The Great Disney Blogathon: Sleeping Beauty (1959)
|September 29, 2014||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Music, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
I’ve never really connected with Sleeping Beauty. Though we had it when I was growing up, which means I’ve watched it dozens of times, Aurora certainly got popped in the ol’ VCR less frequently than her classic sisters Snow White and Cinderella, and it’s probably my least favorite of the princess movies.1 Though I admired the visual mastery of the film, I could never get into the characters or the story.
It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve found my way into the film – the past few months, in part – and it’s thanks to a couple of very smart essays pointing out what now seems painfully obvious. First, Karen Healey’s excellent series of essays on various versions of the fairy tale, particularly her essay on the Disney version, but also the one about its most direct antecedents (also you should read her dystopic sci-fi version, When We Wake, immediately). And second, this fascinating guest post by Taxi Browning over at Fantastic Fangirls, part of this year’s Princess Week, which argues against using the rubrics of plot and characterization to evaluate Aurora and her film. (I was ALL ABOUT Princess Week, of course, and wrote about Tiana here.)
I recommend you read all of those links, but here’s my primary takeaway: Disney’s Sleeping Beauty isn’t a movie, really (except in the literal sense that it is actually, you know, a movie). It isn’t a story. It’s a ballet.
Sleeping Beauty is Disney’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same name (mercifully cut down from four hours to 75 minutes). In that vein, it has more in common with Fantasia than, say, Cinderella. Though there’s very little actual dancing in the film, aside from Aurora’s pas de deux with Philip and a couple of brief frolics from comic relief characters, there’s a balletic movement to the whole movie, particularly Aurora’s character, and the abridged Tchaikovsky score hums along under every scene, setting not just moments of high drama or comedy to music, but every pedestrian conversation. As Mindy Aloff puts it in Hippopotamus in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation, the animators “…[removed] all visible traces of dancing to invoke, paradoxically, the art’s ineffable grace…[Dancing] isn’t at the heart of its action or text; instead, dancing serves as a referent that’s everywhere present and nowhere visible, as the subtext.” In other words, though the characters rarely dance, the movie always does.
Paired with the score, the backgrounds, possibly the most striking of any Disney film’s, make the movie feel more like it’s taking place on a particularly vast and lovely stage than in a three-dimensional world. In fact, the backgrounds are the key to the entire visual heart of the film. Naturally, as a classic fairy tale, Walt had planned to make Sleeping Beauty for some time, but with the juggernauts of Snow White and Cinderella looming in the studio’s past, it was crucial that Sleeping Beauty be significantly different than her sisters.
Enter Eyvind Earle, a painter with a lush, strikingly modern style. Walt put him in charge of designing all the settings for the film, as well as the color palette. Earle painted the majority of the backgrounds himself, a true labor of love, as a typical background took a day to paint, and Sleeping Beauty’s up to a week. Drawing inspiration from medieval art such as the Bayeux Tapestries and illuminated manuscripts, Earle designed a film that looks unlike any other animated movie before or since, and the other artists were told to follow along.2
One of the elements Earle took from that medieval art, particularly Persian art, was the level of detail, even in the deep background. Most illustrators render distant objects with less detail to create an illusion of depth, reflecting the inability of our eyes to see tiny details on things that are far away; in medieval art, and in Earle’s work, even the furthest, tiniest bush had individual leaves lovingly painted onto it. This flattens out the scenery, giving it the look of painted flats rather than a real, rounded forest – what Walt called “a moving illustration.” In addition, everything in the movie’s design is strictly horizontal or vertical; the ground is flat, manicured lawns, the trees elegant pillars. The forest looks less like a real forest and more like an orchard gone to seed, giving it a misty, dreamlike quality; it reminds me of the apple orchard at Cair Paravel that the Pevensies find themselves in when they return to Narnia in Prince Caspian, ancient and unreal.
The movie’s unique look was also in part thanks to it being made in “Technirama 70,” a variety of the ultra-wide CinemaScope that had lent so much naturalism to Lady and the Tramp. Here, however, the extreme horizontal format aids the unreal quality, making it look even more like a proscenium stage.
Which brings us back around to the characters who are “dancing”-not-dancing across that stage – and of course, we have to start with Aurora. Like I said, I could never really connect with her, and that’s a common criticism that’s been leveled at all of the characters in the movie over the years, but most especially Aurora. She’s distant. She’s flat. Though she’s explicitly 16 in the film, she comes across as older, with her elegant carriage (courtesy of her live-action model, dancer Helene Stanley) and her mature, operatic voice (courtesy of voice actress Mary Costa, who indeed went on to a successful career in opera), which made her hard for eight-year-old me to relate to.3 The mature elegance is also probably thanks to her animator Marc Davis, who you may recall wanted Cinderella to be more sophisticated; Aurora may be in large part what Cinderella would’ve been without Eric Larson’s influence. Most damningly, Aurora is only onscreen for about 18 of the movie’s 75 minutes, which makes it hard for the audience to see much of her beyond her beauty and her grace.4
But really, all of the characters are pretty flat – and I think this is by design. Frozen fans like to tout its genre awareness,5 but the characters in Sleeping Beauty seem to know perfectly well what their roles are and how this whole thing is going to play out. I mean, Maleficent’s taunting of Phillip alone – and his annoyed reaction to it, rather than “what is this crazy lady talking about” – shows that. Because again, this is a ballet, and ballets are not the place for nuanced characters. The good characters are so good they can’t even do harmful magic; the evil character so evil she can’t really comprehend love. The prince is stalwart and true love can blossom during a 30-second pas de deux. Giving them complexities and foibles would have been beside the point.
And that doesn’t mean they’re not successful characters. Again, Aurora’s a bit of a nonentity, though a lovely one – but Phillip, despite being irresponsible and basically useless without the fairies holding his hand, is pretty much the unquestioned Hottest Prince until Aladdin steals the crown 33 years later.6 He’s handsome! He dances good! He tells jokes! He charges fearlessly into action! I swoon. (I suspect the fact that he gets chained up and taunted also contributed to a few sexual awakenings among the tween girls of 1959. Ahem.)
…And I suppose I should talk about Maleficent here too. Sigh. All right, look, she’s great, okay? She’s fantastically animated (thank you, Marc Davis) and voiced (thank you, Eleanor Audley), but people get SO excited about her and I just have never managed to care about villains, especially when they’re not funny. (My favorites are Ursula, Hades, and Yzma. I would watch that nightclub lineup in a heartbeat.) Maleficent is a great character and rightfully the queen of Disney villains, but like Aurora, I just don’t connect with her in any way. Sorry, folks.
I do enjoy the good fairies, the only characters in the movie who are more than archetypes. I’m not the first to point this out, but they’re really the true heroes of the movie – they have way more screentime than any other character, and it’s their magic that saves both Aurora and Philip, and vanquishes Maleficent. And how refreshing is it to see a movie about the heroism of three older women? It’s awesome. But the thing that makes them engaging isn’t their pure hearts or boundless courage but their foibles: Flora’s bossiness, Fauna’s flightiness, Merryweather’s temper. I also love that though they are three old biddies (and clearly excellent parents), they totally suck at any kind of home ec (how did Aurora survive to adolescence???). Take that, stereotypes! We’ve got some Disney stalwarts among the voices, too, with our old friend Verna Felton as Fauna and Barbara “Lady” Luddy as Merryweather. Just great characters all around.
Though Sleeping Beauty has long been a favorite with animation students and buffs, and with good cause, it’s never been a popular darling, and this proved to be the case as early as its initial release. The hugely expensive and time-consuming film, which cost $6 million to make – the most costly animated film ever at the time – only grossed $5.3 million, and that was with premium-priced tickets to justify the luxe Technirama 70 format. It was the last Disney movie to be made with hand-inked cells – the studio would move towards Xeroxed cells with One Hundred and One Dalmatians, completely changing the look of Disney animation for the next couple of decades. Walt himself was less involved in the animated films, preoccupied with television and the new Disneyland (which itself stands as a monument to Sleeping Beauty, thanks its the central castle), but it was clear to him that dipping into the fairy tale well was yielding diminishing returns. Sleeping Beauty was the last fairy tale film the studio would make during Walt’s lifetime, and they would not return to the genre for another three decades. In many ways, Sleeping Beauty is the end of an era. One thing’s for sure: there will never be another film like it again.
Which leaves us with one last, crucial question about Sleeping Beauty, one that all the sages of animation have not yet been able to settle: pink or blue? I leave it to you, my readers, to make the right choice.
- CONTROVERSIAL STATEMENT: Frozen may have dethroned it as a Least Favorite. Or, hmm, does Pocahontas count? ↩
- Unsurprisingly, they didn’t love this. ↩
- I had a similar issue with Pocahontas. She just seems like a grown-up! ↩
- Tangentially: not that these movies are on anything like the same level, but it’s interesting to me that of all the Disney princesses that the awful, non-Disney movie The Swan Princess is shamelessly aping, Odette most resembles her Tchaikovskian sister Aurora. With an Ariel-esque 90s flip to her hair, of course. ↩
- And apparently haven’t seen Enchanted. ↩
- GET IT? BECAUSE HE’S A THIEF??? seriously though aladdin call me ↩