Sleeping Beauty came during a time of tumultuous change for the Walt Disney company. Walt himself was quickly being pulled away in multiple directions by the company’s forays into live-action films, documentaries, the TV-division, and a little project called Disneyland. In addition the animation division itself was starting to get serious competition from new upstarts like UPA Studios and older studios like MGM and Warner Bros. also getting into the game. In addition the recent animated output from Disney veered back and forth between being critically successful or commercially so but very rarely both. Disney Studios was clearly still the leader in animation but the gap was narrowing.
So to stay ahead Disney Studios simultaneously chose to go for a conservative and innovative route. They went conservative in that they returned to the well of the princess fairy tale, hoping lightning would strike a third time like it did for their previous successes Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella. But that is perhaps the only safe bet they took with this movie as just about every other element of this movie finds the crew swinging for the fences and as a result producing animation gold.
The movie opens on a literal storybook telling us about the wondrous news that a previously childless king and queen had given birth to the Princess Aurora and begins on the kingdom-wide celebration to commemorate this occasion. It immediately becomes apparent by the visuals alone that though this is a Disney princess film, it is going to tell the story in a way no Disney princess film has done before (or frankly, has done since). Shooting the film in 70mm automatically gives the movie a regal and vast feel, making it the first Disney movie to truly feel like an epic. But the large frame also helps reveal the unique and wondrous design aesthetic of this film. Eyvind Earle, the art director, took his inspiration for the look of the film after seeing the Unicorn Tapestries hanging in the Cloisters in New York and this immediately gives the film a unique and arresting visual style.
This highly stylized “moving tapestry” aesthetic permeates more than just the artwork of the film but also influences the mode of storytelling as well. Characters are more angular and move in more stylized ways. The score, which was originally supposed to have a Broadway sound to it, was quickly changed with composer George Bruns adapting Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet (and intricately connecting the two works as a result). The story also has strong Gothic sensibilities to them, in stark contrast to the more Romantic retellings of fairy tales done previously by Disney.
Of course while all of these external and peripheral details of the film would mean nothing if Disney could not deliver from a storytelling standpoint and fortunately this movie finds the company at its very best storytelling form. And any conversation of just how great a piece of storytelling Sleeping Beauty is has to begin with Maleficent, animated by the legendary Marc Davis (who also was the chief animator for another iconic villain Cruella De Vil).
Disney has a rich tradition of creating memorable villains who turn out to be more interesting than the heroes, and Maleficent is the greatest example of that. From the moment she arrives she commands every scene she appears in. But unlike other Disney villains, she does this not by her flamboyant presence or over-the-top villainy but rather with a performance of pinpoint precision and power. Every movement she makes is deliberate and calculating, every facial expression is dripping with menace. She uses her words like a lethal weapon and demands your attention. Maleficent is a significant character because she is the first animated character whose performance mimics human subtlety – a person where the mere hint of her presence evokes terror.
She is also a great villain because she has very clear motives. Her being spurned by the king and queen to attend Princess Aurora’s public presentation is no mere oversight, but a political act. And her retaliation is also no mere personal grudge but a political act of conquest. She is easily the most formidable Disney villain conjured up so far, and it is a testament to her charismatic power that most of the movie’s tone takes its cues from her.
Balancing out Maleficent’s inherent darkness is the good-fairy trio of Flora, Fauna, and Merriwether whose role in this film’s quality is also a tricky task that cannot be overstated. As I mentioned earlier, Sleeping Beauty is generally a dark film and is borderline too terrifying for children to watch. It is the three fairies then who are instrumental not just in lightening the mood but in being the strong, brave, and caring if slightly clueless foster parents to Princess Aurora and by extension the children watching this movie as well. Like Maleficent, they arrive on the scene fully formed but instantly likeable. Many an inferior animated fairy tale adaptation has tried to imitate the chemistry these three ladies have but failed. They are the perfect counter-balance to Maleficent as good people you genuinely want to root for.
If I haven’t mentioned anything about the romantic couple of this movie, it is because there really isn’t a lot to say about them. Prince Phillip is charming but indistinguishable from the previous Disney princes and the greatest weakness of this movie is just how much the narrative veers away from the strong women in the plot in order for Phillip to rescue the damsel in distress. Princess Aurora meanwhile easily comes across as the strongest and smartest of the Princesses so far (the bar is admittedly not high). She just has so little to do in this movie and is out of the picture before she has any time to do anything.
No matter, because that simply means that the movie can focus on Maleficent, her minions, her scheming, and the sheer terror she induces. This movie is easily the scariest feature film Disney has ever done apart from maybe the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia and thus one of the more compelling. The sequence where Maleficent lures Aurora to the spinning wheel is a masterclass of tension and terror. It terrified me as a child even more than when I accidentally stumbled upon It on television and I believe it is because of the incredible restraint in the scene; it builds and sustains tension for so long as to be anxiety-producing. Meanwhile the climax of the film is one befitting any horror movie as Maleficent, so long a figure of restraint, suddenly rolls up her sleeves and in her words “unleashes the powers of hell.” Her battle with Phillip is as violent and thrilling as any other Disney fight and Maleficent’s transformation into a dragon is a stunning piece of animation. Again, it is slightly unfortunate that the focus of the battle is Phillip against Maleficent, rendering the three fairies as mere supporting players, but there is no doubt that it is also a thrilling conclusion.
As you might surmise, I think this might be one of Disney’s best movies. The stylistic aesthetic lends the movie an air of regality not present in many other Disney pictures while the darker tone similarly sets it apart. Maleficent is one of the studio’s greatest creations while the menace she brings to the picture is perfectly juxtaposed by the grandeur and magic of the studio’s storytelling. The movie represents the final nail in the coffin for anyone who says that animation cannot possibly be art. But it is more importantly yet another reminder that in the world of animation, Disney ranks second to none.
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