In a world where made-for-Netflix knock-off princess films are 10 a penny, Disney's Maleficent: Mistress of Evil can only be described as what the kids would call "a flex."
This high-budget, star-studded sequel to 2014's Maleficent, a live-action retelling of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, puts the pretenders to shame. Opening in theaters in the US, UK and around the world on Oct. 18, it's Wicked meets Game of Thrones tied up in a Disney bow.
Like the original Sleeping Beauty, the first Maleficent film had a one-dimensional quality, even with live actors and sets replacing the animation. It was confined by the parameters of the age-old story and lacked subplots -- but the same cannot be said of this sequel, which beefs up the story and enriches the Avatar-esque landscape with new characters and storylines.
Five years have passed since Angelina Jolie's wicked fairy Maleficent awoke Princess Aurora, played by Elle Fanning, from deathlike sleep with true love's kiss. Maleficent has anointed Aurora the Queen of the Moors, ruling over a fairy kingdom richly decorated with fluorescent flora and whimsical creatures.
Speaking of which, I didn't realize at the time that what the original Maleficent movie was missing was a chattering hedgehog-like fairy called Pinto. But a cute, non-verbal sidekick is a Disney signature and is a welcome addition here. On the flip side, Aurora's three hapless fairy guardians remain, sadly, a CGI abomination.
In reprising the role of Aurora, Fanning moves away from the almost perpetual state of giggling delight that defined her in the first film to a place of greater maturity and more expansive emotional range. But it's not for nothing that the film's named after Maleficent rather than Aurora. And even though Fanning's developing character carries the plot forward, she's still a model Disney Princess at heart. Only when paired with Maleficent does she enter a new realm of depth and complexity.
Likewise, Aurora knocks the corners off Maleficent's harshness, softening her without detracting from her strength. The pair seem indivisible, but their bond is tested when Queen Ingrith, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, seeks to come between them in an attempt to fulfill her own insidious ambitions.
Pfeiffer and Jolie play against each other like ice and fire, their opposing forces equally imperious and fierce. Separately, their performances are iconic. To see them together is nothing short of electric. Mistress of Evil is a masterclass in expanding a narrative to make room for three meaty lead roles for women without diminishing anything in the process.
The male characters were always going to play second fiddle in a female-driven franchise built around mother-daughter dynamics, but they're no less well-rounded. Both Ed Skrein and Chiwetel Ejiofor enjoy interesting character arcs in their admittedly limited screen time as dark fae, the species of fairy to which Maleficent belongs.
The introduction of the dark fae blows the fairytale universe wide open, creating endless possibilities forand children's daydreams. In true fairytale fashion, there is an element of predictability to this sequel. But the story stays fresh thanks to the dark fae and a magical twist born out of the legend recounted by one of the newcomers.
This originality couldn't be more welcome at a time when Disney is spitting out live-action remakes of its animated classics quicker than you can say bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Maleficent is an argument for retelling over remakes, a showcase of the power Disney still wields and a mesmerizing, multidimensional movie that will delight young and old alike -- just as a classic Disney film should.