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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.