"Maleficent" wasn't especially good, but it scared up enough money to conjure a sequel. Happily, this five-years-later follow-up, "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil," flies a bit higher, building on the central relationship while adding Michelle Pfeiffer's regal presence as a killer queen.
The first "Maleficent" actually felt somewhat out of step with Disney's live-action movie strategy, offering a revisionist take -- unlike mostly dutiful remakes like "The Lion King" or "Aladdin" -- that transformed the dark fairy into the good gal, one who grew to love Aurora, a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty.
Despite that ambition, it was a pretty lifeless affair, beyond the kick of seeing Angelina Jolie vamp it up in the title role, and the appealing notion (which also found a home in "Frozen") that "true love" -- the kind that can break a spell -- isn't merely the province of winsome maidens and handsome princes.
Opening six decades after the animated "Sleeping Beauty," "Mistress of Evil" picks up several years later, and begins with a very decent proposal -- namely, Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) asking Aurora (Elle Fanning) to live happily ever after with him. When he suggests they tell their parents, however, Aurora swallows hard at the thought.
Maleficent loves "Beastie," as she still calls her, but isn't so thrilled about her marrying a, well, human. Philip's mom, Queen Ingrith (Pfeiffer), is equally unenthused, producing one of those uncomfortable meet-the-in-laws dinners, bringing some welcome humor into the movie.
Things fall apart in pretty spectacular fashion, creating the prospect of war between the magical, fairy-filled Moors that Maleficent protects and the nearby kingdom of Ulstead. That leaves Aurora caught in the middle, at least, until the unseen hands manipulating the situation begin coming into view.
Director Joaquim Rønning has a "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie under his belt (at this point, who doesn't?), and he's teamed here with original screenwriter Linda Woolverton as well as the tandem of Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue.
While there's clearly no interest in reinventing the spinning wheel, the movie layers on some visually appealing elements, including a new fairy society whose leader is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Inevitably, the climactic sequence rages on too long, and the resolution is, even by the genre's standards, a bit too quick and tidy. Nevertheless, there's hard-to-resist heart in the Maleficent-Aurora connection, which feels as if it's matured along with the latter character becoming a young woman, one capable of taking a more active role in the story.
As is so often the case, "Maleficent" didn't exactly cry out for another chapter, but if forced to do one with a sharp spindle pointed at your head (or finger), this is about as good as one could have hoped.
That doesn't translate into magic, but in terms of improving on the original, giving the stars some reasonably good material to play and delivering action within its PG parameters, "Mistress of Evil" pretty much threads the needle.
"Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" opens Oct. 18 in the US. It's rated PG.
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