Original Release: January 1959
Runtime: 75 Minutes
Directed By: Clyde Geronimi, Les Clark, Eric Larson and Wolfgang Reitherman
Welcome back everyone! How are you feeling? Dreamy? Tired? Have you been have strange dreams of princes and dragons? Did you recently prick your finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel? Do you have three fairies who conveniently forget how to use magic any time the plot needs to move forward? If you suffer from any or all of the aforementioned problems, you might just be the Princess Aurora from our next installment of Vault Disney, Sleeping Beauty.
If you can’t already tell, my feelings on this film range from loving parts, being confused by parts and at times throwing my hands into the air and screaming “Seriously?!” That’s because Sleeping Beauty might just be the most inconsistent film we’ve watched so far. The art is completely different from previous films. The Princess is the most one dimensional character in the entire show. The Prince has a NAME!!! But let’s slow down, because hidden within this hodge-podge of a film is one big point of redemption: A villain so fantastic and grand in nature that her reputation proceeds her. Maleficent.
Let’s back up and get a frame of reference, shall we? Sleeping Beauty was in production for nearly ten years and as its budget hit the 6 million dollar mark, it was also the most expensive film up to this point. Based on three different versions of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale, ‘La Bell au bois dormant’ by Charles Perrault, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ by Pyotr Ilyich and ‘Little Briar Rose’ by The Brothers Grimm, this would be the first Disney Princess film since Cinderella and the last for many years to come. Taking this even further, much of the music would be based on Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Opera, so this film was the culmination of a lot of different creators trying to retell one story.
This was also the last Disney animated film to use hand-inked cels. From here on out, the studio would move to a process called xerography which allowed animators to transfer their drawing directly from paper to cel. Walt wanted this film to feel completely different from his previous two princess films, so a new art style was employed, one which was meant to look like a living illustration. The characters are less rounded than previous films and the backgrounds are far more detailed and varied than ever before. In order to achieve this, Walt put Eyvind Earle in charge of color styling and backgrounds and gave him significantly more freedom in designing the backgrounds than he had ever given anyone. This caused quite a commotion in the office as many felt that he was playing favorites with Eyvind. That being said, the backgrounds in this film are drop dead gorgeous and I think giving Eyvind free reign was one of the better choices made here.
Another fun fact about this film is that, during the production, Warner Brothers animation department was closed which meant that some of its animators migrated to Disney for a short period. One such animator, who only worked at Disney for a short time and was never credited for his work on the film, was the famous Chuck Jones who would eventually go on to be known widely for his work on the Looney Tunes.
My issues with Sleeping Beauty come from the inconsistency in the story and the fact that just about every plot twist is conditioned by the fact that the three fairies are suddenly overcome with amnesia and forget that they can do magic just long enough for the plot to unfold a little further. Let’s start with this curse that Maleficent puts on the baby Aurora so that on her 16th birthday she will prick her finger, causing her to die. The fairies say that they can’t stop the curse but that they can weaken it by making it so that she won’t actually die, but will just fall asleep. Great. But then the fairies decide that they will take Aurora into the woods and raise her without magic until she is sixteen. I don’t understand. Is this supposed to mean that the curse can only happen if she is at the castle? Does Maleficent have to find her to enact the curse? Confusion.
Then, when Aurora finally turns 16, this is the day that the fairies decide to use their magic to make a dress and a cake, which alerts Maleficent’s crow to where they’ve been hiding. Really? This is the day, after 16 years, you decide to get lax? Then they take Aurora to the castle. It is STILL her 16th birthday. You seriously couldn’t wait ONE MORE DAY to make sure that the curse didn’t come true??? I don’t understand the logic here. Of course, once at the castle, Aurora takes to her bed, upset that she can’t be with the random man she met in the woods who, as luck would have it, is actually the Prince who she is betrothed to. The fairies leave her alone and Maleficent’s ghost shows up to lead Aurora through a disappearing wall and up the tower.
Once again, the fairies kill me here. They run in and try to push through the wall, which has been re-closed, for a good long while, before finally using their MAGIC to open it again. Seriously? How does this keep happening? Then, they run wildly through the tunnels, while Aurora walks up the spire at a glacial rate and somehow they don’t manage to catch up with her before she pricks her finger. The fairies, fearing the King’s reaction, put the entire Castle to sleep until Aurora can be awakened again and they go off to find Prince Phillip who has gone to their cottage in the woods to meet Aurora, his new found love from earlier in the day.
When he enters, however, Maleficent is waiting for him, though she says she is waiting for Aurora. Does she not know that she just put Aurora to sleep? Is she not aware of this fact? I’m so confused at this point and it never really gets explained.
Anyway, the prince gets thrown in the dungeon and Maleficent and her entourage of demons celebrate. I want to talk about Maleficent for a moment because I do really consider her one of the shining beacons of awesome in this film. Voiced by Eleanor Audley, who you might remember as the Evil Step-Mother in Cinderella, Maleficent is considered one of, if not THE most evil villain in all of Disney history. She is evil for the sake of being evil, at least in this film. She hates the kingdom and the fairies and only wishes harm on others.
The animators based her on the idea of a giant bat, in order to make her stand out from previous baddies and stand out she does. She is delightfully creepy and I’m happy to report that the scenes in her castle involving her minions dancing around green flames are hugely reminiscent of the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence from Fantasia and I love it. At times, I could almost see this film being too scary for kids, but I think that’s why so many kids are in love with this film as it gives them a chance to feel grown up and proves that kids can like creepy things as well. It says something that everyone I mentioned I would be watching this film to, EVERYONE, mentioned their love for Maleficent.
Prince Phillip gets caged up and the fairies come to his rescue, giving him a sword and a shield. They then make their daring escape and for the first time in the entire film, the fairies do something right. They turn falling boulders to bubbles and arrows to flowers, helping Phillip get out safely.
He heads for the castle, which Maleficent is quick to overgrow with thorns and when he fights through these, she shows up to become a serious foe as an enormous green fire breathing dragon. Awesome. This fight is desperate and Phillip is about to lose when the fairies make his sword able to shoot right for the dragon’s heart. Once again, I’ll ask it, why was that not the FIRST thing we did? Are you starting to see what I mean but this story being overly convenient and a little ridiculous?
I’m also a bit lost when it comes to the protagonist of the film. Unlike Snow White and Cinderella, the title character Sleeping Beauty or Aurora or Briar Rose as she is called by the fairies in the woods, is the most one dimensional character in the film. She doesn’t really grow or learn or change. She sings a song, meets a boy and then sleeps off the rest of the plot. Maybe it’s Phillip? Truth be told, I really liked Phillip and his horse, Samson. They’re both charming and fun and I really liked getting more out of my Prince. I complained a lot that the Princes in Snow White and Cinderella weren’t really characters, but I think I may have complained too much as the formula feels flip-flopped here.
If I really had to pick a protagonist by typical story structure standards, I’d probably have to choose the three fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. The plot centers around their successes and failures and they are ultimately the one’s who really overcome the dragon in the end, by standing up to Maleficent. They easily have the most dialogue and almost every truly memorable moment involves them, from the hilarious scene of them trying to cook and sew a dress magic-less to them breaking into Maleficent’s castle, to the fun perspective changes as they frequently change size, growing and shrinking at will, they feel far more integral than any prince or sleeping princess.
Sleeping Beauty was a flop at the box office and due to it as well as a few other failed features within the year that it came out, Disney reported its first revenue decline in decades. Because of this, massive layoffs occurred and, much like Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty was never re-released during Walt’s lifetime. However, much like Alice, Sleeping Beauty is now considered one of the best animated films of all time and is adored the world over.
To say that I did not enjoy or like Sleeping Beauty would be very incorrect. While I did take many issues with the film, I genuinely loved watching the fairies, especially Merryweather, interact as they are so charming and fun. I loved that the prince was more fully fledged and I love that Disney was finally starting to play around with art styles and try new things. It just feels like, after watching so many near perfect films over the past couple of weeks, this one doesn’t quite manage to live up in the plot department. While the art is a spectacle to behold, I just wish the story made a little more sense and didn’t feel so convoluted. Either way, it’s time to take a Princess break, especially since Walt avoided them after this film. We won’t get another one until a story about a little girl under the sea who dreams of something more. Maybe she’ll even stay awake for her film.
What do you think? Is Aurora your favorite princess? Is Maleficent even more amazing than I said? Am I totally wrong about this movie and it’s your favorite movie forever and always? I want to know! Comment down below.
Next Up: 101 Dalmatians
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!