Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Starring: Mary Costa, Eleanor Audrey, Verna Felton, Barbara Luddy, Barbara Jo Allen
Directed by: Les Clark, Eric Larson, Clyde Geronimi, and Wolfgang Reitherman
Released by: Buena Vista Distribution
Synopsis: The classic tale of the Sleeping Beauty is brought to life in stunning classic Disney animation. Princess Aurora is cursed by Maleficent to forever sleep when she pricks her on a spindle on her 16th birthday. While being raised by her three good fairies, she meets the dashing Prince Philip, unknowing that both are destined for grand things.
Review: The 1950s was seen as a good year for Walt Disney and his crew of animators. The studio had survived the war years, Cinderella was a smashing success, and even the smaller success of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp would give the company a great sense of prestige and legacy. How do they close this era of film? By creating one of the most ambitious animated films of all time. Sleeping Beauty would be the film that would re-invent the Disney fairy tale in every way possible, especially in the musical and visual department. While the film didn't gain a following until later years it was too majestic to be ignored, and despite a few flaws in its narrative Sleeping Beauty remains a wonderful movie experience.
Sleeping Beauty is one of those films that is character driven rather than plot driven. The story is a very basic one, taking many liberties when re-interpreting the original tale. It works good enough that it gives the characters a motivation to be proactive, but its nothing that you will fondly remember like in other Disney films. The central character of the film, Princess Aurora, is the main subject of criticism for some as her role is rather limited. But even if this a truth that some may find it hard to deny, she definitely has enough of a presence that it has landed her popularity in the hearts of many Disney fans. This is thanks to the vocal talents of Mary Costa, a then unknown opera singer who was chosen for her great musical range. In terms of a speaking voice she gives Aurora a very charming grace that has defined the concept of the Disney Princess for years, but her true strength lies in her gift of song. One listen and she will quickly win you over, regardless if you think she is just a glorified prop for the characters to interact with.
Faring a little better is Prince Philip, voiced by Bill Shirley. He is considered by many an improvement over the previous Disney Princes, but that is because by the time Sleeping Beauty was green lighted for production the Disney animators had gotten the hang of animating a realistic human character, and thus Prince Philip greatly benefits from this. He is a far more proactive character that earns his film presence. He is charming and full of personality, and for many the highlight of the film.
But to me, the ones that steal the show are the supporting characters who at times really drive the plot forward. The first of these are the Three Good Fairies, named Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. In each scene they are in they manage to grab your attention thanks to their amazing personality. Flora is the self appointed leader of the three while Merryweather is the most rambunctious in her actions. Fauna happily lies in the middle, always pleasant and willing to go on with whatever the other fairies decide to do. And they get to do a lot of things in the film, often giving the film a strong narrative through their actions. Through their powers they turn Aurora into what she is in the story, they protect her and ultimately guide the hero to his happy ending. It's why they are hailed as some of the best supporting characters in Disney film history.
But the hero and his supporters need someone to oppose them, and Sleeping Beauty as one of the best villains ever created in film. Maleficent, voiced by Eleanor Audrey, is terrifying in all her actions. What she lacks in subtlety she makes it up with grace, beauty, and a frightening disposition. She definitely earns the title of “Mistress of all Evil”, even if some of the actions don't have a strong personal backbone other that she is evil and must ruin everyone's life.
As you can see, the characters are the heart and soul of the film, and even though they are extremely strong to carry the whole film throughout it doesn't mask the fact that the story is very light. Granted, films like Snow White and the Seven Dwardfs and Cinderella had very light plots, but both had very solid reasons for their existence. Sleeping Beauty just feels light, but thanks to its characters and technical achievements it does provide a wonderful film experience.
Much has been said about the film's groundbreaking animation. The 1950s Disney films created their own style that would differ from the previous films, and Sleeping Beauty is the stunning culmination to that era of film making. The object of the film is to create a living, breathing illustration, one that would bear resemblance the lush detail of old paintings. This creates a stunning aesthetic that has made the film one of the most revered and most influential in terms of technical merits. The backgrounds are vibrant and are almost as much of a character as the other cast members. If there is only thing to complain is that some of the character animation is stiff and not as bouncy as previous scenes of character animation. Still, it is worth seeing if only for the epic dragon fight that has gone down as one of the most enthralling pieces of Disney animation ever created.
Nearly flawless, though, is the music, and it is easily my favorite thing about the movie. That's because the Disney team decided to use Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet score to adorn the plot of the movie, and it is beautiful. The minute the opening credits sing the praises of the story we are about to see I can help but think it is magical. The film focuses on quality rather than quantity when working with the songs. Songs like “I wonder” are really good, but the winner here is “Once Upon a Dream”, a song that takes a segment of the ballet musical and turns it into a magical song about love at first sight. As previously mentioned this is where Mary Costa really shines as Aurora. Her vocal range is amazing, making sure the songs stay with you even after the movie is over. It's up there with Beauty and the Beast as one of the best scores and songs ever written for a Disney film.
Usually, if a film doesn't have a strong plot and just places emphasis on the sounds and visuals then it is considered to be shallow. But Sleeping Beauty is one of those rare cases where even if the plot is very light the presence of the great characters, the stunning animation and the unforgettable sound is good enough to place the film as one of the best ever made. It's not quite the ultimate Disney fairy tale as that fact can be easily debated, but it certainly is one of the more engaging. Whether you are a Disney fan or just a movie fan this is one tale that shouldn't be missed.
Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5