SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959):
Written by: Charles Perrault, Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright & Milt Banta
Sleeping Beauty. One of the crowning jewels of the pre-’90s Animated Canon, and for good reason. Oddly, I don’t think this one was released among the big stream of movies in the ’90s until later, because I don’t think my parents ever got it- this was the biggest Disney movie I’d never seen as of 2012. I mean, my family owned EVERYTHING released in that era, and I have no recollection of this one at all.
Eyvind Earle’s distinctive style was adhered to by all the artists, under orders from Walt himself.
This movie is ASTONISHING, by the way. Never before have I seen animation like this. It’s like a super-sized version of the basic Disney style, merged with the high-end artistic painting style of designer Eyvind Earle (who worked as the main guy on this movie- Disney was so in love with his style that he insisted everyone keep to it).
This movie is so wonderfully-made that Disney wouldn’t even come close to its animation quality until the 1990s (and it’s a funny comparison- it’s almost BETTER here, but lacks moving background figures, which Disney would later use as it’s “Show Off” approach to animation, sorta like how anime directors do the same thing to show off their talent these days). They used a fancy new Technorama 70 Super-Widescreen set-up to best show off the backgrounds, and went for a more stylized look that the previous “rounded” Disney features.
It’s no wonder the bloody thing took a year to make- it’s also no wonder this movie “Waterworlded” at the theatres (ie. it did very well and made a ton of money, but NOTHING was earning back the sheer amount of costs it accrued). The way Aurora is animated is beyond beautiful (the little head motions that Disney women make is incredibly subtle and well done), to say nothing of the sheer majesty of Maleficent.
“And Now Shall You Deal With ME, O Prince! And All The Powers of HELL!!!”
AND WHAT A VILLAIN- Maleficent utterly owns every scene she’s in, and the entire movie, despite having like ten minutes of screen time combined. Her sheer style, aura of menace and the way she’s animated surpasses everything else. AND THAT VOICE– when she’s all “Now you shall you deal with ME, O Prince- AND ALL THE POWERS OF HELL!!!“, then transforms into an evil, laughing BLACK DRAGON, and the Prince just gives her this “What the F*CK!?!?!” expression… THAT is why animation is the best form of filmmaking. It’s no wonder Disney always uses Maleficent as the leader of all the forces of evil in their “Combined Canon” stuff.
Maleficent’s Dragon form.
You know the craziest thing about Maleficent? She has like TEN MINUTES OF SCREEN TIME for the entirety of Sleeping Beauty! Think- she is EASILY the most memorable part of the film, and among the most infamous of Disney’s villains, yet she she takes up about 1/9th of the duration of her only film appearance. THAT is the definition of a great character. Compare her to the sissy villains (Prince John, Scar), buffoons (Hook, Gaston) and sources of comedy (the drag queen antics of Ursula), and you see this majestic, mighty, unflappable figure. Irrationally calm to the point of being disconcerting, she can still cackle like a madwoman.
Maleficent is amazing in almost every way, right from her very first scene. Watch carefully- she flies in as a burst of flame like a good ham should, but instead of screaming and raging, she appears completely calm. Even polite. She’s absolutely the picture of poise, yet every single person in that room is staring intently at only her, warped by fear.
See, simpler villains try to chew all the scenery and sing their Villain Song, but Maleficent? She owns people WHILE CALM. And then- and this is the beautiful part- THEN she hams it up, laughing, screaming and insulting everyone!! After several minutes of calm dialogue she then blurts out her curse “She will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel… and DIE!! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHH!!!” This villain gets the best of BOTH worlds- sheer charismatic scene-ownership while calm, AND scenery-gobbling rage!
Maleficent is also a great example of villainy for it’s own sake, cursing an infant to die just because her parents didn’t invite the bitch to her Christening/party/whatever. She declares herself “Mistress of All Evil!” constantly drops the “E” word- she knows just how bad she is. When she captures Prince Philip, she declares she’ll release him… but only in one-hundred years, forcing him to only rescue his True Love when he’s a man too old to truly enjoy her. Now THAT is Bitchology 101.
And like all great villains, the witch has STYYYYYYYYYYLE. She looks darkly elegant in that long cloak and horned cowl, and her sharp features combine to cut a stylish-yet-frightening figure. Like the Wicked Queen of Snow White, she maintains an aura of style but sheer evil- I can’t call her attractive because the woman is TERRIFYING. Curiously, the updated DVD version makes it look like Maleficent isn’t really pure green, but is sort of pale and just tends to surround herself with green flame & lightning, giving her a greenish tinge. This is ignored for most any modern use of the character, which basically makes her the Wicked Witch of the West.
But that reminds me- ultimately, Maleficent’s greatest attribute as a villain is her ability to cause FEAR. A gleefully evil woman who does evil things for the sake of evil, she completes the package by scaring the living hell out of everybody, and then, when you figure she can’t get MORE scary, metamorphs into a freaking DRAGON (many people tell stories of when they saw that scene while they were mere children), then dive-bombs poor Prince Philip (who was just trying to SCORE, for heaven’s sake!) and tries to burn him alive while cackling madly. And THAT is why Maleficent gets to be the boss of all the Disney Villains in Kingdom Hearts, and is the Final Boss of Fantasmic! (requiring Mickey to blow her up using his imagination).
Eleanor Audley (also the voice of the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella) really knocked it out of the park with this woman’s voice- sinister, menacing, and even wild at times.
Fun Fact: These are actually the main characters of the film. AND they’re the ones most-responsible for saving the day on numerous occasions- anyone claiming this is a “Damsel rescued by Prince” story didn’t really watch it properly.
I liked the three fairies as well- they play well off of each other. Flora avoids the usual pratfalls of being “the smart one” by also being the most arrogant and condescending, Fauna is humorously dumb, and Merryweather is a rough & tumble grouch.
The Three Good Fairies are the ACTUAL main characters of Sleeping Beauty, oddly enough. They get most of the character interaction, are responsible for saving Aurora’s life from Maleficent’s wicked curse, rescue Prince Phillip no less than FOUR times, give him kick-ass weapons, and cast the final spell to ax the bitch once and for all. They play pretty well off of each other too, with the petulant Merryweather opposing the condescending Flora constantly, and Fauna just kind of going along like a dingbat.
About the Performers: Barbara Luddy was a huge part of the Disney Canon, playing not only Merryweather in this one, but also playing Lady in Lady and the Tramp, as well as Kanga in the Winnie the Pooh features. That’s some SERIOUS range, actually- she was basically the Alan Tudyk of her day! Verna Felton’s resume is just as impressive, actually, as she performed Dumbo’s mother, the Fairy Godmother AND the Queen of Hearts! Both she and Barbara Jo Allen were big names in radio as well.
The Prince avoids being as bland as most Princes around the ’30s-’50s era by being kind of a joker and remarkably brave (I love how he basically falls in love with a chick in like three seconds, and then suddenly gets thrown against MALEFICENT as a Dragon… kids, ya know?). Given how much people stereotype Disney as “Having the Prince rescue the girl”, it’s kind of funny watching him have his life saved by the Fairies MULTIPLE TIMES during the duration of the movie’s climax- they free him from chains, give him weapons, protect him from blasts, let him get over a pit, and even empower his weapons one last time! This movie is basically “The Three Old Ladies Save The Day” six times over.
Until The Little Mermaid thirty years later, Prince Phillip was easily the most complex character of all the Disney Princes. See, the other two Prince Charmings were basically nobodies, and a means to an end- “oh hey here’s this pretty girl I’M IN LOVE NOW” and they do little else other than marry the girl in the end). Phillip does more of the same in terms of falling in love in a single afternoon (though of course he’s a teenager and that stuff is expected of him), but once he DOES, we get some real knowledge of the character.
He’s a bit of a joker, arguing with his horse, and is much more playful than the other Prince Generics around. There’s the bit where he sneaks up behind Briar Rose and joins in her song (note: do not sneak up behind women and grab their wrists, especially if you don’t know them. They probably don’t like that), his lovey-dovey expressions, and the way he plays around with his father, explaining casually how “oh no I won’t marry this Princess cuz I just met this peasant girl in the forest OK THANKS BYE!” He’s actually quite the trickster and funny guy- it only helps his case that he had the sheer SACK to go up against Maleficent, especially once she transforms into a goddamn Black Dragon.
About the Performer: Bill Shirley has a Wikipedia page so filled with extraneous details (he used to write home about his beloved dog? THAT’s worthy of mention on his page?) that it’s blatantly obvious he edited it himself… which is impressive, considering how he died in 1989! He wasn’t in many big roles, but did a lot of “ghost singing” on recordings, usually for actors who weren’t good enough themselves. He was in his late thirties when he performed Prince Philip.
Good heavens, but she is lovely.
Aurora was one of the least-seen Princesses of my childhood, thanks to the aforementioned lack of seeing her film, and she’s arguably the blandest of personality of the whole crew (Snow White was more innocent, Cinderella more sarcastic and hard-working, and the ’90s ones generally more petulant), but she’s probably the best example of what a Princess is SUPPOSED to be- a well-mannered, polite, delightful young girl. Being sixteen but looking more like a glamorous young adult, I find her to be the most attractive of the early Princesses (and second-best overall… until a certain winter-themed movie came out), with a body based off of Audrey Hepburn.
And all signs point to her aging well, too- her mother (named Queen Leah years later- she was such a minor character that we don’t actually know who voiced her!) looks basically like a shorter-haired Aurora upon the child’s birth, and looks EXACTLY THE SAME sixteen years later. So does King Stephen, now that I mention it, but he isn’t quite the looker that Leah & Aurora are… okay, the animators just used the same models despite 16 years passing, okay?
The issue with Aurora is… she has the least development and screen-time of ANY Disney Princess, featuring in only a tiny bit of the movie! So she’s this weird combination of things- of all the Princesses, she’s arguably the most “Classic”- born into royalty, beautiful, adult-looking, romantic, sing-songy and helpless. But she’s ALSO the only one little girls never seem to latch onto in terms of personality- she barely HAS one! Someone counted her lines, and they are BY FAR the shortest of any of the Princesses- despite the story being named for her, she spends the first part as a baby, the middle part mostly playing off of the three Fairies, and the last half ASLEEP! The Fairies are actually the Main Characters!
One of the great ending sequences in the movies, too. This is a REAL ending sequence- Maleficent repeatedly tries to kill the Prince, turns into a DRAGON, and then the hero throws a magical sword into her heart, killing her and dissolving her realm of thorns. And then he kisses the girl, she recovers, and the kingdom celebrates their engagement, while the fairies bicker once more. It’s amazing. Heck, a Good Fairy KILLS SOMEONE.
It’s funny that the “pink” Aurora costume is the “Official” design when she’s in the blue one for most of the movie (though her “peasant girl” dress is the cutest look she has)- I guess Flora won that battle of wills in the end. There’s a great bit of documentary stuff on this set (talking about Earle the animation/art guy), a biography on Tchaikovsky (whose Sleeping Beauty’s Waltz is the basis for the songs here), and they even show a 30-minute “Grand Canyon” nature film. There’s a documentary about how they made the Sleeping Beauty Castle part of Disneyland, complete with mini-sets of all the projecting imagery.
Reception & Cultural Impact:
The movie cost SO much to make that even though it made a ton of money, it still lost about a million dollars- a big deal back in those days. The movie actually cost the studio a LOT, as they knew they couldn’t really make losses like that again, and so there was an entire artistic shift into a cheaper animation style that involved a lot of tracing, “scratchy” outlines because erasing took too much time, and simpler movements. It really says something that Disney kept up that style well into the 1980s, so 1959’s Sleeping Beauty looks noticeably better than 1986’s Great Mouse Detective.
However, the cultural impact is unquestionable- cripes, this movie was advertised using a brand new castle in Walt’s “Disneyland”. Yes, the centerpiece of the entire park, and the basis for every other park built, was not only made years after opening, it was made to ADVERTISE AN UPCOMING FEATURE. Shove THAT in the faces of anyone crying about “Star Wars Land” and Disney throwing modern APs into the “Classic” Parks.
Maleficent herself has gone on to become the most memorable part of the entire film, despite having about twelve minutes of screen-time. The sheer casual menace she gives off while in human form, combined with her raw power as a mighty dragon, makes her absolutely the top-tier villain in the Animated Canon. Crossovers and things like Kingdom Hearts and House of Mouse nearly always turn her into the leader of the villains- she ALWAYS maintains her dignity, and never looks foolish. This remains the only Disney Princess Movie in which the VILLAIN is the most-advertised and pushed part of it- she’s probably the most pushed Disney Villain of all.
Aurora and the Steampunk Maleficent- both icons of the Disney Theme Parks.
Of course, Aurora herself is a bit of an icon, omnipresent in the Disney Parks as a Meet & Greet Character, and a bit part of the Disney Princess line. Controversially (well, to Disney Nerds), they default to the “Pink Dress” look because Cinderella was chosen to be blue… which also prevents Ariel from having a Movie-Accurate dress (the Princess line switches her to green to set off her hair). It’s to the point where the “Blue Dress” look actually looks odd, even though it was frequently seen in the picture itself. However, Aurora is also the least-characterized of the Disney Princesses, so she’s this odd combination of heavily-pushed (she’s almost always right in the middle of the Princess Line-Up), a “Classic Princess”… and one that has the fewest lines, so people barely know her. Poor Prince Phillip gets a lot of the same, often being shoved into the “Uninteresting Princes”, alongside Snow White’s and Cinderella’s, even though he’s far more active and important in the story. I blame his totally generic appearance.
So there’s Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland. Disneyland Paris has a gigantic PINK super-castle of its own, inspired by Cinderella Castle in terms of scope, but themed to La Belle Dormant, complete with a BLACK DRAGON sleeping in the chambers beneath- an animatronic dragon with light-up eyes and smoke pouring out of its gullet is one of the more famous “unique” things in Disney Parks. Aurora is a famous Disney Princess. Maleficent leads the Disney Villains in group pictures. The three Fairies didn’t have much of a legacy (despite their huge part in the story), though they act as the classroom teachers in the Princess-themed TV series Sofia the First.
Sleeping Beauty is considered today to be one of the finest Disney Films ever made, at least artistically. Some find issues with the storytelling, the Princess herself barely gets any lines, and the movie notably lost money at first, but it’s well-respected in terms of the art style, Maleficent is a dominant villain, and its iconography is celebrated. This one has DEFINITELY been vindicated by history.