A Second Look: Sleeping Beauty (1959)
In 1959, Clyde Geronimi, Les Clark, Eric Larson, and Wolfgang Reitherman released Sleeping Beauty, based on The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault and Little Briar Rose by The Brothers Grimm. Starring Mary Costa, Bill Shirley, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, Barbara Luddy, Taylor Holmes, Bill Thompson, Dallas McKennon, Candy Candido, Pinto Colvig, Bob Amsberry, Marvin Miller, Helene Stanley, Ed Kemmer, Frances Bavier, Madge Blake, and Spring Byington, the film grossed $51.6 million at the box office. The last adaptation of a fairy tale from Disney for 30 years, the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, the Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack Album, Original Cast – Motion Picture or Television, the Youth in Film Award for Best Musical Entertainment Featuring Youth – TV or Motion Picture, and the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 Villains and Top 10 animated films.
When King Stefan and Queen Leah are celebrating the birth of their daughter, Princess Aurora, they proclaim a holiday and the kingdom gathers for her christening. Soon, the wicked fairy Maleficent appears, scorned for not being invited to the christening. She curses the princess and proclaims that she’ll die before the sun sets on her 16th birthday. However, the good fairy Merryweather blesses the child and changes the curse to her falling into a deep sleep awakened only by true love’s first kiss.
A film that spent about nine years in production, Sleeping Beauty is a wonderful adaptation of the original fairy tales by Perrault and The Brothers Grimm. One of the best aspects to the film is its art direction, which differs greatly from many of the other Disney films put out around this time as the way they are drawn is very reminiscent of the artistic style popular during the renaissance. This can really be seen during the beginning with all the banners being carried to Stefan and Leah’s castle as well as during the scene when Aurora is dancing with the animals in the forest. These scenes also highlight the strengths of the film’s music which does very well in bringing Tchaikovsky’s original pieces from stage to screen.
Conversely, it seems the weakest part of the film is that of Aurora and Prince Phillip’s characterizations. When it comes to the princess, her story starts when she’s a baby and the film then goes to her teenage years, where she’s characterized as someone who loves singing and dancing and does so with the forest animals as well as with Prince Phillip. While she is brave when finding out that she’s not actually a peasant girl and is really a princess, she doesn’t really do much other than sing, dance and fall asleep. However, that does make sense as the film is about her falling asleep. As for Phillip, he’s a bland character even though he’s the first Disney prince to actually do something other than showing up and falling in love with the princess. What really hurts him is that he doesn’t even say anything for the second half of the film and needs the fairies to do all his work for him.
However, the character the film really shines on is Maleficent, who is rightly one of the most iconic film villains of all time. Her characterization starts strong with her showing off just how terrifying and irrational she is when she gets back at the king and queen for not inviting her to the celebration by cursing their infant daughter to death. Yet, the film shows that she’s not completely irrational and can be very sane and subtle when she wants to be, established in how she was immediately able to move past Merryweather’s modification of her original curse, and plans to capture Phillip and release him only when he’s 100 years old so his kissing a young Aurora would make it so that he as an old man couldn’t be her true love.
Even with the lack of proper characterization on Aurora and Phillip’s part though, the film is quite entertainingly fun to watch as it’s a classic story told in one of Disney’s best eras. Even though it’s practically obvious from the beginning that Maleficent is going to be defeated because good is always triumphant over evil in these stories, it’s the path the story takes in doing so that helps to make it so good. From evil minions who don’t understand how aging works to three bickering fairies, from subverting a curse to Phillip’s sword being thrust into Maleficent’s dragon form, it’s a story and a film where repeat viewings are always enjoyable.