Animation / Films

Disney Retrospective: Sleeping Beauty

Of all the canonically accepted Disney classics, Sleeping Beauty remains one of the most divisive. The movie is seen by some as the creative pinnacle of Disney’s Silver Age; a bold and beautiful fairy tale, with sumptuous animation and several iconic scenes. Others consider the movie to be rather flat and uninvolving – it was released to poor reviews in 1959, which must have crushed Walt Disney himself; Sleeping Beauty was something of a dream product and had spent almost a decade in development. Indeed, the results were so poor that the Disney company avoided adapting fairy tales until the release of the The Little Mermaid, almost thirty years later. Whilst the film has undergone a complete critical reappraisal – it’s considered pretty important in terms of Disney’s backlog and animation history – it does have a few faults which will put some off. Regardless, Sleeping Beauty remains one of Disney’s most ambitious movies.sleepingbeauty3What’s first striking about Sleeping Beauty is well, how beautiful it is. Previous Disney animated features had a soft edges and more detailed features; Sleeping Beauty‘s animation takes its influence from 16th century tapestries; it’s a very crisp and stylised look which gives the movie a real medieval-meets-pop-art flavour. The backgrounds have no real draw distance, but the approach works; it’s almost like looking at a stained glass window come to life, and character designs are fantastic too. The art design is superb throughout, backed up by a rich and deep colour palette, and the use, for the first time, of widescreen and Super Technirama 70. Visually, this is perhaps Disney’s boldest movie and the animation here is wonderful; looking back, it’s the look which really makes Sleeping Beauty stand out, and it’s easy to see why the film spent so long in production. It would be decades before Disney risked doing something this expensive again, not until the early 90s Renaissance period. sleepingbeauty7The visuals are backed up by the excellent score. Though often considered a musical, Sleeping Beauty only actually contains only one real song – the haunting and ‘Once Upon a Dream,’ which provides a nice framing point for the movie and remains one of Disney’s most iconic early numbers. But Sleeping Beauty is all about the score, which is lifted almost directly from Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same name. It goes without saying then, that this score is one of the best in the Disney stable, with heavy ties to Fantasia; the combination of striking visuals and with beautiful, classical music gives Sleeping Beauty an operatic and balletic quality which elevates it to ‘high art’ – this feels bigger than your regular animated movie, and far greater in scope.sleepingbeauty9Tchaikovsky’s score is used to great intense effect in the movie’s climax – the climax is in fact, the strongest part of the film – it’s rousing, exciting and scary, featuring an epic battle with a dragon (Maleficent’s transformation sparking a trend which would be picked up with Ursula and Jafar) which really gets the audience pumped. Sleeping Beauty‘s climax is perhaps the best Disney have ever done, and they’ve put together some classic closes over the years; Sleeping Beauty‘s final battle remains to this day, the benchmark of the studio’s big finishes.sleepingbeauty11The villain also, is perhaps the best Disney have ever created. Maleficent is wonderful. Discussed in more detail in The Top 10 Movie Villains, she’s a wicked and cruel character, one who feels truly evil – she threatens to murder a baby because she’s not invited to a party, and her subversive scheme to keep the Prince hostage until his old age and then let him wake his princess is incredibly cruel and malicious. She’s the only Disney villain to literally call upon the forces of Hell too. The animators dismissed the traditional witches garb in designing the character – opting instead for elegance, unstated grace – and in doing so created a lean, semi-Satanic villain. There’s nothing human in her design and Maleficent’s animation is eerie with an otherworldly green glow. The icing on the character comes from the terrific voice acting from Disney veteran Eleanor Audley; this is a cold, calculated and hoarse performance, almost hypnotising to listen to and very dark. The supporting fairies are great too, providing a lot of comic relief in the cake and dress creation scenes.sleepingbeauty5Where the film falters then, is the narrative and the leads. Princess Aurora is possibly the dullest Disney heroine, and the stereotype of what audiences typically dismiss as a ‘Disney princess’ – beautiful, waiting for her prince, idol, lacking in agency, with no narrative control over her own tale. She’s got a lovely voice, and that’s about it for her personality. She’s barely in the movie too and whiny for most of her screentime; we meet her, there’s a song, she’s told she’s a princess, proceeds to mope over a boy, and then falls asleep for the rest of the movie.sleepingbeauty4It’s almost unfair to criticise the early Disney movies for their portrayal of women, and certainly too easy; saying early Disney princesses make for poor female role models is like saying early Bond movies are sexiest; it’s been covered, and there’s not much more to say. But Aurora does remain perhaps the best (or worst) example of this phenomenon, which is sure to annoy some modern audiences. Her Prince isn’t much better either; there’s not much to him really. The movie balances its weak leads through the strength of its villain and the fairies, who it must be said, are the driving forces of the plot and all female. The dull leads can make the film harder to engage with however.sleepingbeauty8Other issues relate to the odd plot – why do the fairies take Aurora home on the day she’s cursed to die? You’ve waited sixteen years, wait another day! – though most of this can be traced to the nature of the fairy tale roots, and really, shouldn’t be picked at too seriously. The worst element of the narrative is the backwards dramatic irony; the Prince and Aurora meet, fall in love in seconds, and are then told by respective families that they can’t be together, as they’re already betrothed to marry…betrothed to marry each other actually, they just don’t realise this due to a misunderstanding. The audience are aware of this from the start, yet the film spends ages milking it; characters get into fights over it, cry over it, whilst we know it’s ultimately for nothing, and so these sequences serve as narrative dead weight.sleepingbeauty6Other issues relate to the pacing – the middle section of the movie drags and the film, for its short length, can feel much longer than it is – and the amount of filler, especially the pointless section with the two kings. But this again, balances with the strength of other excellent moments – the spindle sequence, the climax – when Sleeping Beauty is on form, it’s amazing. It’s just there’s some padding to wade through at times.sleepingbeauty2So Sleeping Beauty does have a few problems, but honestly, the animation, art design, villain, music and climax more than make up for it. It’s not quite perfect, but Sleeping Beauty should be considered a classic of the genre, and remains one of Disney’s boldest movies. For its faults, this is the creative highlight of the Silver Age, and a Disney movie which will be enjoyed for years to come.


5 thoughts on “Disney Retrospective: Sleeping Beauty

  1. Pingback: Frozen, and the 2nd Disney Renaissance | Some Films and Stuff

  2. Pingback: Maleficent | Some Films and Stuff

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