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Non-Review Review: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Sleeping Beauty is very much a product of the fifties, with the movie’s production spanning most of the decade. The story work commenced in 1951, with vocal performances recorded the following year. The movie was eventually released in 1959, to lukewarm critical and commercial success.

However, Sleeping Beauty reflects the fifties in other ways. The story about a young woman who needs to learn to do as her guardians instruct her, how marriage is really the ideal prospect for a woman of sixteen, and about how people we label as “evil” are unquestionably beyond redemption, Sleeping Beauty really plays to a very fifties mindset.

(Appropriately enough, the high budget and lacklustre box office performance of Sleeping Beauty would be a major part of the reason that Walt Disney would post its first annual loss in 1960.)

Sleep well...

Sleep well…

There are several striking things about Sleeping Beauty. The most obvious is that the movie does look very lavish and stylish. Although the production was not a happy process for Walt Disney Studios, and the animation choices remain controversial among those people who worked on the film, Sleeping Beauty does look great. It might have been released at the very edge of the loosely-defined “golden age of animation”, but it is packed with the sort imagery that comes to mind when people think of Walt Disney.

Framed in “ultra-widescreen”, the movie looks truly beautiful. The highly stylised backgrounds lend the story a sense of scale and class, emphasising the dream-like quality of the narrative. Paired with the soundtrack loosely drawn from the work of Tchaikovsky, Sleeping Beauty feels like a very classy piece of animation. In a way, the somewhat simplistic plot and two-dimensional characters contribute to this – Sleeping Beauty is a very old-fashioned animated film, lacking the playfulness that defined many of its contemporary productions.

We all know this dance...

We all know this dance…

There are lots of reasons for this, of course. Sleeping Beauty was produced at a time when Walt Disney was trying to expand the company. It entered production just as film-making became one of the less urgent company priorities. As Ollie Johnston explained in Don Peri’s Working with Disney, Walt Disney’s attention was not as focused as it had been:

Well, it was frustrating because you couldn’t get anything okayed until he had time to look at it and go over it, so I think that was one reason we spent more money on that picture, because we were on one thing too long. It was very hard to pry anything away from him. As he used to say to me when he was working out in the shop, “I’ve got to have a project, a new project.” And he was all wrapped up in the Disneyland project and the TV shows. So his interest was divded – when he’d come into a meeting, he would be interested and all that, but he didn’t give it the thought after the meeting that he usually would have. He didn’t live that stuff anymore.

Sleeping Beauty really does seem to exist on the periphery of the Golden Age of Disney Animation. The movie’s ethereal dream-like quality perhaps reflects the somewhat hazy production process.

Knight with shining sword, at least...

Knight with shining sword, at least…

There was a certain luxury in the production process of Sleeping Beauty. According to Lance Nolley in Working with Disney, there was a rather relaxed and indulgent attitude towards the production of these animated films:

Now on Sleeping Beauty, there is some animation in that picture that cost as high as two hundred dollars a foot, and that’s prohibitive with the average studio. Walt Disney, the Disney people, always had enough money that they could experiment and get perfection. No other studio had that kind of money that they could spend months or years perfecting a character or perfecting a story.

And yet, despite the luxury of money and time that allowed the production of Sleeping Beauty to be spread over eight years, it seemed like there wasn’t too much talent or energy being invested in the project as an on-going concern.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

The movie would eventually become something of a problem for Disney. An eight-year production cycle is far from ideal, and the movie accrued quite a substantial cost due to the fact that it remained on the back-burner so long. As Floyd Norman recalls in Walt’s People:

Eventually the lack of progress on Sleeping Beauty began to annoy the Old Maestro. Over time, it became clear that the movie was not exactly thrilling Walt Disney, and he was anxious to move things along. One day, Walt was heard to exclaim, “Just finish the darn thing!” And suddenly, the film was put on the fast track.

As such, it seems like Sleeping Beauty limped into release.

The real reason nobody ever invited Maleficent to big occasions was the way that her soldiers made pigs of themselves...

The real reason nobody ever invited Maleficent to big occasions was the way that her soldiers made pigs of themselves…

Perhaps as a result of these difficulties, the movie feels very familiar from a plotting and character perspective. As author Mark I. Pinsky wryly notes of Sleeping Beauty in The Gospel According to Disney:

This is the third – and, thankfully, the final – time Disney made what is essentially the same movie. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty are all archetypal female rescue fantasies with essentially passive heroines. Each girl is particularly skilled at house cleaning, often with the assistance of small animals.

Sleeping Beauty is not a film that can really be classified as subversive or feminist.

All good in the Woods...

All good in the Woods…

In many respects, Sleeping Beauty is a very conservative movie – from its production through to its plotting, through to its characters and the workings that the world they inhabit. Even by the standards of the time, and the attitudes of Disney itself, Sleeping Beauty feels like the movie most open to feminist criticism. It is the most archetypal and most straightforward of the classic “princess” stories. While Disney was never a studio to blaze feminist trailers, releasing Sleeping Beauty on the cusp o the sixties felt like a mistake.

Of course, a lot of this comes down to the choice of story to adapt. Barring the opening sequence of Aurora as a child, the heroine of Sleeping Beauty famously spends less than twenty minutes on screen. That’s not necessarily a problem – Anthony Hopkins made quite an impression with a similar amount of screentime in The Silence of the Lambs. However, Aurora exists primarily as an object to be protected and stolen and courted and won. She spends most of the movie locked away from the world, and a significant portion waiting for a kiss from Prince Phillip.

He's a little tied up at present...

He’s a little tied up at present…

It could be argued that this adaptation of Sleeping Beauty does try to minimise some of the unfortunate subtext of the original fable. In Multiculturalism and the Mouse, Douglas Brode argues that “Disney’s version transforms that macho parable into a feminist fable”, drawing attention to how Phillip needs the help of the fairies to free Aurora:

It is they who break his chains, they who provide a bridge for him to escape over a dangerous moat, they who cut away the thorn hedge, and they who finally transform his ordinary sword into a magical weapon, able to conquer the dragon barring his way. Without a team of capable, clever women accompanying him across dangerous ground, Disney’s hapless prince would not succeed.

It’s not a bad argument, even if it is somewhat undermined by the way that rest of the film treats the three fairies as comic relief. It’s their silly magical argument over the colour of the dress that leads Maleficent to Aurora after all, an argument that continues even as Aurora and Phillip enjoy a waltz together. It doesn’t help that the first gift bestowed upon Aurora is “beauty.”

Occasions where it is apparently perfectly okay to assume consent...

Occasions where it is apparently perfectly okay to assume consent…

Sleeping Beauty treats Aurora as a woman with no agency. When her own desires conflict with that of her elders, Sleeping Beauty makes it clear that she really just needs to listen to them. When she falls in love with a handsome stranger, it turns out to be the boy that her father has chosen for her to marry. The fact that Aurora is unhappy about her arranged marriage has nothing to do with everybody else presuming to make her decisions for her, and more to do with the fact that she doesn’t have all the information of those around her. She just needs to heed their advice.

So all the other characters fret around Aurora. Stefan, her father, and Hubert, Phillip’s father, seem to have absolutely everything planned out around her. “Want to see our grandchildren, don’t we?” Hubert asks Stefan, during a conversation about the pending nuptials. Aurora may not have been properly introduced to Phillip, but that won’t stop the men around her from planning the rest of life for her. When Aurora decides to follow a strange light into a strange room without alerting anybody, the fairies fret, “Oh, why did we leave her alone?” She may be old enough to marry and have kids, but she’s not old enough to have her privacy respected.

Fire at Phil!

Fire at Phil!

Which brings us to Maleficent, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film. She is a wicked witch. This much is self-evident. She had an army of stupid pig men. Everybody says that she is evil. Nobody really articulates why she is evil, it is just accepted that Maleficent is completely beyond redemption. We’re told that “a great holiday was proclaimed throughout the kingdom, so that all of high or low estate might pay homage to the infant princess”, but Maleficent is pointedly left off the guest list. When she asks why, she is curtly informed, “You weren’t wanted.”

When Maleficent arrives, the response of the assembled fairies isn’t fear or terror, but indignance. “What does she want here?” Merryweather asks. As the three fairies discuss their options, Fauna offers, “Well, perhaps if we can reason with her…” The other two reject the idea out of hand. “Well, she can’t be all bad?” Fauna asks. “Oh yes she can,” Flora responds, matter-of-factly. There’s never any real question of that, and never any real motivation offered.

Walk into the light...

Walk into the light…

Of course, they are correct. Maleficent is evil. She shows up and curses the princess. The movie adopts a particularly religious subtext in the portrayal of Maleficent’s evil. She promises to attack Phillip with “all the powers of hell!” before turning into a gigantic evil dragon. Phillip is only able to stand against her due to his “weapons of righteousness.” There’s a rather heavy Christian undercurrent to all of this.

However, despite all of this, it is sixteen years before Maleficent actually does anything. Stefan and Hubert don’t seem too bothered by her antics, and she doesn’t seem to pose that much of a threat to the stability of the kingdom. As far as the audience can see, the only real reason to hate and mistrust Maleficent is because she is a postmenopausal woman in a position of authority. (Which seems to be enough to make her a villain in a Disney film of this era.) She rules her own castle and commands her own army, yet is not treated as an equal to Stefan or Hubert.

War of the... well, they aren't roses...

War of the… well, they aren’t roses…

Sleeping Beauty suggests that the role of a queen is to stand silently beside her husband and have lots of babies to continue the family line. After all, Stefan’s wife doesn’t even get a name. The Queen is practically an extra who stands alongside her King. As such, Maleficent, an empowered woman who has neither taken a husband nor produced any children, is portrayed as an abomination. There’s something very reactionary and unsettling about that.

(That said, at least Maleficent is spared the sort of flaws that defined the evil Queen from Snow White, Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, Cruella DeVille or even the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Maleficent is not completely insane, nor is she motivated solely by insecurity about her appearance. Obviously, her anger at the social snub reflects some element of vanity, but the two-dimensional portrayal of Maleficent means that she avoids a lot of the more sexist clichés used to characterise these sorts of evil women in the early Disney films.)

Here there be dragons!

Here there be dragons!

And yet, despite – or perhaps because of – these problems, Sleeping Beauty still feels like a very classic piece of Disney. It’s quite possibly the most archetypal of Disney’s “princess” stories, the one with the most basic of structures and the least embellishment on the established formula. As such, it makes for a strangely compelling viewing experience, as if mainlining the classic Disney storytelling techniques, applied with the least twist or flair and the most pragmatic efficiency.

Sleeping Beauty – for better or worse – feels very much like a typical Disney film from the time. It’s the one with the least unique flavour, but that is arguably part of the appeal.

2 Responses

  1. While “Sleeping Beauty” may not remembered for it’s humor, there is actually quite a bit of funny moments between the fairies. The dress color argument is funny (as is the magic-color tossing fight) and there is some amusing moments between the two kings. Overall, the humor is more subtle but it’s certainly there.

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