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Disney Sundays: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

         Sleeping Beauty is the third Disney Princess movie. And that’s sort of what it’s known for, being the third one; that it’s not as good or well-known as Snow White or Cinderella, but it exists. In many ways this is true, it’s not as good as its predecessors, but there are certainly some very good aspects to it that deserve to be remembered and addressed.
          In a medieval kingdom in the 14th century, King Stefan and Queen Leah are finally able to have a child. On the day of christening for the child Aurora, the whole kingdom turns up to celebrate and she’s even betrothed in marriage to Philip, son of King Hubert, as a political alliance. But the party is interrupted when the sorceress Maleficent shows up uninvited and plants a curse on the young Aurora that on her sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Three fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather who had earlier bestowed gifts upon the child set a spell in place to ensure that if such a curse happens, Aurora will only fall into a deep sleep from which she could only be awakened by true love’s first kiss. In order to keep Aurora safe, the fairies take her away from the castle, and in a woodcutters shed for sixteen years, raise her under the name Briar Rose until she can come back to the kingdom. But the cunning Maleficent has agents on the look out for Aurora and it’s only a matter of time before she finds her.
          For what Disney had to work with, it’s amazing how well this film turned out. Sleeping Beauty is not the most interesting fairy tale to adapt considering it’s protagonist is dormant for a good chunk of the tale. But Disney confined this stage to a smaller portion of the film and it worked better for it. That being said, the story itself still has some problems. Generally I can accept fairy tale logic, but in this film I couldn’t help but question some of the story devices. Like how Merryweather’s able to set a spell to alter the curse but somehow can’t just break it. The fairies’ magic overall isn’t consistent and you don’t really know the degree of their power. If they’re capable of turning creatures into gargoyles, why not do that to Maleficent? They can conjure weapons out of thin air, why not just defeat her themselves? Maybe there’s something about her being a sorceress and thus immune to the fairies’ effects, but it needed further explanation. And there was already too much narration, going well into the first act where most just stop at the prologue. There were a few other problems too, like was there a purpose at all in betrothing Aurora and Philip at birth if he was just going to fall in love with her accidentally anyway? It’s a plot device to give Aurora some drama and the Kings some comedy.
          However that marriage plot did give Aurora something, and I can’t fault the film for that. Much like Snow White, one of the issues this film has is that the protagonist is uninteresting. But to Disney’s credit, they at least tried to give her some character. She actually has a conversation with her prince before the end, which is better than Snow White ever had. But she’s mostly a pretty face who has little personality outside of her love for Philip. Her relationship with the fairies isn’t very strong, she hardly reacts to the life-changing news that she’s been a princess her whole life (come on, your boy issues can wait! This is monumental!), and of course, she spends almost a third of the film asleep. And despite being the sleeping beauty of the title, she is certainly not the main character.
          The main characters surprisingly enough, are Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. And I think that was a smart and refreshing choice. I know they’re technically immortal fairies, but there’s something charming in three middle-aged women being Disney leads. They’re voiced by Disney regular Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy (who we heard one film ago as Lady). The fairies have a caring and invested interest in Aurora, thinking of her as their daughter even if she shows no reciprocal consideration, and are even something of a match for Maleficent. But of course, they’re also comic relief, and while some of the jokes aren’t much, there were a few that worked. And they were able to be funny while still incredibly capable. One of the things I hated most about the movie Maleficent apart from just its general shittiness, was that it turned these characters, the heroes of the original story, into dimwits enacting Three Stooges material that was not only disrespectful, but embarrassing. At least in this film, I genuinely laughed a few times. For some reason I really loved the “this is the fourteenth century” gag. But though the scenes with the Kings were clearly intended to mimic the King and Duke from Cinderella, they weren’t funny. I just wanted to get back to the fairies. In fact this film was impressively driven by mostly female characters. With one exception. Prince Philip has definitely a more defined personality than either of the two nameless princes before him, and yeah every time his name was brought up I couldn’t help but think of a crusty racist old man. He doesn’t have a whole lot of personality but I definitely appreciated him. There will be some who don’t like him because he’s the traditional prince saving the princess, but many forget that he’s the first Disney prince to do so. Snow White’s just showed up and if anything she was saved by the dwarves, and Cinderella was saved by the mice -her prince being too important to search for his love himself. So I like that Philip at least gets to take action. And besides, he’s saved by someone else too. 
          Of all these though, the greatest character Sleeping Beauty has to offer is Maleficent. This is one of Disney’s best villains yet! She’s cunning, conniving, but also elegant and enjoyable. “The Mistress of Evil” as she so calls herself (and I love how aware of her evilness she is) makes for a fine seductress and dangerous foe. Her plans on what to do with Philip are pretty diabolical. Eleanor Audley previously lent her voice to Lady Tremaine and it’s just as good here. You pay attention to her every word and you can feel her power and gravitas even when she’s not around. And she’s got one of the best villain designs -one that even Angelina Jolie can’t ruin.
          The same could be said for her castle which is wonderfully Gothic and mysterious. The colours of green, yellow, and black which extend also to her minions gives the whole environment a feeling of dankness and despair. There’s a scene where her minions dance around a fire in front of her in a very cult-ish sacrificial way. It’s just a place that oozes evil. And though by far it’s the best design, the animation in general for this film is very good. Contrasting Maleficient’s castle there’s a lot of brightness to this world. Whether it be King Stefan’s castle or even the forest where Aurora dances with the animals (all princesses seem to have a way with them) the film just looks great. And there are some great effects at work. Every time Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather turn into the fairies, the transformation is appealing in how quick and clean it is. Maleficent has some wonderful moments too both in her action, her magic and expressions, but also in her influence on others. In one very important scene when she’s attempting to ensnare Aurora by taking her through a tunnel, it’s very spooky. The climax is terrific, almost as intense, dramatic, and gripping as Sleepy Hollow or Bambi, during which we even see something we’ve never before seen in a Disney film: blood! The only downside is the film concludes too quickly after that, so the finale is very rushed.
          And that’s Sleeping Beauty in a nutshell really. It’s a good movie with some prominent downsides. It does a number of things better than we’ve previously seen in Disney and I don’t think they should be overlooked.  Where it’s lacking in Aurora herself as well as some story and pacing issues, it makes up for in some great major characters, a tremendous villain, and amazing visuals with a really fitting mood. The songs are fine, though “Once Upon a Dream” is overused way too much (it’s as if the guy who wrote it wouldn’t let up about how great it was). Sleeping Beauty may not have the grand beauty and atmosphere of Snow White or the rich character and virtues of Cinderella, but what it does well, it does well in spades. And that’s good enough in my book.

Next Week: One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

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