Now that some people can finally admit that, contrary to what we were taught in school, Christopher Columbus was a genocidal rapist and colonizer who accidentally stumbled upon a continent previously unknown to Western Europe and enslaved all the natives he didn’t kill, some American cities and states have fittingly renamed the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day.
Indiana — the state where I live with a name that, curiously, still means “land of the Indians” despite all the white people living here — is not one of those states. Shocking.
At first glance, you’d think Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Columbus Day would have nothing to do with each other. Imagine my surprise when I attended the screening of Mistress of Evil this past Monday only to discover that it was the most bizarrely appropriate movie to watch on one of America’s ugliest holidays.
Mistress of Evil picks up five years after the events of Maleficent, which effectively rewrote the story of Sleeping Beauty through a distinctly feminine perspective. By the end of the first movie, themes ranging from non-traditional motherhood to recovery from sexual assault were all explored through the character of Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), who is both a hero and a villain. Written by Linda Woolverton, Maleficent is Disney’s deepest and most satisfying live action “remake” — a descriptor I put in quotes because it’s more of a retelling than the shot-for-shot remakes that followed it, and far more compelling because of it.
Its sequel, meanwhile? A mess.
This time, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (the team behind A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) joined Woolverton to pen the script, and does it ever show. Mistress of Evil begins as Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, a recast who earns the distinction of being even more forgettable than his predecessor) proposes to Aurora (Elle Fanning), hoping for a symbolic union between their two kingdoms as well as a marriage to the love of his life. Aurora, remember, has been Queen of the Moors for the past five years. (No, not those Moors, but rather the fairy folk who live in idyllic separation from humans on the Moors; think Wuthering Heights, except not gray or cold or foggy or haunted or … you know what? Not important.)
Phillip’s father, King John of Ulstead (Robert Lindsay), approves of his union both politically and personally, while his mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), seems … less approving, to say the least. She agrees to bless Phillip’s proposal on one condition — that Aurora and her godmother, Maleficent, come to the castle of Ulstead for dinner so the future in-laws can meet.
Weird how that sounds like a medieval Meet the Parents. Weird how they even make a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner joke about it. Also weird that it takes at least 15 minutes for them to remember to include the titular role of the movie — you know, Maleficent? — in this particularly stupid setup.
It’s all downhill from there. Things go predictably wrong at the dinner, Aurora sides with her new “family” and Maleficent goes off to a colony of Dark Fey like her to get talked at for, like, an hour about her people’s history and why she should either lead them in peace or in war, depending on who’s talking (Chiwetel Ejiofor for the former, Ed Skrein the latter). This whole expository digression is both unnecessarily confusing (because they never answer the relevant questions about Maleficent’s past, like why she ended up in the Moors alone in the first place) and unbelievably boring because I’m pretty sure Maleficent has about three lines during the whole thing. She does have several costume changes, though, so that’s something.
The most tragic thing about Mistress of Evil is that it constantly, purposefully forgets Maleficent is an actual character. Instead, she’s either a pawn in the schemes of the real villain (that would be Queen Ingrith, obviously) or a poorly set-up plot device. After the magnificent work Jolie put into Maleficent in the original — from her screams of pain and betrayal when her true love drugs her and steals her wings to saying “I hate you, beasty” to a baby when she’s already realizing that what she feels is the opposite — Mistress of Evil feels like a slap in the face. More than that, it’s an insult. Why on earth would you sideline Angelina Jolie like this? Of all actors! ANGELINA JOLIE!
I wish I could say that’s the worst thing about Mistress of Evil, but remember Columbus Day? Here’s where that gets relevant.
Ingrith’s whole deal is eliminating the fairies so she can colonize the Moors (again, not those Moors, though the word confusion sure does add a whole other WTF element) and prevent her people from starving. Let’s just leave off the fact that there’s no indication that the people of Ulstead are anything less than pretty OK, actually, but fine. That’s a classic villain motivation, and they throw in a revenge aspect for good measure, but there’s just one problem: It completely undermines the gender politics of the original movie.
In Maleficent, kings are xenophobic warmongers. Their ambition and paranoia hurts humans and fairies. Queens, meanwhile, defend what they love and protect what they can from the harm kings can do. Mistress of Evil completely reverses this, painting kings and princes as impractical dreamers whose desire for peace makes them weak and instead making the evil queen a vicious, manipulative and genocidal racist.
There are certainly women in the real world who possess all those qualities, and a handful of historical queens fit that bill, too. (Remember those Moors? Queen Isabella, who sent Columbus on his rapey way, hated ’em.) Perhaps with a better script, Queen Ingrith’s villainy would feel more genuine instead of like a lazy caricature. But the world of Maleficent was always one that usurped a story most frequently written by men (and therefore reflecting a male worldview) and changed it to reflect a female one instead. That perspective is missing from Mistress of Evil, and you can feel it in so many ways, from Maleficent and Aurora being pushed aside for the male Dark Fey and Phillip to a villain who feels drastically and almost comically out of place.
Similarly lazy is the depiction and worldbuilding around the Dark Fey. From the moment you first see them, it’s clear the filmmakers chose to make them visually and culturally tribal — lots of leather and face paint and war cries — to Other them even more than their horns and wings already do. Trying and failing to out-smolder Jolie, Skrein does his best Jason Momoa impression (i.e., baring his abs and grunting a lot). Bedecked in pearl-encrusted armor, Ingrith calls the Dark Fey “savages” as she watches the massacre she singlehandedly engineered unfold below her. Subtle this movie is not.
Part of me thinks the new screenwriters thought they were continuing Maleficent’s trend of subverting tropes. But all they succeed in doing is reinforcing those tropes in ways that are both racist and sexist.
It’s a hugely disappointing departure from what could’ve been an interesting take on European colonialism through fable and fairytale, but who am I kidding? The moment they put two men on this screenplay was the moment it was doomed. Such is Hollywood. Such is life.