If you played a word association game with random people and asked them to say the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word Disney I’d be willing to bet that the top three responses would probably be Mickey Mouse, theme parks, and princesses. It’s that third word I’m keying in on for this post as the princess character has seemingly become synonymous with the Disney brand. This is mostly due to the creation of the Disney Princess line of clothing, toys, and such marketed at young girls as well as attractions like the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at the theme parks. This gives off the impression that the Disney films, particularly the golden age unofficially beginning in 1937 and ending in 1967, are overstuffed with princess stories but that’s really not the case. Of the films spanning those forty years, only two star an actual princess; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty, with a third, Cinderella, featuring a woman who would end the film a princess by marriage.
In recent times, the princess as a character has become somewhat controversial as many people feel like these characters are poor role models for young girls. Snow White flees her unhappy life in the castle but assures her audience that someday her prince will come and save her. Cinderella, on the other hand, passively escapes her droll existence through her dreams and is too content to wait around for a fairy and a prince to save her from her wicked stepmother. These are admittedly cynical ways to view what are otherwise considered timeless classics. Parents are free to decide what is and what isn’t appropriate for their children but I don’t think kids necessarily take anything from these, aside from maybe that Cinderella has a pretty dress or Snow White a nice singing voice.
As a result of these portrayals, many movie-goers these days want a stronger female lead. And lately, that’s become true with films such as Frozen and even Beauty and the Beast back in the 90s. Unfortunately, in 1959 this trend was still far away when Walt Disney released Sleeping Beauty. If viewers are uncomfortable with the female leads in Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, well then they really won’t like Aurora.
Aurora is the title character of Sleeping Beauty, an animated film more famous for its villain and the castle that inspired the famous one at the entrance to Disneyland than for its lead. Aurora has the misfortune of being cursed at her royal unveiling by the evil fairy Maleficent and is fated to die on her sixteenth birthday. The three good fairies decide to take her into hiding and raise her as a peasant girl in order to hide her from Maleficent and hopefully prevent her curse from becoming reality. Aurora assumes the identity of Briar Rose and lives there until her sixteenth birthday when she meets the charming Prince Phillip, and after sharing a song in the forest, the two decide they’ve fallen in love. Of course, Aurora ends up being lured to that famous spinning wheel by Maleficent where she pricks her finger and falls into a deathlike sleep and only true love’s kiss can ever hope to wake her.
Aurora appears in less than 18 minutes in the film as a result of her coma, leaving most of the screen time to the three fairies; Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, as well as Maleficent. Aurora has no real personality and is completely defined by her situation and is quite literally dependent on the Phillip character. Phillip, in turn has little personality of his own save for he is a good and just person willing to do what is necessary to save his princess. Maleficent is the true star of the film, though she is pretty much a by-the-numbers villain with a cool look and an even cooler ability to change into a menacing dragon. The good fairies provide some laughs, as do the royal parents of the two leads, but this is a fairly weak Disney film where plot is concerned.
For many, these classic Disney animated features are less about the story and more about the look and score. This version of Sleeping Beauty is adapted from the ballet by Tchaikovsky and is appropriately scored. It’s lone drawback from a musical standpoint is the one song sung by the main character, “Once Upon A Dream,” is too similar to Cinderella’s signature “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and not as memorable. The scene in which it’s sung is also too similar to Cinderella’s as Aurora dances in the forest with animals of high intelligence. For the visuals, Disney made use of Super Technirama 70, which allows for more detail and complexity in the backgrounds. Walt Disney also wanted the film to separate itself from the previous fairy tales the studio had done and requested his artists employ a sharper look. Aurora’s face is noticeably more angular than Cinderella and Snow White’s rounded look and the backgrounds resemble still paintings as opposed to fully realized environments. The approach comes at a cost as the film has a very flat look to it. The colors are rich though, and I’m reviewing this as a blu ray feature, which help separate it form its peers. This was the last Disney film to use hand-inked cells as the following ones would utilize xerox. I like the direction the studio took, but I do think it needed further refinement to remove that flat look. The image where Aurora is found unconscious after pricking her finger on the spinning wheel is particularly ugly as her body looks like it’s been run-over by a steamroller.
The standout scene for Sleeping Beauty is unquestionably Maleficent’s battle with Phillip, in which she takes on the form of a massive, black dragon. Prior to that, Phillip is blocked by a massive wall of thorns that are wonderfully illustrated and appropriately vicious looking. Maleficent’s menacing transformation is foreboding and her green-tinted flames eerie. It’s a classic sequence and among Disney’s top ten. It doesn’t save the film, but is an accomplishment by itself.
When I was a kid, Sleeping Beauty was probably my favorite of the princess movies. That was entirely due to the fact that it had a cool looking dragon at the end while Cinderella and Snow White were boring by comparison. As an adult, I view the prior two films in a much stronger light and even enjoy the both of them. They aren’t my favorite Disney films, but they do charm me. Sleeping Beauty is able engage me visually, but even there it’s a bit of a mixed bag. While I enjoy the art direction and use of color, I find the earlier films from Disney to be overall better visual experiences. As a story, it’s rather bland with uninteresting main characters and little to get attached to. There are some decent funny-points, but nothing gut-busting by any means. Maleficent is the most engaging character defined as much by her interesting visual style as she is by her voice actress, Eleanor Audley, who should have been everyone’s go to voice for evil women. As such, it’s not at all surprising that Disney has chosen to place the spotlight on her for a feature film starring Angelina Jolie. I have not seen the film, but it won’t have to do much to top Sleeping Beauty.