For a reminder of how wonderful “Frozen” is, watch Maleficent. This summer blockbuster season, Disney has turned out a live-action reimagining of its own animated version of “Sleeping Beauty” (1959).
As recently as six months ago, this might have felt subversive, even significant, but after the enchanting adventures of Elsa and Anna (in “Frozen”), the fun on offer here feels relatively thawed.
It is still fun, though, which counts for something – largely because 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 from the 1959 cartoon version almost word-for-word – for which she spends much of this film trying to make amends.
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 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 the 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, 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.
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 look like something from the winners' enclosure at Aintree. Oscar-winning special make-up effects artist Rick Baker 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. 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.