the movie’s actual feelings on these matters are murky even (or especially) in its sunniest moments."
You'll be able to see what you think of the film for yourself very soon. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is in theaters Friday.