Sleeping Beauty (1959) Review
What do I know about the film?
Despite the reputation Disney has for being all about the princesses there really ain’t that many: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ will be the last story focused on a princess until the Disney renaissance period beginning in ’89, long after Walter’s death. Turns out there is a reason Mr Disney and his crew went off them…
It all looked so promising. Disney was aiming to create a visually luscious and artistically rich version of a classic European fairytale and he pulled out all the stops to give the film a distinctive style, including outsourcing the music to the ballet version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ composed by Tchaikovsky. Classy. He was determined this would stand alone as an animated classic and not just be regarded as a poor man’s ‘Snow White’ a message he threatened the animators with on a regular basis. Gosh he sounds like a fun boss doesn’t he?
Imagine you are drawing a fairy castle and up he pops, moustache moving up and down furiously:
‘Too similar to Snow White! I don’t want people thinking I am a one trick pony!’
‘You know we have released like…14 animated films since then boss? You are clearly not a…’
‘IT CAN’T BE LIKE SNOW WHITE OK?!?’
‘I know…It isn’t…’
‘Good…Cause if it is I am coming for you…And your family…And you will need more than a Fairy Godmother to save you…’
And then his face would go back to a normal colour and he would chuckle kindly before backing out the room with his eyes twitching…
Before I started writing these I never imagined Walt Disney doing anything. Ever. Now I can’t stop. The guy was insane.
Anyway, Pulling out all the stops in the world of Disney translates to money being spent. Lots of it. More money than any Disney film up until that point. Yes, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ went massively over budget. So despite doing pretty well when it opened it ultimately made a loss when they really could have used a win. So with that many animators were laid off and bye bye princess times. If Cinderella was the girl who saved Disney, Aurora was the sleepy Princess who nearly crushed it. While brushing her hair or something. Women. What are they like?
As with their previous financial disappointment ‘Alice…’ the movie was re released several times in subsequent years leading to it finding a home in the hearts of many patrons and if we allow for all the re releases ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is actually the second most successful film of ’59 coming behind the mighty ‘Ben-Hur.’ But this was not enough to console the mighty Walt who would not live much longer and therefore would not see the success of this particular black sheep. Damn those princesses.
Not that this film is actually that princess heavy…More on that later…
Did I see it as a child?
Certainly I did, it was one of my favourites. I don’t remember owning a legitimate version but I think we may have taped it off the TV during an Easter screening or something…Hard to say how I ended up watching it so much. Why wasn’t I working on my personality?
Speaking of my personality, there is a bit in the film where a character melodramatically tells another: ‘My pet…you are my last hope.’ For reasons that I truly believe only the brain of a kid can comprehend I adopted this phrase into my daily game play without context. Meaning in a straight forward game of, say, football, with my peers I would look another player dead in the eyes and whisper: ‘Try and score a goal…My pet…you are my last hope’ In a really intense way.
Or I would be thirsty and at someone’s house and say to my friend: ‘Can I have a drink? My pet…You are my last hope.’ I still remember the confused looks, the averted gaze and the wary: ‘Um…ok. Yeah. Fine’ responses. I grew out of it but…Still. I am astonished I was ever asked to take part in anything considering I literally couldn’t even make a simple request without trying to sound like the Mistress of Evil.
And if you think that is bad, wait till you hear what became of my poor friends after I watched The Lion King…but first…
A King and Queen have a big party to celebrate their daughter Aurora being born. Among the invited are another King from a neighbouring kingdom and his young son Philip who is to marry the baby (in the future like) to unite their kingdoms. He does not look impressed about it. Then three good fairies (Flora, Fauna and Merryweather) show up to show up the people who brought bibs and a breast pump as gifts by bestowing magical offerings on the baby. However before Merryweather can add her present to the mix of beauty and nice singing that, being a Disney Princess, Aurora desperately needs, Maleficent the self proclaimed Mistress of all Evil swings by and things get pretty tense. She is hurt to have been left off the invite list so retaliates by declaring that the baby will reach 16 and then prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her birthday and die. Specific. And evil. Evily specific. Specifically evil.
Unsurprisingly, everyone is a bit cut up and not in the mood for cake after that, so Merryweather gives Aurora the gift of being able to sleep through her problems should this event ever come to pass.
In possibly the most inefficiently executed plan of all time, the three good fairies adopt rubbish disguises (just them without wings) and raise the baby themselves in the woods so…To be honest I don’t fully grasp what the point of this is. But they screw up big time by bringing her back to the castle on her 16th birthday rather than, say, the day after and Maleficent is waiting…
I mentioned in my ‘Cinderella’ review how it was neat to have an older woman arrive in the story, be cool in an understated way, and not be defined by a man. I also lamented that the Fairy Godmother only gets one scene to be awesome. It would seem the team at Disney at least partially agreed with me as the main characters in this film are not the Prince and Princess, both of whom get about 8 lines each at most, but four older magic women.
What makes ‘Sleeping Beauty’ a winner? The brilliantly bonkers villain and the well meaning but often incompetent Fairies. Let’s start with the three fairies. Following the dismal baby party, they all sit and have a chat about how they can best help the King and Queen and you get a sense of their individuality, their values, and the chemistry they have with one another. We don’t need to know how they met, their run in’s with Maleficent in the past or why they spend all their time together (although that is one Disney prequel I would watch the hell out of) we feel it in their dynamic. I love the bit where Fauna laments that Maleficent is always ruining the flowers that Flora makes. Really? The Mistress of All Evil gets a kick out of attending Gardening Competitions only to send a frost at the last second for shits and giggles? Brilliant.
But anyway, we know who they are. We get them. Flora sees herself as the leader, tries to be logical but struggles, and does not like any nonsense. Fauna is sentimental, sweet and steadfastly trusting. Merryweather is inelegant, speaks her mind and is a softy at heart despite the tough as nails front she has going on. All are flawed but all are good at what they do. How often nowadays could a film be lead by three older woman with these kind of personalities? I say it a lot because it is rare, even in animated films.
They are especially enjoyable in the extended sequence where they try and prepare gifts for Aurora in honour of her 16th birthday. They have all been living out in the woods all this time pretending not to be magical fairies so Merryweather is clearly jonesing to feed her addiction. She insists they use magic to sort out their problems and rushes to get the wands at the first opportunity which makes you wonder just how they have got along all these years. Did they live off takeaways as none of them ever learned to cook? Did they make Aurora (or Rose as they call her…it is a disguise you know) do all the cleaning? Either way, watching them go from bumbling their way through dress making and baking to having a magic fight to decide the colour of the dress (blue is clearly better than pink) is fantastic. They are just so likeable. I was entertained by their banter when I was 5 and nothing has changed.
One of the strangest things about this project is how I view some scenes as an adult in a different way than I did as a child. There are some scenes that as a kid I just accepted without comment that now seem both surreal and hilarious. In ‘Sleeping Beauty’ that moment comes when the three good fairies discover that despite all their efforts and plans Maleficent has tricked Aurora into pricking her finger on a spinning wheel after all. How that ends up happening is really, really stupid and will be covered in the next section. But first…
The fairies are devastated. They loved the young woman they had raised and now they were going to have to explain this cock up to her parents who had made a life long sacrifice only for everything to go wrong at the 11th hour. So how on Earth are they going to do it? Everyone in the kingdom is waiting, celebrating the return of their Princess…Well of course they have to face the music. Beg forgiveness. Hope the King shows mercy and understands that they did their best to protect her.
Or do they?
Instead our protagonists roofie an entire kingdom. Yep. Their response to Maleficent cruelly knocking the Princess into a coma is to…do the exact same thing to everyone in the court only so they don’t have to throw their hands up and say: ‘We dun fucked up’
(Please click on link to watch it on youtube. And then come back!)
Seriously. What the fuck Disney? Look at Flora’s face as she wipes away the tears and decides to commit a bit of date rape for the greater good. ‘We’ll put them all to sleep’ she says defiant in defeat. This is so wrong. So wrong. So, so wrong. Remember the lesson here: Don’t confess your mistakes, hide from them for as long as you possibly can. If your problems are unconscious long enough you will find the solution. Our heroes ladies and gentlemen!
I loved it though and I love them. Like I said, I love that while Disney had still not figured out how to make a Prince and Princess love affair interesting they at least had the good grace to shove them to the back of the film in favour of the better, more charismatic characters. When the fairies successfully free Prince Philip they also guide him through all his third act trials: Not once does he do anything unaided. And he doesn’t get any lines. Make no mistake. The fairies are the main characters. Well them and Maleficent.
Maleficent has earned her reputation as one of best Disney villains of all time. With her motivation, awesome character design, sexy voice, how seriously she takes it all (at one point she laments that her minions ‘…Are a disgrace to the forces of evil!), the décor of her castle, her pet raven and, best of all, how much she enjoys evil, she is just made of win. She just can’t get enough of being all evil and that. And it is wonderful.
‘And then I hid her insulin! MHWHA HA HA HA! It’s funny because she’s type 1 and it’s really serious!’
Sure it is camp and silly and all because she didn’t get to attend a baby shower of sorts, easily one of the most boring type of parties imaginable but my God is it important to Maleficent. After she finally manages to locate and incapacitate the Princess and the Prince respectively, she takes a quiet moment and says that this night will be her first good sleep in 16 years…
Seriously? This has kept you up at night? You’d think the Mistress of all Evil who can QUITE LITERALLY call upon all the powers of Hell (and does…it is cool) would have more on her plate than locating a teenage girl and putting her to sleep. But no. She has been lying there each night for 16 years, staring at the ceiling, thinking to herself: ‘Where the cocking hell is that Princess I swore to kill cause her parents left me out that time? If I don’t find her soon everyone is going to think I’m a loser…’
There is a complex and interesting character at the heart of the spot on evil chuckles that may or may not (I am guessing may not) be explored in the upcoming live action film about her starring Ms Jolie. She certainly seems kind of vulnerable emotionally for someone so powerful.
‘I am going to kill you! That will show my Dad! I mean you…that will show you.’
But it would be a shame if the film had gone with the whole ‘I just want to be wuved’ angle because, as I believe I have already mentioned, Maleficent is great at being evil. My favourite example is when she visits Philip chained in a cell. This scene must have gone over my head as a kid because I don’t remember it, like, at all and it is awesome. She tells him she will let him go when he is really, really old and allow him to find Aurora and bring her back to life but she will be young and he will be too senile to successfully maintain an erection (I am paraphrasing) Now that is evil!
She might make the mistake of turning herself into a giant dragon for the final encounter when she could have zapped him from a distance but still it is a hell of an exit and a fitting end for one of the coolest Disney characters of all time…I really wouldn’t have minded if the film had ended with her roasting them all alive and going to get her nails done:
I would follow you anywhere, My Queen.
The animation looks beautiful, even if it did cost too much, particularly in the sequence where the fairies give the baby gifts and it goes all swirly and colourful. And the bit where Aurora walks, spellbound through the dark castle which is wonderfully atmospheric. And the bit when…Ok. All of it looks great. The use of colour in particular is truly spectacular. The money was ultimately well spent, even if it didn’t work out at the time.
The choice of having the score be pre-existing and classical in style is an interesting one and it mostly works, particularly with the choice to hire an actual vocalist (Up yours Snow White, you warbling knob) in Mary Costa who is a proper opera singer. The voice doesn’t really fit the design of the character but that is a minor nitpick given that one of her magical presents was the gift of song. And it is really something, especially in ‘I Wonder.’ The most enduring number is ‘One Upon a Dream’ and deservedly so: The melody, taken from the Tchaikovsky ballet, is stunning.
There are undeniably quite a few filler scenes but I enjoyed watching them: Including a time wasting scene between the two kings where they discuss how soon after the Princess returns they should marry off their kids, the arrival of everyone in the kingdom to see the baby at the start (another great showcase for the style of the animation) the fairy shenanigans and any time Maleficent is schooling anyone. The scene where Aurora follows the green light to where Maleficent is is really creepy and very cool. And the rescue of Philip and Aurora is pretty exciting. Yes there is much to love and gasp in wonder at in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ It is just a shame about…
What Doesn’t Work:
As much as I appreciate the decision to limit the involvement of the two dopey teens it is still annoying how, for the sake of the plot, they fall in love in 18 seconds (I counted) and then insist to their respective confused families that they are going to marry a peasant they stumbled upon in the woods. Now hang on…Would it not have been wise to exchange names? Ideals? Values? Thoughts on politics? Did it never occur to Philip that he might want to mention his status? Well he doesn’t really have time because she runs off but then he he rides home, announces his appending nuptials and then immediately leaves to find her again. It seems unnecessary to have this little misunderstanding all because of poor communication and it is the kind of contrived, easily solvable issue that only seems to happen in films. And this movie is full of them.
The issues I have with how the plot is staged could take up another review. The plan to stop Maleficent is to take the baby away from her home and raise her as a normal girl away from all this…royal stuff…only to break the news about her being a Princess and returning her to the bosom of her family THE SAME DAY MALEFICENT SAID SHE WOULD DIE. Why not the day after? A week later just to be sure? And then when they get to the castle the fairies decide that Aurora needs ‘a few minutes alone’ Seriously? TODAY? The day the all powerful Mistress of Evil has vowed to murder the kid? That is the day you decide to respect her privacy?
Am I missing something about why she HAD to come home that day? Some sort of fairy story rule about if you are not in your Kingdom on your 16th birthday you are not allowed to be Queen? If not, what was the point of lying to her and hiding her all this time if they just planned to let her go home and be promptly caught within the time frame of the evil? I still don’t fully understand or support the plan in the first place. Just brainstorming for 5 minutes, I came up with some genuinely superior ideas:
-Why didn’t they use a faux Aurora? A Faurora if you will. Nobody knew what she looked like, they could have hired someone, or magicked someone to pretend to be her.
-They could have used their own sleeping spell on the Princess before Maleficent had the chance. Since they clearly know how to do it. How could she prick her finger if she was already asleep? They could just wake her up the next day!
-As soon as the Princess told them she had fallen in love with a random peasant kid they could have found him and brought him with them. He could kiss her and wake her up as soon as she fell asleep and then they could have dealt with that awkward you are supposed to marry the Prince thing after the danger was done: Not that they would have needed to cause he was the Prince the whole time!
-This one is a bit grim, but they could have cut off her fingers. Can’t prick them if you don’t have ’em!
And they had sixteen years to spitball some plans. I did that list in 5 minutes. When someone’s evil plan is that specific there had to be some loopholes.
And what was stopping Maleficent from just turning into a dragon and fireballing the fuck out of the castle if she never found the Princess? You know, just leave behind convoluted revenge plans and straight up murder the people she hates and rule the world? In the awesome scene where the fairies enter her castle looking for Philip there is a shot where her minions dance around the fire celebrating their recent success. Why in the name of all the powers of Hell wasn’t Philip burning in the middle? If he was dead, Aurora and by extension everyone in the town, would have been screwed.
I am certainly overthinking it and my vivid, unreserved bloodlust is disturbing. I am not arguing that. But I could ride an angry evil dragon through these problems and it could have been a bit tighter and the seams of the story less visible.
And when will Disney stop including critters in every Princess story? Why are big eyed, cuddly creatures a short hand for a young woman who is wonderful and good and kind etc? Were they worried that if a female protagonist wasn’t surrounded by adorable friends we would assume she wasn’t pure enough to be a Princess? Can animals sense when you still have hymen?
The cutesy animals in this film don’t even play an important role in the story. They just adore Aurora (Oh Aurora, we adore ya!) and express an unhealthy interest in her sexy dreams. The birds in particular seem bereft when she stops just as it is getting steamy. Then an owl and some rabbits act out a weird delusion for her when they dress up in Philip’s clothes and pretend to be the man from her dreams. Aurora never questions whose poor corpse they ravaged to find this loot, she just goes with it like the life long shut in she is. Although her behaviour is an insult to the mental health of life long shut ins.
When Philip cuts in (i.e. assaults an owl like a bastard) she is understandably freaked out. For two seconds. Then she falls for the man who is presumably the first dude she has ever seen. Excellent. Nice and healthy. Then she suddenly decides she has to go home. When he asks when he can see her again this is her response: ‘Never, never…Well Maybe some day…’ Then he suggests tomorrow and she says: ‘Oh no!…’ as if it is a terrible idea before adding ‘This evening!’ And gives him her address after just that second telling him he couldn’t have her name.
Jesus. Seriously Philip mate. She is not all there. You don’t want this girl. She dances around with owls and changes her mind more times in a matter of seconds than Darren Day (Topical!) She is going to be hard work.
Ok, a lot of this is stuff I found funny but that doesn’t mean it works. Aurora and Philip are bland, badly realised and the critter stuff has been done to death. I continue to patiently wait for a decent human pairing and some sidekicks/filler worthy of my time. It may be some time.
I appreciate how Disney took the Princess formula and twisted it making the whole film focus more on both the good and evil fairies in this universe. While it wouldn’t have hurt them to flesh out the motivations of the characters and the romantic duo this is still a dynamic, beautiful and well put together classic.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 3
Aurora being hypnotised, Philip being kidnapped and the party of evil.
While I do appreciate the musical choices the film made I personally am not crazy about the soundtrack outside of the melodies and the incidental music. I am not saying the music is bad but they abuse the warbling chorus a bit too much for my liking and I prefer my ballet music accompanied by actual dancing. With all that said I am going to give it to ‘Once Upon a Dream’ as it has the most memorable tune and it is (however briefly) a good showcase for Costa’s lovely vocal. I wouldn’t advise anyone to try that chat up line though:
Next Time: Have you ever looked at a dog and thought about skinning it in the name of fashion? Of course you have! 101 Dalmatians (1961)