Towards the beginning of this very interesting, mildly feminist take on Sleeping Beauty, there is a moment that, thanks to recent sad accidents of fate, takes the film in an unexpectedly gut-wrenching direction. Angelina Jolie is unimpeachably well cast as the hitherto evil – now merely misunderstood – sorceress who, outraged by patriarchal abuse, does what she does to the region's fairest princess.
In this version (adding some Angela Carter and a little Wicked to the Grimm stew), Maleficent, originally a well-meaning fairy, wakes up after battle with the neighbouring king to find ugly stumps where her wings once were. It is impossible not to think of Jolie's recent double mastectomy when her character notices the loss and wails desperately to an unresponsive sky.
We shouldn’t need to say that nothing else in the picture has the resonance of that hugely uncomfortable moment. But, somewhat unexpectedly, Walt Disney’s latest musing on one corner of its own legacy – though showing signs of reshoots and recutting – is moving, funny and unsettling throughout.
Much of that is down to Jolie and what the art department have done to her. Wearing prosthetic cheekbones that sharpen her (not noticeably dull) features into an approximation of the pointy Maleficent in Disney’s 1959 animation, she dominates the picture in much the same way the Black Death dominated the Dark Ages. She is powerful and vulnerable, compassionate and vengeful. It’s hard to imagine the film existing without her.
There are, however, other pleasures to be had. The three comic fairies (Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton) who mind the young Sleeping Beauty are an absolute riot. The outrageously candy-coated visuals make a virtue of their own unashamed vulgarity. The closing feminist twist states its case without indulging in clumsy polemics.
Still, some signs of panic and compromise do show themselves. Having ticked along at an acceptable pace for an hour and a quarter, the film suddenly gets all in a fluster and rushes us breathlessly through the substance of the ancient myth.
By my calculation, Sleeping Beauty is only actually abed for about 10 minutes. It’s little wonder she lost top billing.