It’s tempting to suppose that Maleficent: Mistress of Evil opening in the wake of Columbus Day isn’t a coincidence.
Each year Columbus Day brings another round of controversy pitting what was originally intended as a way to validate Italian American and Catholic identity against increasing resistance to celebrating a pivotal figure in a thorny story marked by slavery, theft, rape and genocidal violence.
The 2014 film Maleficent offered a feminist allegory of patriarchal rape culture. The sequel depicts a genocidal conflict with a technologically superior Renaissance-era European civilization moving against the noble, magical Moor-folk.
“Moor-folk!” sniffs Queen Ingrith of Ulstead (Michelle Pfeiffer), the future mother-in-law of Sleeping Beauty herself, Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning). “Is that what we’re calling them now?”
Among the Moor-folk, Maleficent’s own people, the Fey, are notable in part for face and body paint, effectively coding them as surrogate Native Americans. And among the tricks employed against them are biological weapons of mass destruction.
The sequence in which both the humans and the Fey prepare for battle — both sides blinded by hatred and fear, if not equally culpable in the conflict to come — overtly recalls the theme of “Savages” from Disney’s Pocahontas.
James Cameron’s Avatar was widely compared to Pocahontas, with good reason. But Avatar had nothing as excruciatingly one-sided as the sequence in which a throng of Moor-folk — tricked into venturing into a chapel in the human kingdom of Ulstead for what they assume will be the wedding of Aurora and Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson, evidently a different human from the first film’s Brenton Thwaites) — find themselves treacherously locked in and facing a sadistic slaughter.
Cameron offered a Return of the Jedi-style fantasy in which an indigenous population offers a far more effective resistance than the militarily superior conquerors expect. Maleficent 2 will get around to its happy ending, of course — but first we have to feel the horror of watching rank upon rank of Fey warriors being decimated by the enemy’s overwhelmingly greater weapons.
“This isn’t a battle,” cries Philip. “It’s a massacre!” Are we ready to call it Indigenous Peoples Day yet?
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who scripted both live-action Alice in Wonderland films as well as both Maleficent films, is nothing if not committed to her project of woke revisionist Disney fairy-tale remakes. (Each of the four films has a different director; Woolverton is clearly the auteur of this mini-genre. This one is from Joachim Rønning, who helmed the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie.)
Here Woolverton is constrained by narrative expectations. Can anyone imagine Disney releasing a Sleeping Beauty adaptation, even a revisionist one in 2019, that ends with humans wiping out fairy populations and corralling survivors into reservations? Or, for that matter, with the human forces being crushed and Aurora and Philip turning their backs on their own people, à la Avatar, to live among the Moor-folk?
Clearly the best solution is for Ulstead humans and Moor-folk to learn to coexist in harmony. The pending marriage of Aurora and Philip holds out the promise of uniting two peoples, since Aurora, as the goddaughter of Maleficent, is reckoned Queen of the Moors, as Philip is the heir to the throne of Ulstead.
The 2014 film turned Aurora’s benevolent father Stefan into a rapacious brute. In a semi-gratifying twist, Philip’s father, King John (Robert Lindsay), is a broadminded and tolerant man who has always wanted peace with the Moor-folk. (Perhaps the very use of the word “Moor” codes them as Muslims too. Ironically, it’s Maleficent who must veil herself, specifically her horns, when visiting the royals of Ulstead.)
Naturally, that means King John is dramatically sidelined. As for Prince Philip, while he’s somewhat less useless than he was in the 2014 film, neither he nor Aurora are given particularly decisive roles either.
Maleficent 2 thus becomes a power struggle fundamentally between two formidable Hollywood matriarchs: Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent and Pfeiffer’s Queen Ingrith. Both actresses are highly watchable in underwritten parts.
Jolie is commanding as ever in a role that makes no sense: an iconically evil, even Satanic mistress of all evil (it’s right there in the subtitle!) reimagined as a kind of feminist Christ figure, suffering in her own mutilated flesh all the world’s wrongs and injustices until rising again in power to destroy oppression. (That’s the plot of the first film, I mean; I couldn’t possibly say whether it’s the plot of this one too. Spoilers!)
Maleficent 2 continues the vindication of its the title character from her identity as an embodiment of evil by … imputing all its evils to another woman, Ingrith. Pfeiffer goes dark with gusto, ironically making her part seem more enjoyably evil to play than the perilous but noble Maleficent.
Scapegoating a single evil character is one thing in a pure fantasy setting; reality is messier. Yes, Christopher Columbus, accomplishments notwithstanding, was a direct party to rape and slavery, but he didn’t personally engineer all or even most of the suffering of the New World’s indigenous peoples from 1492 onward. Had Columbus died at sea before arriving in the Bahamas, the shape of subsequent history would have been largely unaltered.
Of necessity, Maleficent 2 offers a neater narrative, transitioning with unseemly haste from a genocide in progress to happily ever after.
Aurora and Philip’s nuptials reflect their cultural diversity; a genial, mitered bishop presides over the wedding celebrated in a lush outdoor setting rather than in the desecrated chapel. (The vows are there, although Philip and especially Aurora are so quick to say “I do” that the bishop doesn’t quite finish the questions.)
If there’s still no hint of the overt Christian symbolism of Sleeping Beauty — a Christian knight in Ephesians 6-style armor taking on a diabolical dragon in league with “all the powers of hell” — there’s also nothing like the first film’s subversion of Christian themes.
The result is a sequel that, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, is both less provocative and objectionable than its predecessor and also more muddled and compromised.
Rønning fills the screen with a colorful if rather generic gallimaufry of fluttering fairies and scampering or soaring Moor-folk of various kinds, but with vanishingly few exceptions there’s no hint of anything like awe or wonder.
Maleficent at least felt like a fairy tale, if a recycled, darkly subversive one, with something to say. This sequel feels like a set of attitudes and themes in search of material to recycle. It’s a waste of so many things, but especially Jolie’s larger-than-life gifts.
Caveat Spectator: Fantasy action violence, menace and some disturbing images. Too intense for young kids.