In 1959, after nearly ten years in production and Disneyland’s castle named in its honor, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was finally released. It was the first film animated in 70mm and a true feat of artistic achievement. To this day, many consider it to be the visual high point of animation in the golden era.
The story is a beautiful retelling of the fairy tale, where the infant Princess Aurora is cursed by an evil fairy, Maleficent (voiced by the amazing Eleanor Audley). Maleficent’s spell says that Aurora will prick her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel and die. Thankfully, the last good fairy, Merryweather, still has her gift to bestow on the baby and lessens the spell, so that Aurora will not die, but only sleep until she is awakened by true love’s kiss. Aurora is then raised in the forest by the three good fairies, (away from spinning wheels) until her sixteenth birthday, when the spell will be broken. But Maleficent is always looking for her and Aurora’s chance encounter with a prince complicates what should be her joyous sixteenth birthday.
Styled after European medieval paintings, the characters have a surprisingly modern feel as they pop off the intricate, sprawling backgrounds designed by Eyvind Earle. In fact, Earle was not only in charge of background design, but color styling and the overall look of the film. I know the Academy has rarely nominated animated films, but how Sleeping Beauty was not considered for cinematography or art direction is beyond me.
However, the film was nominated for best scoring of a musical picture. In addition to the well known songs like Once Upon a Dream, Sleeping Beauty makes great use of instrumental pieces, some of them from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. One of my favorites is the piece used as Maleficent lures Aurora way to a spinning wheel, Puss in Boot and the White Cat. It starts slow, then speeds up, perfectly creating suspense but is still light enough for a children’s movie.
What I think makes Sleeping Beauty such a likable film is the amount of comedy in it. Even from 1959, these gags have not gone stale over time. Kids will love Flora and Merryweather magically arguing over whether Aurora’s dress should be pink or blue. The scene showing how inept the fairies are when it comes to housework is hilarious. I love the look on Fauna’s face after she folds in the eggs.
One scene that always gets me laughing is when the kings get drunk while pregaming Aurora’s arrival and get into a fight. In between choruses of Skumps, they, and the tipsy lute player, guzzle down wine and discuss their children’s future together. Eventually, King Hubert brandishes a fish at King Stefan and attacks until it goes limp, but they just laugh it off. Who knows what kind of wacky kingdoms these guys are running.
There is also a good amount of action for a children’s movie. Maleficent does not disappoint and the climactic battle between her and Prince Philip (with a little help) is exciting to watch every time. From his daring escape, slicing through the enchanted thorns, up to slaying Maleficent as a dragon still keeps me engaged. And the dragon is my son’s favorite part of the movie, although he thinks she just falls at the end. “Uh oh, dragon trip!”
I know Sleeping Beauty has some problems. Aurora is a very simplified girl who doesn’t get so say much, even when being the title character. However, looking past the story and character faults, the film is visual masterpiece. Personally, I’d love to see it released in IMAX, there are so many ornate details to soak up, you can find something new every time.
“You poor, simple fools. Thinking you could defeat me. Me! The mistress of all evil! Well, here’s your precious princess!”