Director: Clyde Geronimi
Cast: Mary Costa, Eleanor Audley, Bill Shirley, Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, Barbara Luddy, Taylor Holmes
Plot: Scorned at not being invited to the christening of the new princess, Maleficent (Audley) curses the child to death on her sixteenth birthday.
Sleeping Beauty has a major issue as soon as it begins and that is the fact that, for pretty much two thirds of the film, it’s lead character is either a baby or asleep. The film opens with the title princess being born and soon after cursed by the villainous Maleficent, one part upset at the lack of an invite, one part just a regular ass-hole. The King and three fairy godmothers spend the next twenty minutes of the film, trying to come up with a way to stop the curse from happening on her sixteenth birthday as prophesied. Therefore, by the time we see Aurora, in full Princess mode, the film has already sky-rocketed to the meat of the story. Walt Disney tries to make up for lost time for burying her in the stereotypical Disney Princess checklist: blonde hair, at one with nature, prone to being merry in the woods over the smallest thing… Before we have time to get to know her as a character, she has already succumbed to the curse and spends the rest of the movie, asleep in a bed. As a result, she is easily the weakest heroine we have had yet. It’s hardly her fault, but her only two real scenes are simpering over a Prince or sobbing over a Prince. At the very least, similar princesses like Snow White and Cinderella had scenes in between the lovelorn bits, where they could step away from the stereotypes and feel like individuals. Thankfully, Sleeping Beauty boasts a great range of colourful characters to make the supporting faces the saviours of the film. In many ways, this is the film where the handsome Prince gets to do something. Prince Philip actively gets to hack and slash his way through the story, earning the title that the other men in fairy tales are given with before they’ve earned it. Sure, his character is still a staple of cliches, but at least he does more than show up. It ends up falling to the three fairy godmothers to shoulder the film and surprisingly they do so with ease. Merryweather, Fauna and Flora are sadly never remembered as well as the rest of the character list, despite perhaps being the true heroes of the piece. Fairies whose magic can only be used to bring happiness and joy to the world, they are instantly on the back-foot in this power struggle with Maleficent, but their resourcefulness, intelligence and kindness becomes their most powerful weapons. Willing to devote sixteen years of their life living without magic and solely for the Princess, they are tremendous heroes, making up for a lack of a central character. It helps that their bickering wins the movie’s biggest laughs. However, this Disney is all about the villain. Maleficent, as proven by the remake dedicated to unlocking the bad guy of the tale, is an incredible display of true villainy. She takes the key factors that made Snow White’s Queen so despicable and adds a sense of fun. She enjoys being horrible, which makes her acts all the more skin-crawling. She also looks the part, dressed in black and with pale skin. Her piercing eyes could fuel a film all by themselves. Whenever she is on-screen, Sleeping Beauty is that little bit better.
In fact, Sleeping Beauty threatens to be the most visually impressive Disney yet. Sure, it hasn’t quite got as many glorious frames that you appreciate the hand-crafted precision of, which the older Snow White and Pinocchio boasted, but in general, there is a smoothness to the art. And with a heightened sense of artistic talent, Geronimi raises the bar to what a Disney film can achieve. We haven’t had a story this typical fairy tale since Snow White, a saga complete with magical kingdoms, evil anthropomorphic henchmen and fairy godmothers. With an art style that can re-tackle this style of story-telling, the ending feels like Disney trying to give us a heightened sense of fairy tale adventure. The Prince has to race through rows of enemies, hack through a jungle of thorns and then take on a dragon. As you watch Prince Philip battling with a gigantic, monstrous dragon, you cannot help but admire how far these Disney films have come. Sure, Sleeping Beauty never hits the emotional level of the smaller Disney stories like Bambi or Lady and the Tramp, but in terms of set-pieces, this could be the finest yet. The older Disney films are always judged on the power of their moments, those scenes you can remember twenty years after watching the movie. Sleeping Beauty is no exception. There is a reason the 2014 remake copied the christening scene almost identically: it works, cutting to the point and solidifying the sense of threat which carries the film. Maleficent also gets to shine in her dungeons taunting Prince Charming, as well as the moment where she tricks Aurora into pricking her finger on the spinning wheel. Then there is, of course, true love’s first kiss. The issue with Disney movies is that they are too easy a target for feminist debates and cynical critics. Sleeping Beauty has this issue exacerbated because of Aurora’s absence for the whole movie. She has everything done for her and relies on her parents, godmothers and suitors to save her. However, can’t we just enjoy something for the magic of a moment? The true love’s kiss is such an iconic moment that it feels a shame to muddy the spectacle with an over-critical eye.
And as ever with Disney films, the older ones at the very least, there are morals to be taken from it. Again, Aurora’s absence means that the story doesn’t feel as aimed at the women, as much as it does the rest of the cast. For me, this was a story about the parents. Maleficent is a symbol for inevitability; she promises that Aurora’s curse will come true on an exact point of time and the parents rush around, trying to do everything in their power to stop this. It seems too convenient that it is Aurora’s sixteenth birthday when everything is meant to go pear-shaped. This is perhaps a lesson about letting go of your daughter, as she finishes puberty and is ready to go off on her own for the first time. The parents have a problem with letting go. The scene where King Stefan proceeds to destroy every spinning wheel in the kingdom, trying to assure Aurora of never coming into contact with one, is especially powerful. He is trying to control Aurora’s world out of fear. He also gives her away to her godmothers, essentially missing out on the best years of her life, in terms of daughter-parent bonding. In fearing the inevitable, he has accidentally missed out on getting to know his daughter. And, of course, the inevitable happens anyway, Aurora falling for the curse and Maleficent robbing the parents of sixteen years of time spent with their daughter. Perhaps this reading is hurt by the fact that the fairy godmothers put the kingdom, including the parents to sleep, for the duration of the curse, meaning we never get to quite see this line of thought climax with the enraged reaction of King Stefan. However, it is, of course, a means to an end, explaining why there is one only Prince who can save the day and who am I to rob a Disney film of its happy ending?
Final Verdict: It suffers from a lack of a strong lead heroine, but makes up for it surprisingly well with a great villain, superb art and strong moments.