Disney Review: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

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Year of release: 1959
Running time: 75 minutes
Inspired by: “Sleeping Beauty” by Charles Perrault
Availability: last released on DVD/Blu-Ray in 2008
Sequels/spin-offs: none

Plot: After the princess Aurora is cursed at her christening to prick her finger on a spinning needle and sleep forever, three fairies raise her as their own in a secret cottage in the forest. But despite their best efforts, the evil Maleficent finds the princess on the final day of the curse’s deadline and kidnaps Prince Phillip, whose kiss would free her from the enchantment. The fairies rescue the Prince and help him slay Maleficent. The curse is broken and the kingdom rejoices.

The Heroes
Unlike most Disney Princess films, the princess herself is not the main focus of this movie. This makes sense when you think about it, since Aurora spends about half of the film in bed, off-screen. Attention is instead given to Aurora’s fairy protectors: Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. These fairies are very kind and generous, surrendering their magical powers for 16 years to raise Aurora in complete secrecy. However, they are not perfect, often quarrelling with each other and it is their squabbling that leads Maleficent to discovering their hiding place. While apparently much less powerful than Maleficent, their combined efforts help Phillip to escape her fortress and defeat her in battle. Although they rarely leave the confines of their “amusing old lady” characterisations, the fairies are entertaining to watch and are much more bearable than other princess sidekicks in the Disney canon.

Again, unlike previous Disney Princess films, the prince of Sleeping Beauty has a much larger role, being a fully-realised character rather than a footnote to the story. Along with his trusty steed Samson, Phillip is an enjoyable hero: bold, free-spirited and just as enticed by “true love” as any Disney princess you can name. He is also a rare example of a Disney prince who actually works throughout the film to get his princess, literally battling through hell to defeat Maleficent and rescue Aurora from her sleep. But, despite being one of the better-realised princes, Phillip is still largely forgettable, being little more than a list of clichés, albeit a very handsome and badass one.

Finally, we have the sleeping beauty herself, Aurora. If Phillip was just a list of fairy-tale clichés, then Aurora is ten times worse. You cannot find a single fresh or exciting ingredient in her character: a real shame considering how unique the rest of the film is. Aurora is just utterly bland. There’s not really more that I can say.

The Villain
While the heroes of this film are mostly bland and cliché, the villain – Maleficent – sets a new bar for Disney. Maleficent is pure, unadulterated evil and all the more awesome for it. From her very first moments on-screen, you know that she is only going to do two things in this film: be evil and LOVE it. Disney held nothing back when creating this character, even inserting lines about her summoning “all the powers of Hell” to her aid in the climactic battle. Fantasia’s Bald Mountain aside, that’s about as intense as you get from pre-90s Disney.

In addition to her unspeakable levels of power, Maleficent is much smarter than your average fairy-tale villain, kidnapping Aurora’s “one true love” so that he cannot even attempt to rescue her from the enchantment. Well, she actually does intend to release him and let him succeed but only once Phillip is old and at death’s door. Yes, she is that evil. Unfortunately, her minions are not quite so bright and her reliance on them is probably her only true weakness. The reason it took her almost all of the 16 years to find Aurora is because her men were still looking for a newborn baby rather than a young lady; in comparison, it takes her pet crow one day to find the cottage she is hiding in.

At the climax of the film, I am almost sorry to see Maleficent defeated since she is by far the most exciting character. Admittedly, she is defeated in a very awesome way (speared by a thrown, powered-up Sword of Truth) and once she is in her dragon form, she is not nearly as interesting. Nevertheless, Maleficent easily ranks among the best of Disney’s villains.

The Story
As mentioned before, Sleeping Beauty is quite a unique addition to the Disney Princess line-up, focusing on the secondary characters rather than the princess herself. This certainly helps to make things feel fresher but ultimately cannot save this film from feeling overstretched and, in places, very dull. The pacing of the story is very bad, filling the first half of the film with mostly trivial scenes on the day of Aurora’s 16th birthday.

The final act, featuring Phillip’s escape and defeat of Maleficent, is much more exciting but does not feel like the climax of the movie. I am so used to seeing a castle-breakout sequence being the precursor to a much larger third-act battle, but in Sleeping Beauty the breakout pretty much is the third act, with a short battle against Maleficent tacked on at the end. The film spent so long building up to the rescue that the sequence itself feels too short, resolving everything too quickly (even in the film’s timeline, Aurora has been left sleeping for less than a day).

The Music
Sleeping Beauty’s soundtrack is a very mixed bag. The most famous song, “Once Upon A Dream,” is an enjoyable duet and is re-used throughout the film by several characters. However, the rest of the soundtrack is either forgettable or below-average. In particular, the choirs that sing over the opening are both obnoxiously loud and oddly arranged. Usually I’ll go crazy over any decent vocal music from this era of cinema but Sleeping Beauty’s has me reaching for the volume control.

The Visuals
Much like the rest of the film, Sleeping Beauty’s art style is quite unique when compared to the rest of the Disney animated canon. Backgrounds and special effects are lavishly detailed but character models are relatively simple. However, thanks to a large use of live-action reference footage, the movements of most of the characters are more accurate than ever before. The designs of Maleficent’s fortress are particularly unique, bringing back memories of the town at the foot of Fantasia’s Bald Mountain. The designs of her minions also stand out as being very different to other Disney characters. Sadly, this art-style has not dated particularly well but manages to feel slightly “retro” and – garish shades of clothing aside – never feels unpleasant.

Upon its initial release, Sleeping Beauty was a success at the box office but still struggled to make up for its huge production costs. Reviews were mixed, with many feeling like the film was too slow and lacked character development. However, partly thanks to its unique art-style, the film is still well-remembered, with Disney’s interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale being the most well-known today. Recently, Sleeping Beauty was the first 20th century Disney film to be released on the Blu-Ray home video format.

But Sleeping Beauty’s most enduring legacy is that of its villain, Maleficent, who regularly tops polls of animated antagonists and is often seen leading groups of villains in Disney crossover stories, most prominently in the Kingdom Hearts video game series. The character is so popular that there have been recent plans to create a live-action version of the Sleeping Beauty story told from her point of view, although the idea is yet to move past pre-production.

Sleeping Beauty is worth watching simply for its unique art-style and story perspective and for its fantastic villain but, as a film, it is difficult to recommend. The film is far from terrible and the presence of Maleficent alone is worth the running time but it definitely feels too slow and bland.

I award this film 5 out of 10 incompetent minions

Next review: 101 Dalmatians (1961)

So, what do you think ?