As Disney continues to plunder its animated IP for live-action remakes, where these films fall on the spectrum of pointlessness has to do with how closely they adhere to the source. The remakes that simply copy the material from one format to the other, like Beauty and The Beast or Aladdin, have been consistently enervating whereas the ones that attempt a full gut rehab, like Dumbo or the excellent Pete's Dragon, at least have the benefit of an independent artistic vision. In this particular creative desert, every droplet of water counts.
The 2014 fantasy Maleficent wasn't a remake of Sleeping Beauty so much as an alternative telling, an act of playful revisionism that relates to the original as the novel and Broadway musical Wicked relates to The Wizard of Oz. The main twist — that Maleficent isn't evil, but a wronged fairy taking revenge on a duplicitous king — riffs cleverly on the idea that everyone has their reasons. The film also nests other bits of commentary inside, like questioning whether Prince Phillip and Princess Aurora could have fallen in love so quickly or snickering at the notion that Aurora could dodge Maleficent's curse by hiding in the woods for 16 years. But it works best as a vehicle for Angelina Jolie, whose enhanced cheekbones and villainous cackle suggested the making of a camp icon.
Given its close entanglement with Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent didn't seem like a natural for a sequel, but market forces have dictated an exceedingly weird one in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which plays like Game of Thrones for kids, a garish battle epic about the war between kingdoms. Long gone are the serene watercolors of Sleeping Beauty, replaced by an aggressive CGI wonderland of screensaver vistas and Smurf-y creatures, and a camera that swoops around as if its operators had their own pairs of fairy wings. It's not a feast for the eyes—it's an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Picking up the action five years after the first film ended, Mistress of Evil opens with Aurora (Elle Fanning) as the benevolent hippie leader of the Moors, the fantastical organic kingdom where Maleficent serves as protector and enforcer. When Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) proposes to Aurora and she accepts, the two see it as an opportunity to unite the Moors with the oft-hostile human kingdom that borders it. This leads to a surreal Guess Who's Coming to Dinner scene where Aurora persuades Maleficent to dine at the castle with her future in-laws, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), but they discover that old suspicions haven't dissipated. As guests from the Moors venture out for the wedding, Ingrith secretly plots an elaborate attack that will settle the beef between humans and fairies once and for all.
The Norwegian director Joachim Rønning, who co-directed the last Pirates of the Caribbean film, has set fire to a giant pile of money here, and he seems determined to account for every last dollar visually, which means jamming every corner of the screen with special effects. There's a method to his maximalism, particularly in an extended battle sequence that answers a winged army with great, toxic plumes of red ash that burst from atop the castle walls like a fireworks display. The contrast between the leaden formality of the human world and the flowery overgrowth of the Moors makes for a striking visual palette, as well as a theme about mankind's tendency to ravage the natural world.
Yet Mistress of Evil loses the emotional stakes of the first film, which were rooted in a terrible injustice and the unlikely bond between Maleficent and the cursed princess she comes to adore. There's a good angle here about the destructive potential of myth, tied to the stories that unfairly poison Maleficent in the human world, but Jolie goes missing for long stretches of the film as Ingrith does her scheming. And while it's a pleasure to see Pfeiffer lay into a regal villain, it's odd to see a Maleficent film with so little Maleficent, and all the giggly little sprites in the world can't make up for it. Jolie was born to play the role, and the best strategy would have been to let her.