Sleeping Beauty (1959)
James: It may be early, I know we’re only on the 16th Disney Animated Classic, and only their 10th full length animated feature film, but I’m calling it: Sleeping Beauty is the most beautiful film Disney have ever made. Oh, there are flaws (which I’ll come back to later), but in terms of sheer visual images Beauty is just that, a beauty. Absolutely and unreservedly. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed watching a film as much as I did with this one. Despite the fact that every shot is fairly static (due to the limitations of hand-drawn backgrounds) the characters’ movements are perfectly calculated to make every image active. The backgrounds are like works of art, literally; the ornate detail and the hand-drawn style make each shot look like a painting hanging in a gallery, giving the impression of a classical masterpiece which happens to have come alive.
The curious thing is, the foreground characters aren’t in the same style at all. This makes sense, since it would be nigh-impossible to animate all the action with the same intricacy as the backgrounds, but rather than aiming for a simplified version of the same style, the animators eschew that approach and go for another look entirely: a tapestry.
The stylised shapes, the smooth curves leading into distinct points, the tendency to keep many of the characters in near profile or face on, all suggest a story which could be conveyed in a series of woven images, rather than trying to establish a 3D geography to any of the proceedings.
See how evocative that image is? It’s not just a frame of a sequence, it’s an image of exactly what happens at that part of the story; it just happens to move in the film. And the characters are again stylised in that tapestry shape. Even the animals are:
Amazingly, these two different styles of animation work phenomenally well together. The styles (along with the music) both help to really sell this as a classical tale from centuries past, come alive for us now. The animation also moves beautifully; I don’t know if they animated a higher frame rate for this film than previously, but every single movement is as graceful and flowing as if it were live action. This film is not only enjoyable to watch, it’s also incredibly easy to watch. That doesn’t sound like a compliment, but trust me, it is.
Anne: I don’t really have much to add. Sleeping Beauty really is a work of art.
And yet I don’t love it the way I love, say, Cinderella. Technically speaking, this is probably the superior film, with its exquisite backdrops, gorgeous visual development of the characters, music by Tchaikovsky–let’s face it, Sleeping Beauty is a class act. It’s also got one of the greatest villains of all time in the elegantly wicked Maleficent, and some of my favorite supporting characters in the Disney canon in the good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. (To say nothing of Disney voice-acting royalty–Verna Felton, Barbara Luddy, Eleanor Audley and Bill Thompson all have significant roles in this film.)
What I noticed as I was writing the above paragraph was that after the animation and the music, the first characters that came to mind were the supporting ones. And I think that’s the reason I don’t love this movie the way I always want to. Whereas in Cinderella, we have a warm, richly human main character, in Sleeping Beauty the eponymous character is a bit of a cipher. I like her a lot, actually: she’s beautiful, her singing voice is lovely, she has a sense of humor, she can talk to the animals. All the things you want in a Disney princess, really. But in the end, it’s not really her story, is it?
It’s almost the story of three good fairies who volunteer to eschew magic and raise the Princess Aurora in obscurity to protect her from Maleficent’s spinning wheel. For me they are the highlight of this movie–they are wonderfully animated and each have a completely different character. Flora is the leader and the bossy one, Merryweather is the stubborn one, and Fauna, bless her heart, is the daft one.
There’s potential in those characters for a whole movie about the trials and tribulations of sixteen years without magic, but unfortunately there isn’t room for that kind of growth and development when you’re telling Sleeping Beauty. They pretty much initiate all of the action of the movie (even the pivotal moment when Prince Phillip faces off with Maleficent and Merryweather’s spell sends his sword straight into her heart), but the skinny blonde gets all the fame. Go figure.
Speaking of Prince Phillip, it could almost be his story as well, couldn’t it? He’s the first romantic male lead to not just be a pretty face–though he’s pretty easy on the eyes, I must say (and he can sing!).
I remarked to James after the movie was over that even though I feel like I’m not supposed to, as a 21st-century woman and all that, I kind of appreciated the good, old-fashioned princely hero on a horse risking life and limb to get to the heroine and administer True Love’s Kiss (TM). And you could almost argue that Prince Phillip changes from that happy-go-lucky, singing in the forest, romantic kid into a full-fledged MAN who is not afraid to face the eeeeeevil Maleficent, to say nothing of a thicket of briar and Maleficent the Dragon (marking the first of two films in which the villain transforms into a giant reptile).
I say almost because although he has the nearest thing to a protagonist’s arc, he isn’t shown to have a choice in the matter. James pointed out that they seem to have skipped the reaction shot when Maleficent revealed to him that the girl he met in the woods was actually the Princess Aurora–that’s a pretty complicated thing to find out!–and also the moment when the fairies appear to him in prison (“Why, you must be–” “Your fairy godmother? But of course!”) and send him off to the Forbidden Mountain. We don’t know how he felt about that–was he reluctant? Galvanized into action by the thought of his sleeping beloved? Afraid? Confused, quite rightly? I guess we’ll never know.
And last but certainly not least, it could be Maleficent’s story. Except that she has exactly no motivation, and she disappears for most of the middle section of the movie, appearing for a moment only to cackle menacingly over her minions’ stupidity (they were looking for a BABY all that time?! Why can’t these villains get themselves some proper sidekicks?!). Why exactly does she lay that curse on Aurora? Is she really that cranky that she wasn’t invited? She probably didn’t want to be there anyway.
Eleanor Audley does a brilliant job of making Maleficent a very different character from Lady Tremaine. She’s very attractive in her straight up evilness; there’s no doubt at all that she needs to be destroyed, and nobody feels a twinge of guilt when she’s gone, because good has triumphed over evil. But the 1959 film is not her story, which is probably why they’re giving her the live-action treatment now.
To be honest, though, none of this is the fault of the people at Disney. It’s mostly the fault of whoever wrote the original fairytale. Princess Aurora is a character whose fate is entirely guided by the whims and wills of others, which makes her a less-than-stable center for the story. So while Sleeping Beauty is a beautiful film with a whole lot going for it, it’s missing that core of human strength and interest that, to my mind, makes Cinderella such a wonderful movie.
James: I have certainly seen Aurora draw criticism as an empty character only defined by her romantic interest and moved through the story by other powers, and as an example of the inherent sexist approach of Disney to the Disney Princesses. While the former is undoubtedly true, I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily a sexist demonstration, as Phillip is pretty much identical. He too is only motivated by his love interest, and is guided through the climax entirely by Maleficent and the good fairies. Given what we see of him and Aurora, I feel that if the roles were reversed Aurora would do the same for Phillip. But then it wouldn’t really be Sleeping Beauty.
(Besides, Disney princesses sexist? This is the first Disney prince to even be given a name.)
Regardless, a definite problem with the film is the lack of focus. Since it can’t really be Aurora’s story, it needed to be either the Prince’s or the fairies, and we don’t see enough of either for that to be the case. Everyone here suffers from a lack of motivation; the good fairies protect Aurora because they’re ‘good’. Maleficent attacks her because she’s ‘evil’. Aurora and Phillip love each other because, well, they’re hot. None of these are particularly defining characteristics, no matter how true they may be.
One of my favourite ideas in the film is when, with Phillip locked up in the tower, Maleficent gloats over Phillip’s state. The film goes very meta for a little while, perhaps the most a Disney film has ever been, as Maleficent discusses the 100 year sleep the audience will be familiar with from the tale. She discusses how he’s now trapped in a fairy tale (explicitly referring to it as such), destined to be trapped there until that time. At the end, Phillip tries to lunge at her, but is held back by his chains. We can understand Phillip’s reaction, but because we’ve seen so little of his emotional turmoil to this point (which must surely be great by now) we can’t really empathise with him. We should see him realising everything she’s talking about every step of the way, and see his responses to it all, but instead it cuts to the end. If we knew Phillip a little more (for example, if he actually had any DIALOGUE in the last half hour of the film!) the speech would be devastating.
Actually, that speech makes no sense at all. Where did Maleficent get the notion of a 1000-year sleep? From the fairy tale itself? Come to that, how does she know Aurora is asleep and not dead, did someone tell her about Merryweather’s counter-curse? Why would she even let him go in 100 years? And would he find Aurora, or is she making a sadistic joke? What exactly is she suggesting? I’m sure it’s part of an effort to tie together the various Sleeping Beauty stories (a way of including the 100-year sleep without actually making it part of the plot, since that would preclude Phillip as an established love interest), but as written it makes no sense as a threat or a prophecy.
Speaking of prophecies making no sense, what exactly is it that Maleficent does at the start? If it’s a curse she lays on Aurora, why does she need to go to such trouble to fulfil it? If it’s a threat, what good does a counter-curse do? Why a spindle anyway, is Maleficent a former tailor? Why does it take her 16 years exactly to realise her henchmen are looking for a baby? Why do the good fairies take her back to the castle on her 16th birthday instead of, say, the day after? How do they not bake or sew in the 16 years before they realise they need to use magic? Are there any limits to their powers, or Maleficent’s? Where do Phillip and his father think Aurora has been for 16 years, that they can have no idea this other girl might be her? Why do the good fairies put the entire castle to sleep instead of, say, enlisting their help in rescuing the Prince, Aurora’s only hope for recovery? Why is Maleficent’s castle so easily broken out of with the help of three fairies she should have been expecting? And, most importantly, what would be the name of our all-horse Disney feature?
None of those questions are unanswerable, but they’re all left disconcertingly unanswered by the film, particularly the matter of the horse film.
Anne: Of course, none of these unanswerable questions stop the film from being iconic. I think there might be more “princess movie” tropes in the “I Wonder/ Once Upon a Dream” sequence than anywhere else in the Disney canon. When I think about recent send-ups of the genre like Enchanted and Shrek, the first thing that comes to mind is singing to summon the animals.
And the original:
It’s so easy to lampoon that I forget how beautiful this whole sequence is. From Aurora’s ethereal coloratura moments at the beginning, to the contemplative “I Wonder” and the ebullient “Once Upon a Dream,” first with the animals and then with Prince Phillip, it just flows so smoothly and effortlessly from section to section. (Another unanswerable question: why was the owl awake in the middle of the day?)
Something that occurred to me while watching the movie and listening to the Tchaikovsky soundtrack was that this is the first full-length feature since Fantasia to be animated to existing music. As I understand it (and I haven’t done any extensive research on the subject), the film doesn’t preserve the structure and sequence of Tchaikovsky’s ballet score, but instead re-arranges it to suit the Disney version of the story. I read somewhere (possibly IMDB) that the music that plays when Maleficent is luring Aurora into the fireplace and up the stairs to the spinning wheel (AND HER DOOOOOOM) is actually a humorous dance with little plot significance in the Tchaikovsky. It puts me in mind of the Rite of Spring segment of Fantasia, where Stravinsky’s music was made to fit Disney’s vision of the creation of the world. But somehow in Sleeping Beauty the re-purposing of the score doesn’t bother me; I wonder if it’s because the film itself is a mash-up of different versions of the story (both Grimm and Perrault are represented) and original elements.
The big group scenes in this film fascinate me. They’re almost structured like oratorio, with the chorus commenting on the action and what’s being said. After the opening narration there is a short chorus heralding the arrival of Princess Aurora; as each fairy gives her gift to the baby, the chorus interjects with a short interlude. And at the end of the film, when Flora recites the spell to put the whole kingdom to sleep, the off-screen chorus sings a melody about sleep. (Off-topic for a moment, before I forget to mention it: we also loved the care that the animators took in creating individual townspeople for the fairies to put to sleep, and also that they were allowed to give the moment a little humor.) I can’t decide whether this structure is really effective–on the one hand, it’s pretty inspired, musically-speaking, but on the other, having the chorus repeat the idea that was just expressed in dialogue does cause the action to stagnate. The opening scene takes a surprisingly long time to unfold…but I do think those interludes and their accompanying animation are needed to set the tone of magic for the rest of the film.
As long as I’m on the subject of music, SKUMPS! SKUMPS! SKUUUUUUUMPS!
And that’s all I have to say about that.
James: The narrating chorus is an interesting choice, and one that works well in places… but the film suffers when it dawdles, telling us AND showing us what’s happening. If the story is Aurora’s or Phillip’s, we need to get to them grown up, not spend so long with them as non-speaking kids/babies. If it’s the story of the fairies, we need to see the story from their point of view, not just when they have a critical role in the narrative (or a comic relief scene). Really, that whole opening 15 minutes is set up, and it needed to be quicker. It would be like if the Lion King spent 15 minutes on Simba’s ‘baptism’, incorporating all of Mufasa’s fears and all of Scar’s jealousies (and introducing Timon and Pumbaa as ridiculous but wise guardians), before cutting forward to Simba when he could talk. You could make a decent attempt out of that (after all, that’s where much of Scar’s jealousy would be at its strongest, surely), but instead the film wisely cuts forward straight after its opening song, so it can introduce Scar and Simba at the same time.
Alternatively, The Hunchback of Notre Dame opens with a 5 minute song explaining the entire backstory for the central conflict (and with catchy music, too!). Or you have Up, which opens with a <10 minute backstory which sums up everything you need to know going into the rest of the film. It struck me that, especially with the chorus explaining a lot of the action, a similar approach was needed here; a five-ten minute mini-saga covering all the plot points with panache, instead of the steady expository sequence we get. Not that it’s without its charms, you still have some fun moments with the good fairies and some awesome speeches from Maleficent. But I just kept wishing they would get on with it, so we could start the actual story.
This isn’t the only problem with the film’s structure. There’s a LOT of comic material in the middle of this film. Both the fairies baking/sewing and the drinking Kings scene last too long, for scenes that don’t add to the story or the significant characters. Maleficent doesn’t actually get to Aurora until 48 minutes into the film; that’s nearly forty minutes (more than half of the film) since she laid her threat/curse/prophecy on the princess, almost entirely filled with fluff. Now, it’s mostly enjoyable fluff, but it’s still holding off the main drama for far too long. The sequence where Maleficent essentially wins (from her luring Aurora to gloating over her victory) is then nicely paced at about 15 minutes, but then the entire escape and final battle is done and dusted in only 5 minutes. With all of magic at Maleficent’s disposal (unless she has some unexplained limits as noted above), that final battle could have been immense, and could have easily been twice or thrice the length without dragging. If it were a matter of exchanging frames from elsewhere, sorry Skumps, I don’t need you in this picture.
But the skewed pacing likely comes down to the central problem: who is our protagonist? Without knowing that, it’s hard to know who we should be spending our time with. I could see a version of this story where Phillip’s father is vital to his character arc and his motivations, in which case ‘Skumps: The Drunk Musical’ is a perfectly valid little scene. But in that version you’d certainly have to cut ‘Two eggs…fold’. And that’s much more fun.
Anne: I could do without Skumps: The Drunk Musical (SKUUUUUUMPS!), but I couldn’t bear the loss of the fairies’ hilarious attempts at mortal cake-baking and dress-making, followed by the wonderful sequence where Merryweather brings out the wands and they start over, using magic this time. MAKE IT PINK! MAKE IT BLUE!
All in all, I think we can agree that Sleeping Beauty is at the very least a tour de force of animation and a visual masterpiece, in spite of plotholes and structural flaws And it’s got a happy ending!
I’ll give it an 7.5/10. I think taking the film purely based on storytelling, I would score it lower, but the artwork, animation and music add so much to my enjoyment of it. (Also, I still want to team up with some people and be Flora, Fauna and Merryweather for Halloween. Who’s with me?)
James: It certainly is a masterpiece visually. And the music to boot. It’s also notable for the way it directly acknowledges its own reputation, perhaps the first bit of meta commentary in a Disney film at all. It understands very well the tropes of the genre (as evidenced by Maleficent’s climactic speech and by little references along the way, like the immediately above gif) and uses the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter to its advantage. This approach is later touched upon in films like Beauty and the Beast (with Belle’s book at the start and the self-acknowledging title song) and expanded upon greatly in Enchanted and Frozen. Here, however, it’s used unironically and for dramatic effect, whereas in recent years it’s more used as a tongue-in-cheek nod or an all out parody. It’s one of several nice touches in the film which would have been enhanced by stronger character beats.
I really wish the plotting and character focus were better, as the animation and the score are worthy of 10/10. At least. But, as much as I enjoyed watching this film, I found myself waiting for the characters and the story too often. 7/10 is all I can muster. But I will probably be watching clips from this film daily for the next few weeks. Seriously, it’s beautiful.
Next up, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and with it another horse. We’ll add him to the roster of Disney’s all horse epic, Foal Play. Or The Common Colt. Or Stable Professions. Or Haven’t you Herd? I’ll leave now.