By Russell Fung
Did anyone ask for a sequel to Sleeping Beauty?
I used to write English-language screenplays for a feature animation studio in China. They hired me to write sequels to Snow White and Cinderella, asking me to infuse Western humor so that it would appeal to an international audience. The experience was difficult because nobody could agree on what the story and message had to be. I was told, “It’s a movie for children, so don’t take the themes too far or too serious. It doesn’t have to be logical or make sense. It just has to be fun and pretty.” I left the projects amicably, because I didn’t want to write a generic story that didn’t resonate with the current human condition.
So, when I was asked to review the sequel to a Sleeping Beauty story, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, I was not only rooting for it to be good, but I also was rooting for it to resonate with our current audience. It needs to justify its existence. Because this is live-action, and not animation, I needed this movie to have logic as well. I needed it to be funny, heartwarming, and spectacular.
Good news: Angelina Jolie executive produced and starred in a movie that not only delivers but justifies its right to exist. She seemed to have made a movie that would be cool, yet safe for her grown, diverse tween/teen children to watch, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It may not “advance cinema,” but it certainly does have something to say for our modern audience.
Who is this movie for? Tweens and anyone who loved the first movie and wanted to see an expansion of the world.
Press release logline:
The years have been kind to Maleficent and Aurora. Their relationship, born of heartbreak, revenge and ultimately love, has flourished. Yet the hatred between man and the fairies still exists. Aurora’s impending marriage to Prince Phillip is cause for celebration in the kingdom of Ulstead and the neighboring Moors, as the wedding serves to unite the two worlds. When an unexpected encounter introduces a powerful new alliance, Maleficent and Aurora are pulled apart to opposing sides in a Great War, testing their loyalties and causing them to question whether they can truly be family.
At the core of this movie is the mother-daughter relationship between Aurora and Maleficent. The smartest thing the film did was split them up and have them go on their own journey. I liked that the inciting incident is when Prince Phillip proposes to Aurora. Normally, that kind of beat happens at the climax of a romantic comedy, but because this happens as a buffer to the first act, we know shit is about to go down. This movie sets that up so well.
Reasons why this sequel justifies its existence:
- Expands the world of our title character, Maleficent. We dive deeply (literally, in her case) into her past. She is not the only one of her kind. There is an entire community of people in hiding, who are of her species. Yet, Maleficent is the one with sorcery powers, which are never explained, but that’s okay because I personally didn’t care to know. The film does answer that question in its own way for those who care, but you’d have to look for it.
- Maleficent becomes the savior of her own people, which is a strong character arc. Discovery of self. Call to action. Save her people. Stand against her adoptive daughter, who fights on the other side of the war. These are all strong themes. So heck yes, I’m on board.
- When we last saw Maleficent, she had transformed from a vengeful sorceress to a woman who has found forgiveness and true love in the form of maternal love for Aurora. The next step is to take that bond and tear it apart. There’s a strong story in which a mother and daughter experience strife. They must separate for a while, explore their new worlds without each other, and come back to overcome the threat to their kingdom.
- Strong agency for Aurora, aka “Sleeping Beauty.” This is a story where we get to see what happens after the fairy tale happy ending. We get to see Aurora take charge of her journey. We get to see her step up, and fight for what’s right. Unfortunately, we also get to see her fiancé move around helplessly and cluelessly. That’s very unfortunate.
- Heart, humor, and spectacle. The art direction and visual effects are absolutely enchanting. Color is vibrant, and gets dark when appropriate. Creatures make the movie pop. Aurora is not the comedic character. Maleficent carries the most humor in her macabre and gothic way.
Diversity and inclusion. People of color: none to be found (except black soldiers) on the human side of the kingdom, but PLENTIFUL in the underground hidden island of the fairies. Unfortunately, they act more like set dressing than anything else. I should give the movie props though, because they could’ve made the fairies all white people too. Another unfortunate thing is the use of casualties in war. Many of the minorities did die and get harmed in battle. They’re red shirts, cannon fodder, pawns, soldiers. There aren’t any characters of color who have strong a presence other than Chiwetel Ejiofor. He is our main guy who represents minorities. He does a great job bringing gravitas to the role. He leads the outcasts who have to hide in order for their species to survive. Does this theme sound familiar to what’s happening in our current world?
I have to talk about Prince Phillip. Production recast the original actor from the first movie. I actually liked the original actor better, but for this movie, it seems like he’s unavailable most likely due to him starring as Dick Grayson (aka Robin/Nightwing) on DC’s Titans. Great, so let’s recast him with the blandest handsome white guy. Because he turned out to not be that important to the story. Actually, he is a major character in the sequel, yet he was completely useless. Aurora and Maleficent carried the movie, and they did all the work to save the kingdom, yet it’s the prince who gets the credit and pat on the back. There was an unintentional funny moment at the climactic battle. The fairies revolt against the humans, and in the middle of the battle, the prince yells, “Everyone, stop fighting!” Yeah, you tell them, Prince White Guy. You tell them.
3/5 atoms. You don’t have to see this movie, but it’s fun. Does it push cinema? Not really. This movie doesn’t have to be anything other than what it wants to be. It expands and could open the door for a third film. It does keep Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning working, I guess. Very light and easy to follow film. I think people who don’t watch that many movies will find this one just delightful. It’s got a slight edge to it, but safe in a Disney way. Gives those tweens a goth character to follow and buy merchandise that Hot Topic would carry. There is an actual third act battle scene, in which people die, but you don’t actually see bloody violence. So this is a very mild war movie for younger viewers to digest and not be traumatized. It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.