Apparently, a bad reputation is as tough to shake in fantasyland as anywhere else. That’s the first thing we learn in “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” the sequel to Angelina Jolie’s 2014 revisionist take on the horn-headed “Sleeping Beauty” villainess.
Never mind all the effort that Jolie went to in suggesting, convincingly, that her classic Disney baddie might well have a hidden redemptive side. The filmmakers hit the reset button again, to find new conflict-laden places to go, new soporific curses to do. This time, though, they’re not as diligent about incorporating story threads so that they form a perfect weave.
Oh, and about that subtitle: It’s not spoiling much to say that it bears analyzing, given how pointedly Michelle Pfeiffer’s pouty glower is splashed across the film’s posters. Regal politesse notwithstanding, Pfeiffer’s Queen Ingrith takes a nasty view of the imminent wedding of her son, Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson), to Maleficent’s once-bewitched, now-beloved goddaughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning).
Not that Ingrith objects to our girl, per se — just to still-feared Maleficent, along with the whole gaggle of magical creatures that Aurora sunnily rules over as queen of the Moors. The movie offers barely-an-afterthought acknowledgment that, yes, Aurora chucked her royal birthright in the human world for her present gig. But who can blame her, what with the cute assortment of mushroom pixies and porcupine sprites newly trotted out by the effects crew?
What the story boils down to, then, is a mixed-marriage parable, one that could be panderingly “on trend,” but which the filmmakers handle fairly thoughtfully. Jolie plays Maleficent’s struggle to connect both for laughs — yikes, those fangs! — and pathos. There’s palpable awkwardness to Aurora’s request that her godmother cover her horns to meet the in-laws, one of several scenes in which proven-talent Fanning finally gets to show more dimension.
Pushing the coexistence themes further, director Joachim Ronning (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and his writers place a gravely wounded Maleficent in the care of persecuted hawk-beings like herself. Cue some terrific effects makeovers — look for Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein under the feathers — as well as action that outstrips the knights-versus-fairies skirmishing from last time. And it’s certainly handy that there’s a flying cavalry to call, considering Ingrith’s unsettling plan for dealing with her Moor-folk issues.
Still, the continuity cops must have been off grabbing doughnuts by this point, because we never do learn how Maleficent landed in the Moors if she wasn’t a native. And why does she still have such an edge to start when last we knew, she was living happily ever after? This franchise might be all about shedding light on lost details, but “Mistress of Evil” sometimes leaves us in the dark.
MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL
Directed by Joachim Ronning. Written by Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster, and Micah Fitzerman-Blue. Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Imelda Staunton. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 119 minutes. PG (intense sequences of fantasy action/violence, brief scary images).Tom Russo can be reached at [email protected]