By Cinema Muse
Although I found this movie far too scary to watch as a child, I enjoy it greatly now that I'm older. One of the key reasons for this is because they used the music from Tchaikovsky's magnum opus, The Sleeping Beauty for most of the score. As an admirer of Tchaikovsky, therefore, I'm already hooked on that point. Sleeping Beauty, however, is a very different film from anything Disney made before or since. While some of the innovations are positive and it proves to be a beautifully lyrical production, however, fans of the older style Disney production may find this film somewhat lacking.
One major point in which this film differs from the rest of the Disney oeuvre is in the animation. The incredible animators at Disney tried their best to make the art look like illustrations in a medieval tapestry, and they succeeded to a large extent. So we are treated to the bright colors and flat, angular style of the Middle Ages, which certainly renders a fairytale aspect to the proceedings. Until that point, Disney had tried to do their full-length films in a semi-realistic style with some cartoon-ish shapes and flourishes reserved for comic relief characters. Animation aesthetics started changing in the 1950s to a more abstract style, but the ultra-traditional Disney had been slow to adapt. In Sleeping Beauty, however, Disney proved that the new taste could be catered to while paying homage to the great illustration traditions of the past, thus preserving an antiquated feel.
In addition to these aspects, Sleeping Beauty also differs from its predecessors and successors in that it lacks the great quantity of musical numbers that we expect to see in a Disney animated feature--though Disney had started straying from that model in the '50s as well. That tends to make it less appealing to young children, who sometimes need those kind of bells and whistles to hold their attention. Combined, moreover, with the fact that the cast of characters is so small and that the only real comic characters are the three good fairies and the two kings, it doesn't seem to paint with as broad a brush as the other princess films.
In my opinion this change is both a good and bad thing. Obviously it's good in that we get more of a relationship between our prince and princess than we get in Snow White or Cinderella. It also means that the comic antics don't detract from the overall plot as they do in the two aforementioned films, especially the former where Snow White's plot seems like a side note for two thirds of the picture where we watch the antics of the seven dwarfs. There are several digressions with the mice in Cinderella as well that really seem to bog down the plot, but there's also a reason why the writers found it necessary to put them in. After all, if you're marketing a movie to children, it's usually smart to add some cute comic characters performing silly antics, since kids eat that stuff up like an ice cream sundae with extra fudge. And now let's all admit that we remember those characters the best, shall we? So yes, they do serve their purpose, but their actions must relate to the plot somehow, and they mustn't take up too much space or we lose the thread of the story.
Perhaps one of the reasons that people feel the loss of comic relief characters in this film is because there are such frighteningly evil characters that need counterpoising. Maleficent, the evil fairy, looks as if she were pulled straight out of the pit of hell. Her character design with the demonic horns, green-grey skin, and flowing, jagged-edged purple and black robes make her appear every bit as evil, powerful, and deadly as she is. And when she transforms into a large, black, toothy dragon, she may be the most frightening thing that Disney ever animated apart from the devil himself in Fantasia. She also has legion of demon-imps that are hideous. Thus this film has a lot of truly frightening images that can scar small children for years without having enough cute, funny, and endearing moments to bring them back regardless of the villain.
So let's make no mistake, therefore: this movie does not work for little kids. How does it fare, however, for those of us who are a little more mature? Surprisingly well, in fact. To start with, we're treated to the most believable prince and princess that Disney had made up to this point, along with the most believable romance. For the first time, we get a prince with a name, and one who gets more more than five minutes of screen time. In fact he gets as much screen time as Aurora does, possibly more since he has to affect her rescue. I like that Prince Phillip is not idealized, not an archetype as his source material made him out to be. Instead he remains handsome and charming while still being fallible and human. I especially enjoy him falling into the creek with his horse and dancing and singing like an idiot around the castle when he's in love. He also actually has to earn his love by slaying monsters, so he gets points for being an action hero.
Now lets talk about our Princess. Aurora doesn't really have much more personality than Cinderella, but she has more of an excuse because she's only sixteen and she's led a very sheltered childhood. Like Cinderella, moreover, she's so lonely that you buy the fact that she falls in love with the first guy she meets, but since she does more than just dance with her prince, her infatuation is a little more understandable, as is her despair when she learns of her true identity and arranged marriage. Still, her actual romance marks a large leap towards more believable princesses. I think classing it as "love" would still be a stretch, though.
I said before that there isn't a lot of comic relief in this film, but let me give the good fairies some credit for being charming in their own right. First of all, they're not one-note performances, and when they're not bickering over color schemes, they can actually be quite competent, especially aiding Prince Phillip in battle. In addition they show grief when they realize that Aurora will be leaving them, which marks the first time we see sadness shown in that inevitable moment in fairytales when childhood ends and the past life must be left behind.
As I did with Cinderella, I'm trying to work out a moral for this film. There's something very deterministic about the way both the prophecy of the sleeping spell and the spell-breaking kiss come true despite both sides's attempts to prevent them. We are not, however, left with the feeling that our individual actions are meaningless because a) it's only by chance that Phillip and Aurora meet and thus unwittingly create the love that can break the evil spell, and b) Phillip sure needs a lot of initiative in order to defeat Maleficent. Maybe the moral is something like "if you do your best, things will come out right in the end because the power of good will eventually win out over evil," but that's so prosaic. I prefer instead to take a page from Jane Austen, and say that I can't quite decide "whether the overall tendency of this work seeks to recommend parental tyranny or reward filial disobedience." I say this because of course Aurora and Phillip have been promised to each other from birth but are in ignorance of this fact, which causes a rebellious complication. They fall in love with each other thinking that their hearts are free, and when they find out about their parents' have already arranged marriages for them, it's their very defiance of their parents that prevents them from discovering that their beloved and their betrothed are one and the same, which might perhaps have prevented Maleficent from having an opportunity to prey upon Aurora. Then again, if they had listened to their parents advice and forgotten their "Romance of the Forest," as I said before, they would not have possessed the means to break the spell. So as Jane Austen did, I leave the "overall tendency of this work to be determined."
To all of those people like myself that got scared stiff watching this film as a kid, I have to say that it definitely deserves a second look through adult eyes. While far from a perfect movie, it succeeds in feeling like a fairytale while fleshing out the characters just enough to make it believable and not distracting from the plot too much with comic relief the way most Disney movies do. Add to that mix a great score by Tchaikovsky and an interesting animation style, and it turns out to be quite a worthwhile way to spend ninety minutes of your time.