Posted December 4, 2010 by editor in Retrospectives

Disney: Sleeping Beauty

Come the end of the 1950’s the Disney Empire was growing to new awesome heights of success and popularity and with a string of box-office hits under its belt (including Lady and The Tramp, the highest grossing Disney film since Snow White) Disney were set to take production to the next level with their 1959 release, Sleeping Beauty. Costing over $6m to produce it was the most expensive film to date but following mixed reviews it would only take $7.7m at the box office, an understandably huge disappointment for Disney.

Way back when, Sleeping Beauty was one of my favourite films, the perfect combination of romance, peril and sassy teenage angst to feed my evolving female mind. Although based on a classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty bares startling resemblance to Snow White in its plot: evil witch jealous of young girl’s beauty and wants her dead, ergo beautiful maiden lives an austere yet content existence in the forest with woodland for critters for friends until she unexpectedly meets her true love… the resemblance is certainly there, but Sleeping Beauty has a whole different attitude from Snow White, perhaps a reason for its comparably poor box office performance. Snow White is pure, dignified and earnest whereas Sleeping Beauty is feisty, bold and incredibly self-aware.

Anthropologists tend to have a field day with Sleeping Beauty what with the whole ‘pricking her finger at the age of sixteen and dying’ thing supposedly referring to her coming of age and losing the innocence of youth (not to mention what the word ‘die’ was slang for in Elizabethan times. Google that one!). And certainly the sixteen year old Aurora, or Briar Rose to call her by her forest dweller name, seems incredibly canny for her upbringing by the three simple(ton) fairy-folk Flora, Fauna and the incorrigible Merryweather… But she’s a lot more human for her lively personality, and the same (thankfully) can be said for the dashing Prince Phillip who seems to be the first Disney Prince to have any form of plausible personality.

Given that this is the case it is somewhat odd that the film’s criticism was centred mostly on its lack of character development, for its characters are some of the most human to come out of a Disney film until very recently. Price Phillip particularly, although certainly not lacking in prince-like bravado, has a degree of spunk about him and unlike the prescribed Disney Prince is not fixated on the idea of marrying a princess, much to the dismay of his father. After meeting Briar Rose, of course unaware that she is his betrothed Princess Aurora, he quite glibly announces to the court that actually, he’d much rather run off with a “p-p-p-peasant” girl. “After all, it is the fourteenth century.” Has this boy got gall or what?

Sleeping Beauty can also boast one of Disney’s most memorable songs, perhaps because the music is based on the original Tchaikovsky ballet. Everybody knows and no doubt loves ‘Once Upon A Dream’ and to rank it amongst the likes of ‘A Whole New World’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in the Most Romantic Disney Song would not be unreasonable. However, some of the music is something to be desired. The setting of the film in the Fourteenth Century seems to have been taken to heart by the composers, whose arrangement of songs including ‘Hail to the Princess Aurora’ and the title song, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ would seem more fitting in the Middle Ages than the 1950s. As for the numbers sung by Aurora herself, no amount of historical stuffiness could dampen her inherent beauty, as after all she was blessed with the ‘gift of song’ at birth. ‘I wonder’ is not only beautifully sung by Mary Costa, the voice of the princess, but arranged with such delicacy that it is no wonder Prince Phillip initially mistakes her voice for a mysterious bird.

Without the input of the jealous and evil High Priestess Maleficent, there would be no singing in the forest of running off with peasant girls; so intent on evil is she, that the Kingdom of… Unspecified Land sacrifices its princess for sixteen years so that she might avoid the curse put upon her at birth by Maleficent and survive into adulthood.

And truly, Maleficent is pure evil. Even the optimistic fairy Fauna comments that “I don’t think Maleficent’s very happy” (perhaps a contender for understatement of the year?). The animators have captured her to a tee and on screen she is truly terrifying, appearing and disappearing in pools of toxic green mist and able to turn into a fire breathing dragon at the drop of a hat. Eleanor Audley perfectly voices the wicked witch, whose treacherous cackle would give the Wicked Witch of the West a run for her money any day of the week. It’s just unfortunate that with all her power and rage she never quite manages to overpower the forces of good, which never fail to nip her in the bud by turning her boiling tar into rainbows, her arrows into flowers and so on.

“True Love conquers all” boom the outdated choir at one point during the film. True love and a healthy dose of magic would be more accurate, but regardless Sleeping Beauty really shells out on the feel good factor and will no doubt continue to delight girls young and old as long as the innate feminine dream lives on: whether princess or peasant and no matter how many times you get trapped by an ugly, old dragon, somewhere out there a handsome prince on his noble steed is galloping across the rocky terrain to bestow you with true love’s first kiss.

Dani Singer