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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

“Now Father, You’re Living in the Past. This is the Fourteenth Century!”

         I need to apologize to my readers right up front.  I must confess that I have an extremely biased opinion towards Sleeping Beauty because it is one of my all time favorite Disney films.  It’s easily in my top five.  If I had to pick just one of the golden age Disney fairy tale films to be superior in terms of art, animation, and story, I would have to give it to this one.  Yes, I would choose it over my personal favorite, Snow White, but this is a choice of pure logic, not of sentimentality.  It was also Walt’s favorite of his fairy tales and for good reason.
            First of all, have you seen this movie?  Like literally, have you ever watched it on mute?  When you’ve done that, are you surprised that you were never bored?  Someone said on the Platinum Edition documentary that if you paused on any frame of this film, you would be faced with a perfectly composed piece of artwork.  I’ve tried this experiment, and I have to say that they were indeed correct.  Sleeping Beauty is possibly the most perfect film as far as pure aesthetics go.
            That’s due in no small part to the influence of background artist, Eyvind Earle, who did a small amount of work on Lady and the Tramp for the date night scene.  Walt Disney had been lamenting that they had such talented artists working at the studio, like Earle and Mary Blair, but their artwork barely made it into the final film in its original form.  In a bold move never before attempted, Disney decided to have one artist’s vision decide every aspect of the film’s look, from character designs, to color, and especially in backgrounds (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053285/trivia). 
            When I was a kid watching Disney flicks, I didn’t pay much heed to the backgrounds.  As an adult watching Sleeping Beauty, it’s hard to notice anything else.  It doesn’t matter what scene it is, each one is so detailed that it’s hard to say if they were leaning towards photo-realism or renaissance artwork.  The forest scenes are a particular standout for me.  The incredible amount of detail on the tree bark alone was breathtaking.  Everything felt as though there was a texture to it, as if you could run your hands over the painted background and it would feel like wood instead of dry paint.
            That isn’t to say that the character animation should be brushed aside in favor of the backgrounds.  It doesn’t get more refined and fluid than it does in this movie.  The characters look better in this film released back in 1959 than a lot of animation released today.  Each character has a presence that’s unmistakably their own.
            Let’s start with the lady herself.  The first time I ever watched the documentary on the Platinum Edition of Beauty and the Beast, someone being interviewed said of Belle that they were not out to design the most beautiful heroine Disney has ever created.  My immediate response to this statement was, “No, that was Aurora.”  From a purely physical beauty standpoint, none of the princesses can top Aurora.  Her face is angular and gorgeous, and her hair isn’t some boring yellow blonde color; it’s a shimmering gold color that looks like it feels absolutely luscious to the touch. 
            Her beauty is due in no small part to two people: Marc Davis, Aurora’s animator, and Mary Costa, Aurora’s voice.  If you’ve ever seen a picture of Costa, it’s clear to see that Mr. Davis was inspired in large part by her face when he designed Aurora.  Costa’s voice was absolutely astonishing.  When she spoke, she had such a rich, vivacious voice that was feminine while still managing to be elegant.  But the greatest thing Costa brought to the role was her un-freaking-believable singing voice.
Adrianna Caselotti was Disney’s first use of opera singers when she voiced Snow White, but Mary Costa could just belt the most beautiful melodies with the drop of a hat.  Just listen to the way she sings simply when she walks through the forest.  She’s not even singing a song and it’s one of the most beautiful sounds ever recorded for a Disney film. About the only thing that could top it was Costa’s rendition of “Once Upon a Dream,” another one of the great Disney love songs.
In grand tradition of the Disney princess, Aurora does not simply walk from point a to point b.  She dances and sashays with the grace of a prima ballerina.  This film made use of live action reference possibly more than any other Disney film.  Walt wanted the movements to be as close to real life as possible, so he utilized the talents of one Helene Stanley to perform as Aurora (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleeping_Beauty_(1959_film)).  In fact, one of the first jobs Alice Davis, Marc Davis’ wife, did for the Disney Company was to create a fully realized version of Aurora’s peasant dress for Helene Stanley to wear as she posed for reference. 
Though Aurora definitely leaves an impression, she actually has the notorious distinction of having second place for a title character with the least amount of speaking lines (Dumbo, who doesn’t speak at all during his film, is in first).  Because of this, a lot of people allege that Aurora does not have as much personality as the other Disney princesses might.  To those people, I say the film is called Sleeping Beauty.  The plot hinges a great deal on the title character being asleep for a large amount of the film’s running time.
Sleeping Beauty doesn’t suffer from the lack of time spent with the film’s heroine; the movie is fortunate to have arguably one of the best supporting casts in all of the Disney films.  This is especially true for the film’s hero, Prince Phillip.  Now if there are any golden age characters that receive huge amounts of harsh criticism from fans and casual moviegoers alike, it is most definitely the fairy tales’ princes.  In Snow White, he was simply known as the Prince and appeared only at the beginning and at the end.  In Cinderella, he is given the generic prince name, Prince Charming, even though he is never called by name in the film and he leaves the duty of finding the maiden who fits the one shoe to the Duke; he doesn’t even bother himself.
But if you know what was going on behind the scenes, then you know that the Princes’ lack of screen time was not their fault.  In animation’s early days, the animators had trouble animating a convincing human male.  Originally, both of their roles had been much, much larger in their respective films, but because they couldn’t be done justice by the animators, their roles in the final product were trimmed down drastically.  This was not the case with Prince Phillip.
Prince Phillip (voiced by Bill Shirley, who apparently Mary Costa was quite smitten with during the film’s production) is one of the reasons the film works so well.  It’s clear that the early difficulties with accurately portraying men are a thing of the past by the time we get to Sleeping Beauty.  Because – speaking as a heterosexual twenty-five year old female – Phillip is a stud.  For the first time in Disney history, the Prince is equal to the Princess in terms of animation and character development. 
And for the first time, the Prince has a personality that goes a bit further than one duet with the heroine.  He has a sense of humor, evident from his interactions with his horse, Samson.  In fact one of my favorite little moments in the film comes from his one big scene with King Hubert.  His father is going on a tirade and is holding his crown as though he is about to chuck it to the ground.  Before he can do that, Phillip appears behind him quickly grabbing the crown before any permanent damage can be done.  I loved it because it felt like something that Phillip has had to do on a couple of occasions when his father lost it.
That being said, Phillip proves that he can be the valiant hero when the occasion calls for it.  And the occasion definitely called for it in the film’s legendary climax.  You know what scene I’m talking about.  It’s probably the most famous scene from this film; I know it’s Disney’s most famous action scene.  Directed by the Nine Old Men’s answer to Michael Bay, Wolfgang Reitherman, the scene where Phillip faces off against a forest of thorns before finally confronting Maleficent in her dragon-ness is the battle between good and evil incarnate. 
Of course, the hero only makes up one half of the good versus evil equation.  Phillip’s deeds would not have been so daring had it not been for one helluva formidable villain.  UltimateDisney.com rated her the greatest Disney villain of all time.  She is the main villain in everything from Fantasmic! to Kingdom Hearts.  She is the one and only Maleficent.
So why is Maleficent so great?  Well, first of all: “Now you shall deal with me, O Prince – and all the powers of Hell!”
… Do I need to say anymore?  Well, yes I do.  I have this to say: dragon.  Freakin’ huge black dragon that breathes green fire.  There.  Now I’m done.  Okay, I don’t need to say anymore, but I want to say more.
It could be because her design undeniably evil.  Marc Davis (yep, same guy that animated Aurora) was her supervising animator so she was beautiful to look at in a strange way.  Her face is, in a lot of ways, similar to Aurora’s except for the nose, chin, and skin color.  It’s a shame, but a lot of the artwork produced now that features her makes her skin this lime green.  Even her face character in the parks looks more like the Wicked Witch of the West than the film version of Maleficent.  The truth is her skin color is a very subtle gray-green; it’s almost the color of comic book corpses.  I think the film version of Maleficent is much more eerie and terrifying than any version recreated of the character today.
Adding only to Maleficent’s character are the amazing vocal chords of Eleanor Audley.  Same lady that voiced the stepmother in Cinderella, and though both women were truly wicked to the bone, their evil ways were very different.  Lady Tremaine was a still character, making slight shifts in her eyes terrifying.  She was manipulative from behind the scenes.  Maleficent makes her presence known from her introductory scene and captivates all attention no matter what scene she is in.  It’s a testament to the talent of Audley that she was able to perform both characters masterfully.
A lot of people try to downplay Maleficent’s awesomeness by saying that she freaked out over not being invited to a christening.  I never looked at it that way.  I think she would have cursed Princess Aurora even if she had been invited to the party.  Why?  She said it herself; she is “the mistress of all evil.”  She didn’t doom Aurora’s life because she was snubbed; she did it because she’s evil and likes to cause pain and suffering.
One of Maleficent’s scenes that I feel does not get talked about enough is when she is luring Aurora to the tower where the cursed spinning wheel is kept.  It was the scene I remember the most from the film as a kid because of how eerie it was.  Aurora is bathed in this green light throughout, which makes her look downright strange, and her face is expressionless except for this one eyebrow she has arched in an unnatural manner.  The music playing is haunting and taunting and puts the audience on edge; I only found much later as an adult that this terrifying music is a comedic piece entitled “Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat.”  Go figure.

But what I remember most about this scene is the sound of the fairies’ frantically looking for Aurora throughout the catacombs of stairs.  That echoing “Rose!” is something that stayed with me as a kid.  Then there comes the moment of truth when Aurora is finally confronted with that spinning wheel.  I love that she remembers herself briefly and pulls her finger back with a grimace on her face, but all it takes is Maleficent’s insistent, powerful voice and Aurora’s finger just barely touches the spindle.  The scene never fails to give me chills each time I watch it.
Enter the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.  Their role in Sleeping Beauty is kind of similar to the role of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.  They take care of Aurora but they are also there to guide Phillip when he needs them to lead him to his ladylove.  Originally they had planned for there to be not three but seven good fairies.  Obviously quality over quantity won out because the three good fairies we are left with is each awesome in their own ways. 
            Flora (granted her voice by the ultimate fairy godmother, Verna Felton) is obviously the leader (or at least, she likes to believe she is) with a fondness for pretty pink things, like flowers.  After all, her gift to Aurora was the gift of beauty.  Merryweather (previously heard as the ingénue in Lady and the Tramp, Barbara Luddy) is the devil’s advocate of the group, as she is willing to challenge Flora on almost every issue of discussion.  Since most of the time she’s right, she’s the down to earth one of the group, finding solutions (she was the one who figured out how to counter the curse on Aurora’s life) and preferring the color blue.  Fauna (voiced by a newcomer to Disney, Barbara Jo Allen) is the mediator, the one who sees the glass half full in all situations, no matter how bleak.  She even stuck up for the mistress of all evil herself, Maleficent, at one point.  A true peacekeeper (even favoring the politically correct color, green) she offered no opinion of what color Aurora’s dress should be.  Wanting Aurora to have a skill, she gave her the gift of song.
            The fairies are what move the film forward.  They provide the bulk of the film’s comedic moments and even take part in some of Sleeping Beauty’s more tense and suspenseful scenes.  They were the ones who busted Phillip out of Maleficent’s castle (a plot point that had been originally devised for Snow White).  Merryweather even gets in on the action, turning Diablo, Maleficent’s most trusted raven ally, to stone.
            Of course there are other sources of comedy in the film.  The scene between Stephen and Hubert is awesome.  I laugh every time I see Hubert charging Stephen with the fish. But the truly priceless aspect of this scene was the minstrel who kept swiping sips of wine on the sly.  In fact, this scene inspired a restaurant at Disney World, King Stephen’s Banquet Hall, which was located inside of Cinderella Castle; it was later refurbished into Cinderella’s Royal Table.
Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland
            But you would think a restaurant themed after a Sleeping Beauty character would find a home inside of Sleeping Beauty Castle, the symbol of Disneyland.  While that castle didn’t get a restaurant, it did get something really cool instead.  Inside the castle is a walkthrough depicting the events of the film; it underwent an amazing refurbishment in 2008 to coincide with the Platinum Edition release of Sleeping Beauty.  In fact, Sleeping Beauty Castle is the most used symbol of the Disney theme parks all over the world.  Hong Kong Disneyland has a Sleeping Beauty Castle that’s pretty much identical to its California sister.
Sleeping Beauty Castle in Hong Kong
            But to me the grandest Sleeping Beauty Castle, and possibly one of the more beautiful and elaborate Disney castles in the world, is Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant, or (in English) Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland Paris.  Since Europe is already home to its share of castles, Walt Disney Imagineering knew they would have to create something special for its European market.  The result: a castle as tall as Cinderella Castle down in Florida, but looking as though it had been there for centuries with earth growing up its side.  The inside of the castle houses a gallery that illustrates the story of Sleeping Beauty with tapestries, stained glass windows, and figures.  But what sets this castle apart from all others is what it houses in the darker recesses of its dungeon.  At a whopping eighty-nine feet, below the castle’s depths, is a fully audio-Animatronic dragon of Maleficent.
            I talk a lot about the theme parks on here, because for me, the theme parks and the films go hand in hand.  There wouldn’t have been the theme parks without the films (and in some cases, like Pirates of the Caribbean, vice versa), but going back and watching these films has made me realize something about the parks.  Disneyland, the first Disney theme park, chose Sleeping Beauty Castle to represent it.  Disney World chose Cinderella Castle as its symbol.  Disney’s California Adventure is undergoing a massive refurbishment right now, and one of the things being built is a recreation of the Carthay Circle Theater, specifically the theater the night Snow White premiered back in 1937; it is to serve as the new symbol for that park.
            Does anyone else notice a pattern here?  Three of the most major theme parks on the planet chose all three of the golden age princesses to represent it to the public.  Even though for Disney, it was all started by a mouse, its foundations were created by a princess.    The company became what it is today because of the legacy of three princesses.  Sleeping Beauty was the second highest grossing film of 1959, only behind Ben-Hur.  The theme parks serve an ever-evolving monument to these three princesses, one that new generations flock to pay homage to every day. 

          For instance, animators frequently pay homage to this film in more recent undertakings.  During production of Beauty and the Beast, they ran out of time so when the time came for them to animate Belle and Adam’s finale dance.  Instead of animating a whole new scene, they reused the animation of Phillip and Aurora dancing at the end of Sleeping Beauty.  Even more recent, in The Princess and the Frog, there comes a scene where “Naveen” dances with Charlotte and for a few frames, their waltz is staged to resemble Phillip and Aurora’s dance.  

          Recently, one of my favorite new editions to Walt Disney World is found in Tinkerbell’s Treasures, a shop dedicated to all things Disney Fairy and Disney Princess.  To help promote the new home release of Sleeping Beauty, Imagineers refurbished a wing of the shop to look like a fairy’s dressing room.  Behind the registers is a display featuring Aurora’s beautiful princess dress.  If you hang around long enough, you will periodically hear Flora and Merryweather argue and change the dress to their preferred color.  What’s my opinion on the matter?  Well, I think the picture below that I found on DeviantART sums up my feelings on the issue pretty soundly.

I didn't draw this!  Swing -21 did.  Just making a point.


  1. I'm with you on just about every level. You've touched on so much of what's great about this movie. The design, the villain, Prince Phillip, the brilliant little business between characters, the Shakespearean plot, the best line in the movie, etc.

    This is easily my favorite of all the Disney films of the Walt era. It may be my favorite of all time, only rivaled by Hunchback, Lilo & Stitch and Lion King. It's not JUST a girly princess movie, it's an action movie. It's very dark, but also lots of fun ("It looks awful!" "That's because it's on you, dear.").

    "Once Upon a Dream" is a wonderful marriage of music and lyrics. This movie has one of the best scores ever, adapted from Tchaikovsky.

    The only complaint I could possibly have with the film is that the narrative cares very little about the 16 year jump, and there are logical questions that arise. How did the fairies cope for 16 years without magic? How did the kingdom make do without spinning wheels? HOW THE HECK DID THEY CLOTHE AURORA? But these are questions that really only come after I've seen it so many times. This movie is nearly perfect. Hail to the Princess Aurora!

  2. Sleeping Beauty is definitely one of my favorites as well. The backgrounds are to die for. The one that catches my attention most of the time though is the stone walls of the castle. It seems so real to me.

    I'm pretty sure most singers in the world would kill to have a voice like Mary Costa. I know I would.

    As for Phillip. He's awesome. Once the princes start getting personalities, they tend to make the movie so much more enjoyable. Plus, his action scenes are some of my favorite.

    My two favorite scenes are the scene where Aurora goes and pricks her finger and the scene where the fairies make the birthday cake and the dress.

    As for the fairies, Fauna is such a sweetheart! She's so nice and such an optimist. Merryweather is awesome because she's so spunky. And I laugh at how Flora always seems to ignore what Merryweather is saying. Speaking of, I always get the feeling that Merryweather did most of the housework.

    Then we've got Maleficent. Sweet mother of all that is holy, she is the baddest of the bad. It's not even like she has a reason. She's not desperate to be the prettiest, like Queen from Snow White, or a hungry whale like Monstro. She's just bad because she wants to be. I'm now determined to go to Paris to see the huge Animatronic of her.

    So a big medieval HUZZAH to Sleeping Beauty!

  3. I like that you used that line as your post title, because I think that is my favorite line in the entire movie. Which leads me to the statement that I don't think I was as in love with any Disney hero as I was with Prince Phillip until Flynn Rider came along. He's just amazing. Looks, personality, singing, humor... he's got it all.

    It might interest you to know that when Disneyland was being built, Sleeping Beauty's Castle was originally Snow White's Castle. Hence the slightly different style of the castle that is more in the style of Snow White than Sleeping Beauty (the back was originally the front!)and Snow White's Grotto nearby. But because they were working on Sleeping Beauty at the time, Walt decided it should be her castle instead to generate interest in the movie. So that castle is the ultimate marketing endeavor!

    I'm with you, this has always been one of my absolute favorite Disney movies, and Aurora is tied for my favorite Disney princess. Also, I loved her one quirked eyebrow in the trance scene. I'm pretty sure that is the reason I learned how to do that as a child. I was obsessed with Aurora. Belle only moved up the ranks to basically tie for first when I realized how much I looked and was like her.

    The music is amazing! I listened to the entire Tchaikovsky ballet my junior or senior year of high school and fell in love with it. And now at the age of 24, I finally got to see the ballet!

  4. This is a drop-dead gorgeous film. After visiting the Cloisters in Mahattan (where the Metropolitan Museum of Art houses its medieval collection, including the famous "Hunt of the Unicorn" tapestries) "Sleeping eauty" immeidately came to mind. The art really does reference medieval art as well as photorealism.

    Aurora, my mom's favorite princess, truly is the most beautiful of all Disney heroines. I think this is especially noticable in the scene where she's awakened y Prince Philip. He kisses her, then all of a sudden the picture loses that odd greenish tint and she appears in all her lush, richly colored glory for a minute before openig her incredibly blue eyes and smiling at him. It's a beautiful scene.

    Speaking of Philip, oh my God! He is awesome! Not only is he hot, I love the interactions between him and Samson and etween him and his father (especially King Hubert's Henry VIII-esque temper tantrum, complete with crown-throwing). The drinking song scene with Stefan and Hubert is one of the highlights of the film for me.

    As for Maleficent, not only is she ridiculously badass (she does have all the powers of Hell at her beck and call, after all); she's also strangely nice to look at, along the lines of Snow White's stepmother (efore she transforms into the terrifying Old Peddlar Woman). I didn't know she shared a supervising animator with Aurora, but that would explain it.