Sleeping Beauty marks the end of an era in Disney history. Not only was it the last Disney animated movie to have its animation cels hand-inked, Princess Aurora is the last Disney Princess till The Little Mermaid in 1989! We’re headed into a string of talking animals (give or take a few) over the next eleven weeks. With that, Sleeping Beauty is a light and representative view of the Disney aesthetic, and the best send-off to the Disney princess model. Aurora is probably the blandest of Disney royalty, and the movie doesn’t appear concerned about her, but the lovely animation and the fun one-liners make this one worthy of showcasing Disney’s love of fairy-tales.
The Princess Aurora (voiced by Mary Costa) is spirited away to live with three magical fairies after the evil Maleficent (voiced by Eleanor Audley) proclaims that on the princess’ sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.
The story behind Sleeping Beauty is cut and dry, probably why the film is only 75 minutes long. The pacing on all the Disney princess movies are brisk because the stories themselves are highly controlled. A princess is fated with doom, has to go to a woodland setting with helpers, and defeat the queen and find her beloved. I’m not complaining here because Disney does a lot with a little time. Since Sleeping Beauty is a waiting game (waiting for the princess to reach 16 and go home), there’s time for a lot of humor and frivolity between the three fairies while Maleficent hunts the child down.
The fairies in this film are used to great effect. Flora (voiced by Verna Felton), Fauna (voiced by Barbara Jo Allen), and Merryweather (voiced by Barbara Luddy) work as a cohesive unit, yet have distinct personalities. Luddy was actually the voice of Lady, in Lady and the Tramp. I prefer her here because her voice makes the character, whereas it felt generic in Lady. Her proclamations of condemning Maleficent as an “old hop-toad” and keenly observing that Maleficent isn’t very happy makes me smile. The quibbling between all three emphasize their lengthy relationship that the audience isn’t aware of. The movie really is their burden and I actually wish we’d been given insight into their raising of the child. The movie sharply jumps from Aurora’s infancy to her being a teenager, and considering that the three fairies are ambivalent about their mothering skills, it would have opened up the story by showing their various arguments over child-rearing. Instead we get funny sequences of them baking cakes and dressmaking without magic. Furthermore, I find it odd that in sixteen years they’ve never learned how to cook or make clothes. How has Aurora/Briar Rose eaten and dressed all this time?
Of course, the three good fairies are nothing compared to Maleficent. I found Maleficent to be a unique character when I was a child, and that remains to this day. She’s given about as much character development as the rest of the cast (which is to say not much), but she makes up for it in personality. Eleanor Audley has provided voices for Disney villains in the past, most notably Lady Tremaine in Cinderella. Here, she commands respect! She’s intimidating, commanding, and you get the feeling she’s conversing with the Devil himself. She’s the first villain (and I say this unless someone can correct me) to openly curse in a Disney animated work; she says “hell” at one point. I’m pretty sad to hear of the live-action film that’s in production with Angelina Jolie, but if any villain deserves their own film, it’s her.
Of course, that leaves us with Sleeping Beauty herself. It just seems that Aurora is really unnecessary outside of being the title character; for a title character, she’s pretty damn boring. Aurora and Dumbo are actually lumped together for possessing the least amount of dialogue for a title character! Aurora has 18 lines of dialogue, and doesn’t show up in her own movie till 18 minutes in. I guess that It’s not that surprising that she doesn’t have much of a personality or a character to speak off. The other Disney princesses have dreams (Snow wanting to find her prince, Ariel wanting to be part of the human world, etc), but what is Aurora’s dream? To find her prince? To live away from the fairies? We don’t really know. It’s probably because things don’t actually happen to Aurora, outside of the prophesied spindle. Before and after that, things simply happen around her or to protect her. The whimsy of the three fairies covers up the fact that nothing really happens until the third act when Prince Philip arrives to slay the dragon and wake Aurora up. Aurora may be the first animated character to spend the entirety of her own film sleeping!
The unnecessary padding feels evident. As a child, I remembered the dance sequence and the dragon at the end. In between, nothing particularly insightful happens. There’s lengthy sequences of the fairies cooking, which is funny because they’ve never cooked till now? Later on, there’s a lengthy debate between Aurora’s father and Philip’s father that culminates in a forgettable song (it’s so forgettable I don’t recall the title). The movie doesn’t overstay its welcome, but by the end I found myself being more engaged in the ending than anything that came before.
From a technical standpoint, Sleeping Beauty opens the door to the xerography process that would dominate Disney’s animation throughout the sixties and seventies. Sleeping Beauty, at the time, was Disney’s most expensive work and it’s reflected in the gorgeous detailing by animator Eyvind Earle. Red, green, and blue are the predominant colors that not only are seen in the fairies’ clothing, but in the decorating of Aurora’s castle. The medieval elements and sharp features make this stand-out as a unique piece of Disney animation. That’s not to say that its fairy-tale roots aren’t preserved. We still have a storybook and narration to set the tone. The animation dovetails with the storybook elements, and becomes a true extension.
Sleeping Beauty is the touchstone of Disney’s work in the 1950s, and truly marks the first radical shift in their story and animation processes. While Sleeping Beauty herself is dull, the story picks itself up and keeps the viewer engaged with a heart-stopping villain.
NEXT WEEK: The 1960s kick off with spots; it’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.