Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Disney’s sequel to the 2014 retelling of Sleeping Beauty with Angelina Jolie that’s in theaters now, is sort of strange and dark for a fairy tale. That’s what makes it so great. The movie covers a lot of things—motherhood, the loss of innocence, love, hate, immigration, power, magic—without losing focus. The costumes are, and I cannot stress this enough, excellent. And best of all, it honors the most enduring tropes of Disney fairy tales (Spoiler: good triumphs over evil) while updating the princess narrative in subtle and powerful ways.
Just look at Aurora’s (Elle Fanning’s) story. She’s now 21 years old and engaged to Prince Philip. It’s hardly surprising or revolutionary that she’s marrying her first boyfriend, but we then learn they’ve been dating for five years. Five years! Compare that with the “love at first sight, married the next day” plot of, well, just pick a movie. Aurora is no sleepy princess, either. She’s the strong-willed barefoot queen of the Moors, the forest wonderland where magical creatures live, having given her previous castle to “the people.” We stan an egalitarian monarch.
Of course, this will come as no surprise to those who saw the first film, a decidedly feminist reboot of Sleeping Beauty. But Linda Woolverton—the screenwriter behind both Maleficent films and basically your entire childhood (Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, hello!)—tells me that turning a tale of problematic true love on its head was a challenge at first. While writing the first film, she struggled with making the Disney villain sympathetic. “What on Earth happened to this woman that she was that pissed off?” she asked herself. “I had to give her a real reason.”
The answer: Woolverton wrote a scene in which Maleficent is drugged by a paramour and wakes to find he’s cut off her wings. “It was…nothing we ever said out loud, but it feels like a date rape,” she tells me. “It’s funny, I worked really closely with Angelina Jolie on the whole script—she was fantastic—and we never actually said ‘date rape.’ It wasn’t until after that it was like, ‘Oh, huh, that’s what that is.’”
That powerful metaphor in Maleficent’s backstory wasn’t the only twist in the first film, though. You may recall that it’s actually Maleficent herself who breaks the sleeping curse by kissing Aurora on the forehead. (Turns out the unconditional true love of a mother is greater than that of a random paramour’s.) That moment was yet another instance of Woolverton’s realizing, after the fact, what she had written. “For the first Maleficent, I was talking [in an interview] about the moment when Maleficent wakes Aurora up and gives this speech, and I broke down,” she says. “It was so terrible. I realized that the whole movie was an apology to my daughter for getting a divorce.” She adds, “I didn’t even realize it until that moment that the whole movie was about that.”
Mother-daughter tension is at the center again in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. “It’s about watching a mother and daughter as they go to the next level of their relationship,” Woolverton explains. ”The daughter leaves home. There are other challenges to their love. The prince and the young man’s parents create this feeling of being threatened. I wanted the audience to worry about their relationship. Their love is really what earns their way back together.”
Faced with the possibility of losing her beloved Aurora to humans (gross) who live in a castle (yuck) on the other side of the river (ick), Maleficent throws a small tantrum at a dinner party hosted by Queen Ingrith of Alstead (Michelle Pfeiffer). The gathering was billed as a celebration of Aurora and Philip’s engagement—but we later learn the queen was using it as cover to curse her husband, the king, with the point of the spinning needle from the first movie. She then blames it on Maleficent’s tantrum so she has grounds to start a humans-versus-fairies war and colonize the Moors once and for all.
I’ll give you a second to read that again. The plot’s not overly convoluted, exactly, but it’s certainly more complicated than “boy fights dragon, boy kisses girl.” And it’s not a light and breezy adventure, either. Like the 1959 animated feature, this movie might scare some kids. A lot of it takes place at night. Some of it takes place in a graveyard. Maleficent journeys to a faraway realm where she meets others of her kind and discovers they’re the last of a dying breed, forced to live in exile by humans. They’re refugees going extinct, in other words. And they have a righteous hatred borne of oppression. Queen Ingrith has a bigoted hatred borne of, she says, inequality and a scarcity mentality, but she’s been known to spread fake news before. If that all sounds, uh, timely to current political events, Woolverton doesn’t deny it. “You don’t want to make the screaming parallel to what’s contemporary, because that’s what keeps your movie from being a classic,” she says. “But some things are obvious.”
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is an exciting and modern fairy-tale romp that features, and this cannot be overstated, some of the prettiest dresses you ever did see. It’s a feminist epic for our times, and that’s worth the price of admission.
Elizabeth Logan is a writer and comedian based in New York.
Originally Appeared on Glamour