This Disney reimagining of Sleeping Beauty lacks true enchantment, but Angelina Jolie saves the dayFor a reminder of how wonderful Frozen is, watch Maleficent. This summer blockbuster season, Disney has turned out a live-action reimagining of their own animated version of Sleeping Beauty, from 1959.
As recently as six months ago, this might have felt subversive, even significant, although after seeing Elsa and Anna letting it go on icing-sugar mountains and finding endings happier than any standard-issue handsome prince could provide, the fun on offer here feels relatively thawed.
It is still fun, though, which counts for something – largely because, as with Frozen, the game involves returning to a well-thumbed fairy tale and muddling the distinction between evil and good. Maleficent, played by Angelina Jolie, is the wicked fairy, down to the sleek black-and-purple gown and the hat like two raised scorpion-stings.
Here, though, her wickedness is limited to that famous fit of rage at Princess Aurora’s christening – the flash of green fire, the spinning-wheel curse, reproduced here from the 1959 cartoon version almost word-for-word – for which she spends much of this film trying to make amends.
While its common ground with Frozen is entirely coincidental, Maleficent was surely prompted at least in part by the stage musical Wicked, which also used the story-behind-the-story device to paint a well-known fairy-tale villain – in that case, Oz’s Witch of the West – in a more sympathetic light.
And sure enough, when the film opens, Maleficent isn’t wicked at all: she’s flying happily and freely across The Moors, her pick-and-mix-bright enchanted kingdom. The first-time director, Robert Stromberg, was production designer on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, and if you thought those films were visually sickly, here he really has his cake and sits in it. Every frame of Maleficent is abuzz with odd and not always charming computer-generated beasts, and it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the nuclear-grade sweetness.
One day, a young trespasser from the human realm appears: this is Stefan, who breaks young Maleficent’s heart and returns, some years later on royal orders, to ensure her fairy wings suffer the same fate. Stefan, played as an adult by Sharlto Copley with the ropiest Scottish accent since Shrek, inherits the throne – and so it’s his daughter that Maleficent, fuelled by vengeance, not jealousy, turns up to curse.
For the next 16 years, on and off, she watches Aurora, who’s played as a young girl by Jolie’s daughter Vivienne, and as a teen by Elle Fanning, being raised by the three multi-coloured good fairies at their country cottage. (The good fairies’ roles are taken by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple, which makes you wish Mike Leigh had been available to direct instead.)
It’s been four years since Jolie last appeared on screen, and you’d like to think she’s having fun here, even though a smile, under the circumstances, seems physically impossible. Her mouth is ruby-bright and pursed as a rosebud, while her cheekbones, which were fine enough beforehand, here look like something from the winners’ enclosure at Aintree. The venerable special make-up effects artist Rick Baker, who won an Oscar for An American Werewolf in London, was in charge of the reshaping of the Jolie features, and his work is wildly more convincing than the digital enhancements used elsewhere.
When the time comes for Aurora to prick her finger and the curse to take effect, Maleficent has realised the error of her ways, and dashes to the castle, where a confrontation with King Stefan ensues. The action sequences are executed with rhythm and punch, and our heroine swoops and swirls around like Iron Man in a sheath dress. Maleficent may be short on true enchantment, but until we find a superhero who can pull off a black silk cocktail gown in battle, she’s very welcome.