The last Disney movie of the 1950s is an interesting blend of the old and the new. “Sleeping Beauty” takes the classic fairytale of “Little Briar Rose” by The Brothers Grimm, and turns it into another of their classical musicals, much in the vein of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Cinderella”. Where it differs however, is in the art style.
The animation gets a pretty significant overhaul, altering the way in which the Disney films would look for the following decades to come. Rather than retain the classic soft rounded character designs of the golden age, they moved towards sharper, more angular designs that blend in with the gorgeously detailed backgrounds better than ever before. This required a great deal of money and time from the studio, and unfortunately “Sleeping Beauty” was not a hit in its day. Though it’s been regarded as a classic for some time now, what with its famous songs and characters, it was not commercially successful upon release. In fact, it nearly bankrupted the company.
It’s clear based on the films that followed this one; Disney’s explanation for the failure was that people had grown tired of the old fairy tales. If not for the animation advancements, this movie is as old school as it gets, taking very simple plot and character types while emphasizing the music and aesthetics over the story.
The story is that on the birthday of the Princess Aurora (Mary Costa), the entire kingdom as well as the three good fairies arrives to pay homage to her. She’s given beauty, song, and before her third gift is granted (which I hope would have been intelligence or at least a personality), the evil witch Maleficent arrives, placing a curse upon the baby so that when she turns sixteen, she’ll prick her finger and die. Harsh, I know, but that’s what happens when you snub the mistress of all evil. The third fairy counters this spell by making it not death, but an ageless sleep until true love’s kiss. Turns out you can’t fight fate, and when that day comes the princess, who’d been hiding for sixteen years, pricks her finger and fulfills the evil prophecy.
The heroes of the story are undoubtedly the three fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather (Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy). They have distinguishing personality traits and do all in their power to move the story along. The Princess and the Prince, the two romantic leads, pale in comparison. They share one excellently executed scene, in which they duet “Once Upon a Dream”, but beyond that there’s nothing to them. Aurora is nice to look at, but shallow as a puddle. Prince Philip (Bill Shirley), the first of the Disney princes with some semblance of a personality, loses it entirely about halfway into the movie, becoming a virtually silent character. I mean he literally does not speak after leaving his father to go marry the princess, and he has a lot of screentime after that.
While light in the character department, where “Sleeping Beauty” truly shines is in the art style and animation. It’s a very pronounced case of style over substance, so much so that it revels in its simplicity and the iconography of the fairy tale adventure. The sharp, pointed designs of all the characters evoke medieval artwork, making the storybook images of the opening come to life in a very literal sense. It works very well regarding the setting, and you get a villain oozing style and charisma like Maleficent, who was perfectly cast as Eleanor Audley (previously the voice of the equally evil Lady Tremaine).
There are also some gorgeous sequences, many taking full advantage of the new aspect ratio that was still being tinkered with when they were making “Lady and the Tramp”. Here they utilize their massive and stunning backdrops to their fullest, giving the scenes in the forest or the dark and ruinous castle of Maleficent a great sense of depth and detail. To this day, there are few scenes so perfectly choreographed in a visual sense than the finale of the movie, in which the fairies battle Maleficent using Prince Philip as their surrogate body. The image of the prince battling a demonic dragon against a sea of rising green flame is simply beautiful to look at, and it’s set to the perfectly epic and thrilling score by George Bruns.
While “Sleeping Beauty” may have been a miss when it was initially released, the artwork and skill of the animators have solidified its well deserved place among the classic Disney cartoons. For straight, traditional fairy tales, it about as good as it gets.