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Drafting Sleeping Beauty: Why the 1959 Film is the Most Underrated Disney Movie of All Time

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While the box office success of Maleficent makes this somewhat topical, let’s roll out a quick post about the downright strangest Disney Princess movie to ever grace the big screen*: 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. Sure, it doesn’t have the cross-species romance of The Little Mermaid, the gender fluidity of Mulan or the astonishing blandness of Cinderella, but Sleeping Beauty remains the absolute strangest of entry in the most iconic media franchise of all time. And it’s pretty easy to see why. Apparently there wasn’t a single person on the film’s staff who was attempting to make an enjoyable movie for kids.

*No. Don’t even think about Cinderella III: A Twist in Time. I will cut you.

Nope, Sleeping Beauty falls into that odd, rarefied category of Disney films that are made for the sake of art. In the case of Sleeping Beauty, quite literally. You might think the movie is about a princess who is cursed by an evil fairy and is be rescued by a prince. Many people do. But, no. Sleeping Beauty is actually about this:Untitled

And this:sb04

And this:sb05

 

Sleeping Beauty isn’t about story or characters or any of that narrative nonsense. It’s about lines. And shapes. And iconography. It is about the creation of a picture book world of incredibly precise geometric beauty. It is the 1959 version of The Secret of Kells. Only more so.

So if you, like most people, have always found it the chilliest and most distant of the Disney Princess movies, congratulations. You’re absolutely right. It is formalized to the point of absurdity, so much so that it completely stifles the human story it’s supposed to be telling.

Not that the film cares much, mind you. Just look at our two romantic leads:sb11

These are, ostensibly, the people we are supposed to care about the most. Naturally, they should be amongst the most appealing so that we can get invested in them and their story. Look at how bizarrely angular they are! And not in the Tim Burton creepy/cute aesthetic either. They’re sharp collections of lines and angles that create highly stylized human figures that seem to fit the heightened geometric nature of the backgrounds. These figures aren’t particularly empathetic. And I’d argue they’re not meant to be. They’re design is in thrall to the dictates of the art style and not to the audience’s emotional needs. And Disney can make a character who is supposed to cater to the audience’s emotional needs. Here, for example is Ariel, one of the great triumphs of character animation, who is supposed to be about as empathetic and open as any animated character has ever had to be:vlcsnap-2013-09-28-12h16m28s193

Ariel has HUGE eyes and a wide range of specifically human gestures and facial expressions that make her feel like a vibrant, likable character. She has incredible amounts of personality and charisma. Eric and Aurora though? They’re woodcuts. Well designed woodcuts no doubt, but woodcuts that aren’t really meant to inspire an emotional connection. This is especially obvious if you’ve seen Aurora in anything outside the movie and its initial marketing. She’s much more gentle:aurora

 

And how many of you would seriously have Aurora and Eric as your first choices for a Disney princess double date? They’re well-meaning I’m sure, but over Aladdin and Jasmine? No way.

Despite this central vortex of whitebread, people do seem to remember some of the movie’s characters. But it’s also pretty important which characters they remember.

First off is Merryweather, who stands out because she refuses to blend into your gosh dang aesthetic, man:sb06

She is a stubborn, cantankerous little ball whose very round presence seems to be a direct attack on the pristine rigidity of the movie’s straight lines. It’s even in her name. Her two sister fairies can stick to their hippie-dippy rhyming names. But Merryweather isn’t going out of her way to please nobody. And she’s completely right about that blue dress, no matter what Disney marketing might have decided.

The other character who stands out? Well, duh:sb07

Unlike Merryweather, Maleficent doesn’t need to stand out to be distinct. This is her gosh dang movie. After all, if anyone’s going to benefit from sharp, thin lines it’s a villain. And Maleficent is a magnificent villain. An all-timer. Look at that gorgeous inky void, the sickly green of her skin, the eldritch purples and blood reds. How can you be looking at anything else when she’s on screen? She’s a design showstopper. Even Aku, THE SHAPESHIFTING MASTER OF DARKNESS, can’t help but dip into her wardrobe.

Also, DRAGON!!sb09

Disney didn’t really need to make a movie about Maleficent. They already have one. Maleficent is the prime mover of Sleeping Beauty and the entirety of its conflict. She’s petty, slinky, sarcastic and cruel. A one fairy army. Undoubtedly one of the baddest of the big bads. And no amount of Wicked-ification is likely to change that. She’s too firmly ingrained in the popular subconscious. But Disney knows more than us about the buttering of breads and the sides thereof and as of now its got seventy million shiny new dollars to prove it.

But no matter how good Maleficent turns out to be, it won’t really affect Sleeping Beauty. The two movies aren’t even playing the same game, let alone in the same ballpark. Sleeping Beauty is a masterpiece of animation and graphic design. It succeeds because it is about these things. Is the love story at the center trite and boring? Sure. But does it matter? The movie doesn’t seem to think so. And neither do I. After all, we get animated features that try to pull at our heartstrings almost every other weekend. How often do we get an exploration of medieval painting, iconography and geometry in the animation medium from a major studio using the entirety of its resources to create capital-H art?

Sleeping Beauty was the last true outing of the old Walt Disney animated feature company -company that put everything it had on the line to depict the terrifying and wondrous journey Pinocchio and lost it all on the awesome pretension of Fantasia. This was the last time that the company would sacrifice its commercial prospects for the sake of its art. And that deserves a round of applause from all fans of film and animation. Regardless of how much you like the movie.

Also, DRAGON!!sb08

2 Comments

  1. Jenna Jenna

    You know, I haven’t actually seen Sleeping Beauty since about 1993, but when I watched Bambi for the first time in 2012 having never seen it before, I noticed that film was sort of the same way — more about the art than the narrative (not to say that Bambi doesn’t have a decent story). And it came out around the same time, I believe. Food for thought?

    • Shoumik Shoumik

      Bambi was the last movie of Disney’s Golden Age (which also includes Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo), before the war and the unprofitability of Disney features forced them into making theatrical shorts (Pinocchio, Fantasia and to some extent Bambi were pretty big flops). Walt Disney had huge amounts of control over the company at the time and so he could get away with trying absolutely misguided experiments such as Fantasia. Bambi was the last one he put a lot of effort into, making the animators study the motion of real animals before they started drawing. It remains one of the most accurate depictions of animal body language (HA!) ever captured in animation. When it flopped he was kinda destroyed and started to take a back seat to production.

      Also, did you notice how much The Lion King was ripping of Bambi? It was pretty ridiculous.

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