The Persistence of Disney, Part 16: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

| February 12, 2017

For a man known for reinventing the language of fairy tales, it’s odd to consider that Walt Disney only made three straight out fairy tales in his career.  Yet, it is important to note that those three films, Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are not only some of the most accomplished work he ever created but also the most progressive in terms of his art.  Whatever problems you have with Snow White are pretty much cleared up in Cinderella and whatever problems you have with both are pretty much cleared up by Sleeping Beauty; that being in terms of the basic artistry. The characters themselves are another matter.  We’ll get to that in a moment.

Sleeping Beauty is an epic in almost every conceivable way.  It’s a big movie.  It’s got a big story, a big setting, a big concept which is not surprising if you follow the Disney films up to this point because his work was always a growing process.  Disney always sought to improve himself and his work.  You can see this in the films made in his lifetime and further proof can be seen in the decline of quality in the films made by the studio in the two decades immediately following his death.

In that, Sleeping Beauty reveals possibly the most accomplished work that Disney had done artistically since Pinocchio.  It’s artistry is in harmony with the subject matter in a way that few other films, Disney or not, were able to achieve.  The stylized animation borrows heavily from medieval art and (along with the lovely addition of music by Tchaikovsky) works beautifully within the fairy tale setting.

This setting is already familiar even to those who haven’t seen the film.  Everyone knows it by heart: A lovely new daughter is born to King Stefan and the queen and there is much rejoicing (yay!).  There is a grand christening ceremony held at the palace at which three good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, each bestow a magical gift to the newborn Princess Aurora.  Then, of course, the party is crashed by the evil fairy Maleficent who takes offense at not having been invited to the proceedings and in turn bestows her own “gift” on the princess – a curse at which the princess will prick her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel on the occasion of her 16th birthday and instantly be struck dead.  Of course, realizing that logic is never the frontal intention here, one has to ask the obvious: Why a spinning wheel?  Why didn’t Maleficent just a simply cast a death curse?  Why the extra work?  Why the loophole?  And her motivation:  She wasn’t invited to the party.  That seems a bit extreme.

Anyway, Merryweather turns that curse around so that the princess will only fall into a deep sleep that will be cured by the kiss of her true love.  The fairies decide to stow the princess away in order to keep an eye on her and to keep her away from Maleficent.  Meanwhile King Stefan orders all spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed.

That’s a pretty beefy story especially when you consider that that only makes up the first half.  The rest, involving the kidnapping of the prince and Maleficent’s search for the princess and the ensuing battle in the third act, is another movie on its own.  As I said, this is a big movie, with a big story and an enormous cast of interesting characters.  In fact, this film might have the most interesting cast of supporting players.  The three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather almost take over the picture.  They’re individuals with individual personalities.  The same goes for King Stefan and King Hubert (father of the prince) who, in a nice running gag, want their children to wed but remain in a constant state of love and hate as they attempt to plan their children’s futures.  I also like Maleficent’s piggy goons who are obviously under a curse of their own.  I even like the presence of a menacing crow, who scours the countryside looking for our secluded heroine.

And, of course . . . Maleficent herself.  Oh my.  Walt Disney never created a character more deliciously evil, more tantalizingly insane or more flamboyantly designed.  She has the countenance of a snake but the form of a human bat.  Her look is deliciously devilish, beginning with her trademark horns.  They’re impressive. They rise at least a foot off of her head, twisting like a country road and then arriving at two fine tapered points that face east and west. You can’t stop staring at them, and the fact that they tower above an expressive face that, like the horns, twists this way and that from deadening frown to menacing smile without ever concealing the terror behind it.  Her smiles arrive with the thundering news that something wicked this way comes.

I’ll admit rather ashamedly that this was the first time that I had actually seen Sleeping Beauty.  I’m not sure why but it is one of those films that I never really got around to.  I am glad that my first viewing came in the process of watching the Disney animated features in succession because I could better appreciate all that the animators were trying to do.  You can feel the writers and the animators reaching out just a little further to make this more than just filmmaking by the numbers.  I was impressed by the amount of time given to the three fairies.  I was impressed by the lush forests in the backgrounds and the massive cavernous halls of the palace.  I was impressed by use of color and the sound, which gives the whole palette a three-dimensional feel.

And yet . . . and YET, as great as the film is artistically, there is one element that simply doesn’t work: Sleeping Beauty herself.

What a dull, lifeless character she is.  She a tired bore who is barely more than a whisper in her own story.   Of course, these early Disney princesses weren’t known for their blustering personalities but at least I can say that with Snow White and Cinderella gave me enough to grasp at an emotional investment.  Plus, they were at the center.  Princess Aurora functions as the center of the narrative, but she spends much of the movie off to the side.  It’s really a minor supporting role.  I realize I’m being tough on the character but it would be like watching Star Wars with Luke only given 15 minutes of screentime.  She’s dull and lifeless largely because she doesn’t have time to develop a character.  Like all classic fairy tale heroines, Princess Aurora is the prize to be won, the object to be sought, the rank of purity to be preserved until the arrival of the handsome prince.  There is no way around it, she’s a cipher, an object, a trophy to be collected.

So does that mean that we should dismiss Sleeping Beauty as a rank and file patriarchal vision of what a woman is good for?  Not exactly.  As I watched the film recently, it occurs to me that, in spite of Aurora’s postage stamp status in the film, this is a far more feminist statement than you might realize.  Really, think about it.  The most interesting characters in the film (i.e. the ones who actually drive the plot) are all women.  Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are not at the service of a man outside of their loyalty to the king.  They make the decisions that govern the princess’ fate.  They are the saviors of her care when Maleficent strikes her with a death curse.  They don’t seem to operate on orders, but with a sense of what’s right.  It is their decision that dictates the actions of the rest of the film.  Of course, yes, there’s a dithering quality to their squabbling, but the salvation of our title heroine in large part belongs to them.

And yet, with two steps forward come two steps back.  While I admire the independent spirit given to the three fairies, I am also obliged to consider Walt’s bizarre habit of feminine heavies.  As I push through this series, I have noticed a bit of a disturbing equation: Within his lifetime Walt saw the release of 18 animated features.  Eight of those features had a straight up villain and six of those villains – The Evil Queen, The Wicked Stepmother, The Queen of Hearts, Maleficent, Cruella De Ville and Mad Madame Mim – were all women, older and unsightly ones at that.  What is the message here?  Does it harken back to the days of Pandora’s Box wrapped up in the theory that women exist to mess up man?  These women, I think, represent a position of power whether stationary or magical but they are evil and use that evil to bend the will of others.  The machinations are always skin deep.  The Evil Queen wants Snow White dead because she’s younger and prettier.  The Wicked Stepmother enjoys holding power over Cinderella because of her age and beauty.  Maleficent is snubbed at the christening ceremony.  These women are burdened by youth and by the prospect of a happy life that seems to have eluded them.  They are also largely alone save for a few loyal sycophants.  What is this model trying to impart?  Get married young lest you become a bitter old maid?

So, what does that mean for Princess Aurora, and for that matter Snow White or Cinderella?  They are young and good-hearted and are rewarded with the hand of a man who is not only handsome but also rich and of noble blood (okay, it’s hard to argue with that).  Are little girls being sold a message that is cheap and superficial.  Well, yes, but at the time it wasn’t all that unusual.  The function of an American woman in the 1950s was thought to get married, raise kids and keep the home fires burning.  In that way Sleeping Beauty is a movie stuck in time, as an off-kilter model of the role of woman and what was expected of them.  What was not known at the time was that here, in 1959, the world was in a state of change.  Rock and Roll, Elvis, Playboy magazine, the sexual revolution and women’s lib were the tapestry of the second half of the 20th century, rendering the role model of the Disney princesses right out of existence.

That said, this was the last time this model was used.  In point, it was the end of an era.  What would follow in Disney’s cannon would be more male-centric stories, adventures more in the vain of Peter Pan than Snow White.  Disney last few remaining animated features before his untimely death in 1966 would deal with dogs, bears and Merlin the magician.  The renaissance and restoration of female heroines in Disney’s animated output would just have to wait.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.