Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Directed by Clyde Geronimi
A holiday is proclaimed to celebrate the recent birth of King Stefan and Queen Leah’s daughter Aurora, and everyone is invited. Well, almost everyone: the evil fairy Maleficent got snubbed. As the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merriweather, are bestowing the newborn with gifts of beauty and song, Maleficent crashes the party. Angry at being left out, she curses the baby to prick its finger on a spinning wheel at age 16 and die. The good fairies are able to modify the curse to be enchanted sleep instead of death, and decide to raise her in the forest to protect her.
16 years later, Aurora meets and falls in love with Prince Philip, who unbeknownst to her (and vice versa) is her betrothed. The three fairies, who have been masquerading as humans all this time, break their self-imposed ban on magic to celebrate Aurora’s birthday…thereby alerting Maleficent to Aurora’s location. After being informed of her true identity, Aurora is taken back to the castle, where Maleficent manages to find her and successfully gets her to touch the spinning wheel, activating the curse and placing her into a magical sleep. The fairies put the rest of the castle to sleep as well, and set out to find Prince Philip, as only he can break the curse. He’s been abducted by Maleficent, so the fairies help break him out and escape her minions. To prevent him from reaching the castle, Maleficent surrounds it with thorns and turns herself into a dragon. Philip slays the dragon, and kisses Aurora to break the curse.
Unlike most of the other Disney movies from the 50s, Sleeping Beauty wasn’t a holdover from the early days of the studio. Story development didn’t start until after Cinderella had come out to great acclaim. It was originally slated for a 1955 release, and dialogue was actually recorded for it as early as 1953. But Walt Disney kept having sequences thrown out or reworked, and the original director, Wilfred Jackson, had a heart attack and had to leave the production. That resulted in a revolving door of project directors that delayed things even further.
Sleeping Beauty has rather famous production design, and most especially the backgrounds by Eyvind Earle. Earle based them on medieval and Renaissance paintings, and they give the movie a distinct style unlike any previous Disney film. The character animators, however, greatly disliked the style, as they collectively had a difficult time matching it with their character designs.
Unfortunately, all of the delays caused the movie to go massively over-budget. It ended up being the most expensive Disney movie to that point, costing $6 million to produce (over twice as expensive as Peter Pan or Lady and the Tramp). As such, even though it was moderately popular at the box office, it ended up costing Disney so much money that they posted their first year in the red since the package film days. After this, Disney put a moratorium on fairy tale adaptations that would last for almost 30 years, and set out to find a cheaper way to produce animation (which we’ll get to next time).
Okay, this is much more like it! After three movies that I’ve either thought were just okay, or else had significant issues with, we’re finally back to Peak Disney. This is the third of Disney’s legendary trio of fairy tale “princess” films, and I think it’s by far the best of the bunch.
As mentioned in the Production section, the design aesthetic for this movie is really remarkable. Earle’s backgrounds are nothing short of masterworks, done in a flat, angular style wholly unlike anything seen in feature animation to this point. It actually reminds me a lot of some more modern TV animation, albeit at a hundred times the level of detail. Most of the characters are also rendered in this style, with the major exceptions being the three good fairies – rather fitting, actually, as they’re supernatural creatures and their, well, roundness makes them stand apart from the straight lines and angles of the movie’s “natural” world.
Speaking of the good fairies, I was surprised how much this movie is actually about them and not the title character. There’s a pretty strong case to be made that they’re the real protagonists of the film. And I absolutely love that these three grandmas are the ones who rescue Prince Philip at the end, and team up with him to defeat Maleficent (there’s no way he could have taken down that dragon without their help). Though there’s definitely a part of me that wonders just what they’ve been doing for the last sixteen years alone in the forest, if they have no idea how to bake a cake or sew clothes for someone in puberty without resorting to magic.
On the other hand, Aurora herself is almost as much of a non-entity as the princes have been in the past. She sings a song, dances with the prince a bit, cries when told she’s really a princess, and then gets hypnotized and put to sleep. And that’s about it. It’s almost as if the roles of prince and princess had been flipped. Philip is the first Disney prince to get any sort of development. Hell, he’s the first to even get a real name (“Charming” does not count). He talks back to his father about being forced into an arranged marriage, and he gets one whopper of an action scene to close the film.
That brings me to the movie’s crowning achievement. In my opinion, Maleficent is hands-down the best villain in the Disney canon. Her character design is immediately iconic, and Eleanor Audley’s vocal performance gives her an imposing presence to match. She’s practically gleeful in her wickedness – she knows what her job is, and clearly enjoys doing it. There’s a reason that Disney chose to focus their live-action remake on her instead of on any of the human characters. When she realizes that her minions have been looking for a baby for 16 years straight, it’s easy to feel empathy with her rage. Good help is apparently hard to find even for evil overladies.
This movie is, by far, the best thing I’ve watched from Disney in ages. It’s a step up from Cinderella in pretty much everything but the song department, and I think only Pinocchio can measure up to it from the pre-war period. While the dragon might be a little too scary for my nieces (especially the one who’s only two), I still plan to show it to them soon if they haven’t seen it already. Unfortunately, it’ll be quite some time until Disney hits these heights again. That isn’t to say that the 60s movies are bad, but the move to xerography definitely didn’t do them any favors in the creativity department. Next week: a whole lot of puppies.
Animation: A (The best looking Disney movie of the post-package period, and one of the best until the Renaissance)
Main Characters: C (Aurora is one of the weakest of the Disney Princesses, and doesn’t really get to do much other than pine after a prince and mope about being a princess)
Supporting Characters: A- (Prince Philip and the fairies are practically the main characters themselves)
Villain: A (It’s Maleficent. She’s the standard by which all other Disney villains are judged)
Music: B (The songs aren’t really that memorable, but the score is excellent)