The worst flaw, by far, of Disney's new adventure in branding, Maleficent, is that it's operating in completely bad faith. This isn't a retelling of the same company's 1959 animated masterpiece Sleeping Beauty, told from the perspective of the villain; it's not a backstory that explains how the villain used to be good before turning evil, in the Wicked mode; it's not a retelling of the story designed to show how the villain actually isn't that villainous, although this is what it thinks it is. It is, in fact, a completely different story altogether that shares a few character names and design elements, as well as one specific scene with Sleeping Beauty, but cannot be squared with the events of that film even at the level of he-said-she-said narrative subjectivity. Ideally, we wouldn't feel compelled to compare the two at all, but Disney is hellbent on making certain we do, and this is absolutely deadly for the new film, which tells a less interesting story centered on a much less interesting figure: the idea of Angelina Jolie playing Maleficent is a lot more exciting when it's the raging, purely evil Maleficent who delights in being cruel for the sake of it and transforms into a dragon and sneers with contemptuous menace at the human maggots she knows to be beneath her.

It's a pity that the film starts off with such an insurmountable handicap, because if it weren't explicitly tied to one of the finest villains in cinema history, transforming her into a sympathetic, tragic figure - though one whose given name unyieldingly connotes to any speaker of English or any Romantic language the idea of wickedness and violence - Maleficent would be a lot easier to like as a pretty decent, though unmistakably flawed fantasy. If we allow that it's part of a loosely defined brand that includes Alice in Wonderland from 2010, Snow White and the Huntsman from 2012, and Oz the Great and Powerful from 2013 - all sharp-edged riffs on classic children's stories produced by Joe Roth, three of them involving former visual effects artist Robert Stromberg in some capacity - Maleficent is cozily the best of them, though if the bar gets much lower than "this was better than Alice in Wonderland", one begins to question whether or not one actually "clears" it, or simply trips over it.

It is, at any rate, Stromberg's first film as a director, and if he designed production like a VFX artist before, he directs like a production designer now, clearly more interested in the locations and objects that parade in front of the camera than the humans who interact with those locations. The actual production design is left to Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman, and I think that, in part, makes all of the difference: their style isn't so garish as Stromberg's was on Alice and Oz, even if the overall feeling of Maleficent's fantasy sequences shares their "let's bring a '70s prog-rock album cover to life!" mentality. Better still, Maleficent boasts a protagonist played by an actor with extremely clear designs on her character, who needs no guidance from a filmmaker obviously more interested in tinkering with video game characters than telling a story or having people doing interesting things (the aggressively poor performances by any and all non-Jolie actors in the cast speaks to this fluently, if depressingly).

Despite largely eschewing Sleeping Beauty, Linda Woolverton's screenplay for the new film copies, more or less, that movie's ellipsis-driven structure, which I find myself regarding as a good choice; it lends Maleficent the feeling of a a classic European fairy tale, with details sketched in and explained as asides, and this gives it quite a bit of added weight when it starts to tweak and up-end the tone of those fairy tales. So it is that we have a quickly blitzed-through prologue explaining how there's a human kingdom next to a fairy realm on the moors, and one day a human boy, Stefan (Michael Higgins as a child, Jackson Bews as a teen, and Sharlto Copley as an adult, which is most of the time), crosses the line into the moors and is caught by the fairies; he's saved through the intercession of the human-sized horned fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy and Ella Purnell precede Jolie in the role), and they fall in love. But then, one day, Stefan drugs and mutilates Maleficent, cutting off her wings to use as token that he should be named heir to the kingdom. Enraged, the fairy took her revenge on the human upon the birth of his daughter, laying out the whole spinning wheel curse of legend.

After this, the story overlaps with Disney's original, though it doesn't coincide with it: Stefan sends the baby to live with three incompetent fairies disguised as human women, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville), and Thistletwit (June Temple). Since they're incapable of keeping the child from starving to death, Maleficent herself, aided by a crow-turned-human, Diaval (Sam Riley), intercedes to raise the baby to her teenage years, so that the curse may be carried out; but when teenage Aurora (Elle Fanning), gifted by the other fairies with eternal happiness, finds great joy and delight in spending time with the grim-faced Maleficent, it begins to thaw the "wicked" fairy's heart. At which point the film stops resembling Disney's at all, although Stromberg and cinematographer Dean Semler do their best to stage scenes in ways that echo and mimic individual shots from the '59 film.

Woolverton's script is heavy on abstraction and low on real cohesion - the shift by which Maleficent transforms from irritated child-hater to affectionate secret caregiver is missing entirely, and it's the one thing that Jolie is powerless to do anything about - and the themes are foggier than they'd like to be (it's feminist-ish without actually being feminist; but then again, the fact that a family-friendly Disney movie is metaphorically about not letting men get away with date rape counts as some The Second Sex-level radicalism by corporate standards). But the overall tone is about right, giving us the mythic strokes of a story and letting us imagine our way into the rest. It's a brisk narrative that has the exact feeling of a bedtime story, not an epic adventure, and it's easy to see why plenty of people have been turned off by that, but given the material and the target audience, it leaves the film with a pleasantly distinct personality that stands out nicely against the generally overly-literal popcorn movies that come out these days.

The crisp, folkloric storytelling is better than the film built around that story, perhaps: it's a handsome but blank looking film with some faintly awful CGI in its depiction of the fairy world and the creatures living there, frequently feeling more like a cartoon than something that's meant to be photorealistic. Stromberg is the absolute dictionary definition of a hack filmmaker: he's there to keep things moving in a forward direction, but doesn't put an ounce in insight or personality into any image or narrative beat, leaving people like Semler and composer James Newton Howard to do all the heavy lifting. The only scene that really sparks as cinema, and not as a chance to watch Angelina Jolie do her thing, is the christening scene, the one beat-for-beat remake of a moment from Sleeping Beauty; it's also the one moment that real fairy tale scariness creeps into the film or Jolie's performance, and the whole thing is dramatic and exciting and over much too quickly.

Still, watching Jolie do her thing turns out to be a more than passable diversion: she's great in the role, greater than she's been in ten years (by which I mean her outstanding snarling female monster in Alexander, a judgment that I not expect to be widely shared). She wails with betrayed anguish when she realises her wings are gone, and it is unnerving and soul-shattering; she laughs with private glee when laying the curse down on baby Aurora, and it is a moment of captivating, charismatic villainy; she holds the toddler Aurora with a kind of well-meaning stiffness as a confused mix of annoyance and affection battle on her face, and it is sweet and tender. Just the variety of ways she says the word "beastie" - her name for Aurora - is enough to make this a fantastic performance and a worthwhile experience.

Without Jolie, Maleficent is a fine, boring movie: faintly anonymous fantasy landscapes with just enough color that they're not completely generic, a story that is mostly interesting for subverting expectations than because of the intellectual rigor with which it so subverts, and some pretty fantastic costume design, courtesy of Anna B. Sheppard. But Jolie is good enough in specific way to make it, an honestly successful summer movie: long on iconic, broad-strokes dramatic moments and emotions, boldly presentational in its approach, and suitably mythic and surface-level. Coupled with its decidedly unfussy approach to fantasy, the film works in an unexpectedly old-school way; it's primitive and direct, simple in its grandeur, with just enough contemporary themes on the edges to avoid feeling musty. It's basic but highly effective children's fantasy, never great but consistently engaging, and just magical and mysterious enough to feel more like a real fairy tale than a dodgy postmodern retelling of one.