Sometimes I feel bad for Walt Disney. Nearly every time he took a risk post-Snow White it was a failure. And yet he’d do a safe movie like Lady and the Tramp (as great as it is it is not risky artistically) it was a big hit. Visual artistic achievements like Fantasia, Bambi, Alice and Wonderland all did poorly at first at the box office.
Unfortunately with Sleeping Beauty we have another artistic risk and another initial failure . So much so they would not make another fairy tale princess movie until 1989, 30 years later!
In researching Sleeping Beauty I learned it was actually in development for some time (like most of the Disney films of the 50s). Always wanting to try something new, Walt Disney liked the idea of turning Tchaikosky’s ballet into an animated feature film, but things couldn’t quite come together and it remained on the back burner. Finally in 1950 work was officially begun and at first things went quickly. They even had all the voice work recorded by the end of 1952, which surprised me . But it makes sense because Disneyland has Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and it was opened in 1955. Sleeping Beauty wasn’t released till 1959 .
For Sleeping Beauty Walt went with a new approach creating a “living illustration from Medieval artwork”. We start out the story with a grand book and then it zooms in on the pictures until those images start to move. Backgrounds were also created in layers almost like a scene from a play where panels are pushed in and out.
In this introductory scene you can see these layers. Every person crossing the bridge including the juggler in yellow are animated separately.
Part of this look is probably due to Disney’s delegation of responsibilities. Much like with Mary Blair in Alice in Wonderland, Disney gave most of the creative control and design to lead animator and background artist Eyvind Earl. His elaborate backdrops would take 7-10 days to paint while a normal film could be done in 1 day.
The paper look is also interesting because it is the first time they used a xerox method to make cells. It was eventually abandoned because the lines weren’t good enough, but I think you can still see a little of it’s after effects in the film.
A lot of critics at the time criticized its artistic approach but I kind of love it. It’s different and beautiful- like diving into a the pages of a book.
The character of Maleficent was meant to be the personification of all evil- basically the devil. Her name is from maleficentia, which means evil doing in Latin (I love that Disney had a film with Maleficent as the villain and the next with Cruella, not the most creative names but both work! I mean are you going to have a good person named Cruela?). She also has horns like the devil and her eyes glow like an evil spirit. There is nothing wounded or misunderstood about her. In this movie she is all bad but in an entertaining way.
The fairies were designed to be like Huey, Lewey and Dewey with 3 different colors separating them. At first Walt wanted them to look the same but the other animators convinced him that would be boring. Flora, voiced by the amazing Verna Felton, is the leader of the 3. Fauna is soft-spoken and motherly and Merryweather is the spunky one. For side characters they are actually pretty fleshed out- we see them cry, laugh, feud etc.
Phillip was created to be the first dynamic human male character in a Disney film. They had wanted to make the princes in Snow White and Cinderella bolder but Disney didn’t feel like the animators could animate males well enough at the time.
One nice thing about Sleeping Beauty is we do see more of Philip than almost any other prince. We see many sides to him- sweet, romantic, good dancer, but still courageous and strong. For a long section Philip, the Fairies and Maleficent are the only people awake in the story- giving their characters a gravatas not found in many other Disney films. I’m surprised boys didn’t respond more to Philip and Sleeping Beauty with it’s terrific action and minimal romantic dialogue?
Most of you probably know the story. It is the 14th century in a magical land. A king and queen finally are able to have a daughter who they name Aurora. She is to be blessed by the fairies at a large gathering. It is almost like a giant birthday party for the whole kingdom.
Each of the fairies present their gifts to the princess. Flora and Fauna are first and the gifts are shown in a bit of a surrealist touch (those Dali fans coming in again!). I think it is a beautiful scene.
But before Maryweather can give her gift they have a visitor. Someone who wasn’t invited to the party- Maleficent. (word to the wise- if you have a sworn enemy don’t give them reason to be mad at you. Invite her to the party!) They ask her if she is offended at not getting asked…(This is a spectacular scene)
So to save Aurora the fairies come up with a plan to hide her away in a cottage in the woods. They will use no magic so nobody will suspect. The funny thing is if they know the curse is fulfilled at 16 why not send her away at 12 or 14? Does she really need to be taken away from her parents as a baby?…I digress.
Next we see Maleficent with her goons and minions trying to find the child with no luck.
So quickly it zooms ahead to the 16th birthday. The fairies are planning a party and we get a humorous scene of them trying to sew and bake without magic (although you do wonder since they haven’t been using magic how have they gotten by for 16 years never cooking or sewing?). Nevertheless it is a very cute scene.
They send Aurora out, now known as Briar Rose, and we get to hear her sing. The score is actually all from the ballet, and the songs are minimal. However, the singing they did get is beautiful.
There is then a comic scene with the forest creatures that is cute but to me feels a little too campy for the artistic style of the movie. It just doesn’t fit in.
Aurora and Phillip agree to meet later that night but when she returns home the fairies tell her she is being taken to the palace. Aurora goes but with a heavy heart.
We then get an unnecessary scene between the two kings drinking and toasting their children who are to be married. The Kings get a little tipsy along with the lute player.
Next you see her getting ready in the castle and this scene with the color of her face and Maleficent’s eyes is one of Disney’s best.
I love when she says “Did you think you could defeat me: the mistress of evil?”. One thing that worries me about the 2014 version is they are softening her up. They have to in order to create a prequel,and most of the time that doesn’t work (think Star Wars prequels…). Maleficent is basically the devil. In fact, she is proud of her loathsomeness. Later on with Prince Phillip she see’s it as her shining hour.
Not everything needs a softer side. Most of the time softer means bland.
So Aurora pricks her finger and is put to sleep. This is a perhaps unavoidable problem with Sleeping Beauty is that most of the time the princess is asleep. Snow White had some of this problem.
However, you really feel for the fairies in this scene, so that makes up for some of Aurora’s blandness. The fairies could have been such cliches but the writing is quite good and we really get to know them.
Flora decides to put the entire kingdom to sleep with Aurora but just before Phillip’s father mutters about a girl his son met in the woods. Flora realizes it is the boy Aurora met earlier and they fear for Philips’s safety.
Unfortunately Maleficent has beaten them there and in a great scene traps the prince taking him away.
Phillip gets locked in the dungeon and he and Maleficent have a terrific scene together I wish I could find.
Thinking she has gotten her revenge and the Prince is going to rot away in her dungeon she walks up to her lair and has a great line ‘I shall finally be able to sleep well for the first time in 16 years’. I mean who can sleep when revenge and evil is on the docket?
The fairies help Philip and give him the sword of truth and shield of virtue. (those names seem right out of King Arthur. Really fit 14th century well)
Finding out she won’t be able to sleep we get this amazing scene- without a doubt one of Disney’s best.
It’s also actually Flora that really saves the day, which I kind of like.
I love that her body isn’t even there. She’s like road kill on the ground.
Are there flaws in Sleeping Beauty? Yes, the princess is bland. The fairies schtick is laid on very thick. The woodland animals don’t work for me. The drinking scene with the kings is unnecessary.
But there is a lot more right. I love the strong prince . I love Maleficent. Watch On Bald Mountain in Fantasia and I think you will agree in personality and design Maleficent is basically the devil from that picture as a woman- even down to the minions.
A lot of people hate the style, but I like it. I think it is an interesting take on storytelling and beautiful in its own way. I also like the Tchaikosky score. It gives a lightness and flow to the piece that works. Once Upon a Dream, while one of the only songs, is lovely and sung very well.
I like there is action and a great villain who really tests the characters, pushing them to their limit. I also remember it was the first time I had ever heard a character say the word ‘hell’ in a movie. It was pretty scandalous!
I honestly can’t imagine any kids not liking Sleeping Beauty. It is without a doubt one of their best.
Overall Grade- A