Welcome to Cinematical Movie Club, your weekly chance to watch great films and chat about them with fellow readers every Monday night. This week's pick: Disney's princess-filled classic: 'Sleeping Beauty.'
When it comes to Disney Princesses, let's face it: Aurora is pretty lame. Love her though we may, she's not exactly a strong figure to fuel the world of 'Sleeping Beauty.' In fact, for a lead character, she has a shockingly small amount of time on-screen, with Wikipedia measuring it as fewer than 18 minutes, if you don't count her time as a baby. Eighteen minutes! She's also the lady who killed Disney's princess world altogether for 30 years, until 'The Little Mermaid' brought the form back in 1989.
Nevertheless, 'Sleeping Beauty' is now one of the most respected offerings in the Disney canon. Though Aurora's face (perhaps unfairly) keeps the story alive in Disney merchandise, the enduring love and respect are due to the world around the princess -- the artistry, supporting roles and perfectly villainous Maleficent.
Though as a child I always thought that I loved Aurora, and wanted to be the perfect, singing princess that she was, in later years I realized it was because of the beauty of the film, not the beauty of the, well, Beauty. She simply pales in comparison to the world around her -- especially the fairies, the music and the imagery -- and is little more than the MacGuffin for the plot.
The Three Good Fairies -- Flora, Fauna and Merryweather -- are like comforting, bickering aunts, full of all the motherly care one can muster, plus a great dose of snark and disagreement. Being fairies who live on magic, they lack all the human subtleties, unable to take on simple tasks like read a recipe or follow a sewing pattern. (Good thing fairies are made from a baby's laugh and not sex -- they're quite hopeless about human goings-on.) And though the fairies were whittled from seven to three, and only gave Aurora the gifts of beauty and song (wit was sadly lost from the source material), they also have this nice little battle over color, the quirky Merryweather fighting for Aurora to wear blue when Flora is so determined to swath her in pink. "Oh no, not pink! Make it blue."
And they're perfectly balanced by the best evil figure Disney has ever produced -- Maleficent.
Though the artists who created her crafted her perfectly, it's Eleanor Audley's command of the villainess that makes Maleficent so memorable. Her voice rips through the animation, accosting us as if we're watching a scary movie rather than an animated family film. Maleficent always seemed the most sinister and chilling of the Disney villains, even if -- in most ways -- her evilness was questionable -- a possible sign of a fairy led to the dark side rather than a figure who lives and breathes only through the powers of hell. Audley's voice in the role is, in fact, so charismatic that it's not so hard to start rooting for Maleficent, rather than that singing girl we barely see on the screen, who is so boring she must be blessed by fairies. (Seriously -- what would Aurora be like if she wasn't blessed by the fairies? Large warts and a Fran Drescher voice? That's all she has going for her!)
Maleficent's vocal charisma bleeds into the music, which seems so much more epic than what came before or after. By taking Tchaikovsky's notes from the 'Sleeping Beauty' ballet, the film's sound seems richer, almost atmospheric rather than musical. It's not so much "insert chipper Disney song here" to push the plot forward and allow characters to dance, but an element of the story, as important as the characters or art.
And oh, the art. Crafted over the course of a decade, it doesn't feel hyperbolic to state that 'Sleeping Beauty' is stunning, much more a work of art than a simple, straightforward animated film. The last hand-inked Disney feature, those detailed backgrounds required days more work than other Disney films. There are only few times and scenes where every space on the cell isn't overflowing with detail and texture, from bricks on the path to the castle to the lush backdrop of the forest, which Prince Phillip races through. And even the animation has a realistic air to it, which is no doubt due to the fact that the entire film was also shot in live action, so the animators had a real life point of reference. (Below, Helene Stanley dances as Aurora.)
And these grand strokes are only a part of it. Now I realize that the magic of 'Sleeping Beauty' is in the myriad of ways it can be viewed and appreciated, whether for the evilness of Maleficent, the perfect romance of your arranged marriage being to the man of your dreams or simply one drunk steward who sneaks drinks behind his king's back.
- Where does 'Sleeping Beauty' rank on your list of Disney favorites?
- Does the fact that Aurora is in only a small fraction of the film influence your enjoyment of the movie, either for the better or worse?
- The film had a very disappointing initial box office take (it helped bring about the first early fiscal loss for the company and many layoffs) that was only changed in later re-releases. Why wasn't the film loved from the get-go?
- In the next Girls on Film (coming later tonight), I discuss the news that Disney is eager to move away from princesses for the time being. Is this the right move? Will 'The Princess and the Frog' -- which has been cited as part of the reason for Disney's weariness towards the princesses -- become a lasting gem like 'Beauty'?