Well, after going to see the enjoyable but flawed Maleficent, it felt like the right time for a viewing of this classic. And this may surprise some, but this was in fact – barring, possibly, as a baby – the very first time I ever saw Sleeping Beauty. I’ve seen bits and pieces, of course – clips of Maleficent’s big entrance, that most persistent of earworms ‘Once Upon a Dream’, which rather makes me think Disney should lift melodies from great composers more, Prince Philip’s kiss of true love – but I am almost certain that this was the first time I’d seen the full film. The most exposure I had to Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty has been through Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.
It may be a result of this lack of experience, but I had a lot of misconceptions about the film, and honestly I think they’re pretty widespread. For one thing, with
Aurora being part of a trinity of the most iconic fairytale princesses with Snow
White and Cinderella, the film feels like older Disney than it
really is. Sure, Cinderella is 1950 and Sleeping Beauty is 1959, the
same decade, but for all the continued involvement of the Nine Old Men, the
Disney of Alice in Wonderland and the Disney of Sword in the Stone feel
rather different, and the difference is visible here, not least because there
is a clear attempt at a distinct, stylised, sharp-edged style, especially in
the opening sequence of crowds gathering for Aurora’s christening.
Other misconceptions I had included that the main character was Aurora, or even King Stephan – really, quite oddly, the central figures of the narrative are the three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, who are also the only characters who really get any development. I was also under the impression that one of Maleficent’s main problems was that unlike this film, it shows
Aurora as asleep for only a matter of hours whereas
the real story has the princess sleep for a hundred years. In fact, the same
problem exists here – Maleficent leads Aurora to prick her finger and fall into an enchanted
sleep, which she remains in only for as long as it takes the fairies to free
and arm Philip and get him to his love.
I understand why this has been done – like many modern readers, the Disney writers clearly had a problem with the idea that the princes wakes when total stranger arrives and kisses her, which is hardly true love. Maleficent even dismissed the idea that two young people who meet once and are attracted to one another can be said to share ‘true love’s kiss’ a day later. All of which, of course, is more pleasant than the infamous older versions in which the prince impregnates the enchanted sleeper without her even knowing about it and accidentally wakes her by sucking on her fingers and extracting the splinter that had caused the enchanted sleep. Creepy, man.
But from my point of view, even this very 50s view of romance seems creepy.
Aurora is messing about with the cute woodland
creatures, the owl and squirrels very much like those who will feature
prominently in Sword in the Stone using Philip’s coat and boots to
pretend to be a prince, and seeing this and chuckling to himself, Philip steps
in and takes the place of the cutesy animals. Rather than screaming and getting
out the mace, Aurora finds this charming and loveable.
But the fact is that the romance, 50s or not, is functional and the plot still works. It is also tempting to be influenced by Maleficent and imagine that ‘Good’ King Stephan was actually a very nasty piece of work who had set Maleficent against him, and that Maleficent herself was sympathetic, but as I said in my review of that still-enjoyable film, one of its main flaws was that it had to write its own story rather than successfully managing to weave into the classic narrative. Thus the fairies were different and it was Maleficent herself who provided the ‘true love’s kiss’ get-out, and the ending was a complete departure.
Intriguing as the reinterpretation was, the cartoon Maleficent is wonderful, easily one of Disney’s top villains – and they do villains so well. She is evil because that is her nature, not because of her twisted backstory. She turns into an awesome dragon, rather than transforming her henchman. Her scenes are not without humour – as when her minions reveal they have been looking for a baby for fifteen years. And her devilish, elegant, regal design is a thing of brilliance.
Too bad Aurora and Philip are so bland – and I have real difficulty perceiving
Aurora as just-sixteen when she looks 25. But again,
it’s the fairies who are the film’s true centre, and they are very clearly
defined, especially the likeable, fussy Merryweather. Diablo also gets
remarkably good characterisation for a bird with a very minor role.
It doesn’t feel Disney is showing its greatest strengths here. The musical centrepiece is Tchaikovsky’s. The animation, while fine, is less ambitious than it was decades before, with repeating parts and some lazy colouring. The story relies on a very brief love affair, bland heroes and a sleeping beauty who sleeps for less than a day. Yet it just about hangs together on its quirkier strengths, as well as the better-chosen borrowed parts. But it is less impressive than many Disney classics.