Natural Born Reviewers | Disney’s Sleeping Beauty
We are so excited for Maleficent! In the meantime, a look at its predecessor, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959). The story begins when the king and queen are finally blessed with a daughter and invite the whole kingdom to celebrate, omitting the wicked Maleficent. She answers this offense by cursing Princess Aurora to death at age 16 upon pricking her finger on a spindle. Merryweather, one of the three good fairies, transforms the fate of death to sleep instead. The fairies then decide to eschew magic and raise Aurora as “Briar Rose” on their own, away from the kingdom, in an effort to keep her hidden from Maleficent.
Marnifer: Before I rewatched this I had memories that Aurora was the ultimate Disney princess in the most negative and passive sense of the stereotype: that she does nothing but stupidly touch a very sharp needle, then sleep until she’s saved by a man — playing no part whatsoever in her own outcome. I was surprised to find how wrong my impressions had been and how much I enjoyed the movie. Although Aurora has little to do with her own conclusion, it’s not a mark of her being a non-person. Instead it reflects how sometimes bad things just happen which we have no control over, a difficult but important lesson.
Liamfer: Since I hadn’t really watched this as a kid, I just accepted it when people complained that Sleeping Beauty was the worst Disney Princess. They called her useless, passive, and just an object or MacGuffin in her own story. Unexpectedly I found the treatment rather even-handed. Everyone in this film is practically useless. The good fairies border on gross incompetence, the prince needs a magic sword & shield (and manages to lose both in battle), the two kings are bickering idiots, the queen has one line (at least the parents survive!), the soldiers sleep on duty, the evil forces are bumbling idiots, and so on. The only competent characters are Maleficent and the anthropomorphic woodland animals.
Marnifer: I did keep asking myself, who is the main character? Is there a character arc? Although the story is named for Aurora, I can’t consider her the protagonist. There really isn’t one. Sleeping Beauty embraces fairy tale storytelling, a more historical-style accounting of events. Women here have the chance to represent several roles and types of the female animal, between the three fairies, the queen, Aurora and Maleficent. Maleficent isn’t evil because she’s a woman, she just happens to be a woman who’s evil. Women can be comical or stern, bungling or graceful, pragmatic and fanciful, or like the queen, who is so useless and tangential she doesn’t even warrant a name. Sleeping Beauty is also much funnier than I remembered. My favorite line comes courtesy of Prince Philip: “Father, you’re living in the past. This is the 14th century!”
Liamfer: While playing a rather small part in her own story, Aurora/Briar Rose is the most sympathetic character in this film. Maleficent may be competent; the good fairies may be quirky; the prince may be blandly heroic; but the title character has thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and emotions. While most characters (in this and other films) are overly focused on the plot and reacting to events, Briar Rose is unaware of the other events so we get to see a more authentic everyday side of her.
Marnifer: My initial prejudice against the film comes from my problems with the story’s origins. Sleeping Beauty is my least favorite fairy tale of all. The earliest versions are damned creepy, handing the princess a much darker fate than later sanitized tales. The original stories have the prince raping and impregnating the unconscious princess; she gives birth while still asleep and one of the twins wakes her in an attempt to suckle. This disturbingness speaks to the chronic misogynistic representation of women as objects to be claimed, of women relegated to being a man’s reward.
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is fairly innocuous in this regard. Aurora does at least meet and hit it off with Prince Philip before slipping into a magical coma. Prince Philip may even be sillier and more starry-eyed than Aurora. After all, Aurora’s fantasies are based on her loneliness and isolation. They’re really just her longing for human connections beyond her three fairy surrogate mothers.
Liamfer: The romance amuses me. Briar Rose falls in love with the first man she meets and he falls in love with her as well. While at first it seems obvious that she’s obsessing, Prince Philip’s reaction leads me to believe that maybe they really were dreaming about each other for quite some time. While destiny and prophecy are SO overdone, in this world of fantasy and magic it seems believable. It also amuses me that in the end when the Prince shows up with the peasant girl he intends to marry, everyone just assumes she much be Princess Aurora. It happens that she is, but her having been in seclusion since infancy means Philip really could have brought anyone of the right gender and approximate age and passed her off as the Princess.
Marnifer: Two big plot things still bother me. First, it’s the king and queen’s deliberate oversight that sets their doom. Think what a simple fix if they had just invited Maleficent to the celebration. The more irritating matter is that no one warns Aurora about spindles or the curse. This is true of every version of the tale — the king simply outlaws the use or possession of spindles and spinning wheels and thinks, “Phew! Well that does it then. Let’s never warn our daughter to look out for sharp pointy things.” Of course, without this insistence on keeping the princess in the dark she might not have been as tempted by the foreign object. But think how equally interesting it would be if her parents had been smart enough to prepare her, but instead of steering clear she has an uncontrollable curiosity about spinning wheels and fights the urge to explore forbidden fruit. Through magical possession and a hypnotising spell, Disney takes the decision out of Aurora’s hands because here, no matter how the good guys attempted to save Aurora and thwart the spell, Maleficent’s curse is a fate which must run its course.
Liamfer: When Maleficent is brought to an end, her spell effects (such as the field of thorns) disappear. Aurora and the kingdom remain sleeping because the sleep spells were cast by the good fairies. This brings up two interesting lines of thought. First, if Maleficent’s spell had killed Aurora (as originally intended) would she have been raised from the dead? Second, why didn’t Maleficent target Merryweather (the blue fairy) whose gift changed death to sleep? Was a fairy gift different from the spells Maleficent cast? While there are some outstanding questions about how magic works in this fantasy, it is at least internally consistent and worthy of thought and exploration. I like this kind of magic — it is interesting, has limitations, and isn’t just a crutch for bad writing.
Marnifer: Maleficent’s entrance is so grand and menacing, like the dragon she later becomes. For me she is the most interesting character, and it’s easy to see why the upcoming retelling would make her the central figure. She’s the one you really want to know more about. She’s dynamic and commands instant attention. She is a delicious creeping evil. Her name has always been one of my favorites. I know it’s a word unto itself meaning evil and doing harm; I prefer to think of it as a portmanteau of malicious and magnificent. Maliciously magnificent — is there a more fitting description of this character?
Liamfer: This is a beautiful film. The artistry is gorgeous, and the slow pace and story is an especially refreshing change from the usual action-action-comedy-action mode of filmmaking. It reminds me a lot of Fantasia, and I wish the DVD included a music-only audio track (the “restored original soundtrack” audio track includes the dialogue as well).
Marnifer: There is great use of color! Maleficent gets notes of frightening radioactive green, as opposed to Fauna’s comforting, earthy green. Maleficent is also black and purple, both menacing and royal. The good fairies’ red, green, and blue scheme is mirrored in the birds Aurora sings to in the forest.
Liamfer: The commentary discusses the impressive art direction — keeping everything in focus, the highly detailed backgrounds, and angular geometry versus roundness. The mimicry of medieval paintings and tapestries is particularly noteworthy.
Marnifer: Look at the backdrops, I mean really LOOK at how exquisite they are. It’s easy to ignore while watching the action up front, but the “sets” are such amazing art.
They accomplished a visual marvel all around. Sleeping Beauty represents the work of a lot of talented, dedicated people hoping to make a little art in the guise of children’s entertainment. It’s a classic for a reason, and if you haven’t seen it in a while it’s worth another viewing.
NEXT WEEK: The OTHER Sleeping Beauty…