The problems with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil begin right with its title. It's a reference to a climactic moment in the 1959 Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty, in which the imperious evil fairy Maleficent, voiced with haughty cruelty by Eleanor Audley, reveals to the protagonists that they have failed in their single goal: "You poor, simple fools. Thinking you could defeat me. Me, the mistress of all evil!" So far so good, at the level of "this new thing is a pandering variant of this old thing", which is the only level that Disney, as a corporation, seems to be capable of in 2019. Except that Audley's Maleficent is one thing, and Angelina Jolie's Maleficent, first introduced in the 2014 revisionist fairy tale Maleficent, well she is quite a different thing. Jolie's Maleficent might find her way 'round to calling somebody a poor, simple fool, though I think it would feel a bit forced if she did so. She would certainly not call herself "mistress of all evil", for the simple fact that she's not. The story that Maleficent told - one might go so far as to say, the only reason that Maleficent exists at all - specifically proposes that Maleficent, despite having a given name that means "willfully malicious and inclined to do harm", is a truly good individual, one driven to extremes by a horrible crime against her person. And no sooner does she storm out her revenge than she regrets it, and she spends the whole of that feature demonstrating her innate goodness, and that is why the movie ends with triumph and good feeling and sunlit smiles all around.

Mistress of Evil is obliged to pretend that quite a lot of that ending didn't happen, or at least didn't happen at all as it was implied to, and also that the world-building of that film was both incomplete and wrong. So already a pretty swell example of the worst kind of sequel, the one that both actively harms the first movie and is itself harder to follow the more details of the original you recall (Mistress of Evil seems to prefer a viewer who last saw Maleficent about five and a half years ago). On top of which, it suffers a different version of the exact same problem that film suffered (or, we might say, it suffers from several of the exact same problems, but one at a time), which is that it's taking a legendarily vindictive and merciless antagonist - Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent is, to me, on the very short list of the all-time best movie villains - and trying to soften her character, indeed completely reverse her character, while retaining as much of the vindictiveness and cruelty to gift to Jolie to play as a grand movie star diva turn. It didn't work in 2014, and it's even worse in 2019. There, at least Jolie had an arc to play. Here, the film is basically just declaring by fiat that Maleficent is hostile and threatening and scary, while also telling a story in which she is specifically not those things. It's very confounding and sloppy.

Anyway, the film is set five years later, which has been enough time for every part of the plot of that movie to be doused in a memory hole: all humans believe Maleficent to be a treacherous witch. This belief does not, by the way, inform any of the plot points. It doesn't really even manifest on-screen. But the film has taken pains to tell us that this is the case, so let's trust it. Maleficent is the leader of The Moors, a fairy kingdom, but somehow she is not their ruler; that would be Aurora (Elle Fanning, once again becoming just so bland and insipid the moment she steps into this character's head), Maleficent's goddaughter and the descent of bad, dead King Stefan. Which means she is also, in principle, queen of Stefan's kingdom, though the film takes pains again to declare that she gave the castle to the people, whatever the shit that means. That kingdom is so 2014, and we give no shits about it. Now we're in the kingdom of Ulstead, which apparently has been right next door this whole time, and it's the place from which Aurora's boyfriend Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson, somehow even more shrilly banal and flavorless than Brenton Thwaites, from whom he inherits the role) came. As the film opens, Aurora and Philip decide to get married, and this pisses Maleficent off. It also pisses off Philip's mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), an obvious piece of badness from the moment she sweeps into the movie and we learn that she's running a secret fairy-torturing lab right under the nose of her pacifist husband King John (Robert Lindsay). And this, of course, means we get some tart-tongued Jolie vs. Pfeiffer movie goddess action. One whole scene of it. And that scene is cut almost exclusively with singles of the two actors (though, to its credit, it is cut beautifully well for pacing and emphasizing the verbal barbs), so we barely get even that pleasure.

From this point, Mistress of Evil gets tangled up in too much dumb mythology, political intrigue, and simply gummy storytelling, for me to bother talking about it any more. Suffice it to say that there is a much broader fantasy world now than before, and much grimmer, more tonally upsetting stakes. And the last film was a rape-revenge thriller that had a PG rating and the Disney brand on it, so when I say "more tonally upsetting", I mean real damn tonally upsetting.

Fair is fair, the notions the film is playing with work. One of the big ideas is to give Maleficent a race and a backstory, and the setting where she receives this backstory has some solid fantasy production design from Patrick Tatopoulos. He's signed off one some absolute trash in the past - he is credited as the main designer of the astonishingly misguided 1998 Godzilla, to name the biggest thing - but he also gave us Dark City, and for that I will never hate him. And if those are going to be our two poles, Mistress of Evil is closer to the latter film: one location, a massive spider-web like eyrie, is genuinely superb, and the rest are strong versions of fantasy movie boilerplate. So if nothing else, the film scratches an itch for good sword-and-sorcery settings, if you are like me and tend to get that itch every so often.

It is still, let us be clear, pretty damn ugly. Maleficent's approach to fantasy world building was to coat everything in colors that were somehow drab and tacky at the same time, and Mistress of Evil largely follows that approach. This kind of sour gritty realism than has to contend with the goofy comic fairy creatures that make up a decent percentage of the film's cast. Somehow, this has gotten worse in the last five years. The three wretched comic relief fairies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville), and Thistlewit (Juno Temple) are exceptionally straightforward examples of how much worse the CGI lighting and compositing are here, though at least they are in far less of Mistress of Evil than the last movie. And if I wasn't angry enough at this movie, God damn it all the way down to hell for making me glad to have less of Staunton and Manville.

The whole thing is a distinctly weaker visual experience, and Maleficent only barely scraped by on that front to begin with. Director Joachim Rønning is more methodical and cautious than Robert Stromberg was in that movie; he's less inclined to swoop around and show off, less inclined to treat moments with the excessive grandiosity that is as close as this was ever going to come to having a personality. Hence things like that diva fight that was inexplicably dominated by singles. This is by-the-books filmmaking, and it would take some kitsch or camp to save Mistress of Evil; in the absence of either, it's just boring and weighted down by way too much exposition that still doesn't end up telling us what the hell is going on.

Mostly absent, I should probably say. If Maleficent had the one saving grace in the form of Jolie, Mistress of Evil has now doubled the number of great performances, with a total of two: Pfeiffer is hamming up a storm, and seems to be enjoying herself immensely in the process. It's a tightly-coiled, ice-cold villain turn, but so campily menacing despite that, that I was never even a little bored. I cannot, honestly, say the same for Jolie: the script requires here to be a sassy joke-telling quip machine, and this isn't really something Jolie has ever had to activate before. It turns out that she's not very good at it: this Maleficent has no sense of humor but acts like she does, and she's lessened considerably as a figure of awe as a result. "Considerably", not "entirely", and the film is still better off for Jolie's presence than not. But it's not a film-salvaging slam dunk this time around, and Mistress of Evil already had more to salvage than its none-too-illustrious predecessor.