Sunday, January 20, 2013

Disney Canon: Sleeping Beauty

To the very few (I assume) of you who follow these Disney Canon posts, I apologize for the sudden, unexpected long pause. I just had a couple of hard weeks. But don't worry, it's back! And will hopefully continue with weekly installments until further notice. 

The first thing I wanted to say to everybody after I watched Sleeping Beauty is that it is a freaking beautiful film. Like I mentioned in a previous installment of this series, Sleeping Beauty went into production as early as 1951 and was released eight years later, which means a lot of time was spent working on the film. Disney went a little out of his comfort zone this time, giving the movie a distinct look from his previous outings. The artwork ressembles medieval paintings and iconography, especially in the background design. Disney's round lines are replaced for more angular design, which not only gives the film a distinct look, but makes the characters look more edgy than the usual Disney cast, even when the script and their personalities tell us otherwise (more on that later). 

The other thing about Sleeping Beauty is that it is quite an ambitious film. Changing the established style of the feature-length animation was quite a gamble, but there was something maybe even more daring in the musical department. The production decided to use cues from Tchaikovsky' Sleeping Beauty ballet and adapt them into songs for the movie. A bold move, especially after the mixed reaction to the use of classical music in Fantasia. Anyway, the result of Disney's choices for this movie is the following: 

Beautiful animation, beautiful backgrounds and a truly though-out character design that embraces the angular lines and a superb composition of the frame that does capture the essence of medieval tapestries and paintings. This works particularly well because this is the first film to be photographed using the Technirama widescreen process, which provides a bigger frame that can be more artfully utilized to ressemble the artwork the animation is trying to evoke. The music also works pretty well, adding lyrics that work well enough not to destroy Tchaikovsky's original composition. So far we have a film that looks and sounds great, but we know no matter how beautiful the stills from a movie are, at the end of the day it's all about the story. So, how does Sleeping Beauty fare in that department? Well, it's a rather difficult question to answer. 

To start off, let me say that I belong to a generation that more often than not has grown up watching Disney films. Almost every person in my class, for example, could cite a movie from the Disney Canon that they watched over and over again when they were a child. The curious thing is that, out of all the people I know, never once have I heard someone say that it was Sleeping Beauty that they grew up with. Many have seen it and like it, but very few have had the connection that my sister had with Cinderella, my cousin had with The Little Mermaid and I had with The Lion King. 

I think this is because Sleeping Beauty is a hard film to put on a mold. Aurora is Disney's third princess, but the movie she's in isn't as obviously feminine as Snow White or Cinderella. That is not to say it isn't romantic. I mean, we do get that romantic scene in the forest and there's the little woodland creatures that help her, but unlike Snow and Cinderella's princes, which have a maximum of three lines in their films, here we spend nearly as much time with Prince Phillip as we do with Princess Aurora. And that is reflected in the movie. Roughly the first half of the movie is dedicated to Aurora's story as she is taken from her family to grow up with the three fairies in the woods so that evil Maleficent's spell won't come true. That's the part of the movie in which we get the scene linked above with Aurora romantically dancing and singing about her prince. Once the spell does come into effect, though, it's all about Prince Phillip breaking the spell... by fighting a dragon.  

That's some pretty intense action right there, the kind that would appeal to young boys and that, I think, is maybe what comes in the way of Sleeping Beauty's resonance. Boys might be put off by the movie being about a princess, girls might be put off by the large part of the story that is devoted to Phillip's fight and, especially, by the passive state of Aurora as a character. It's true that both Snow and Cinderella didn't exactly drive the action of their stories, but Aurora is by far the most passive of the three. Cinderella wants and tries to go to the ball, Snow White runs for her life in the forest and Aurora... is taken to meet her real parents and falls asleep after stinging her finger.

There isn't an ark as obvious to Aurora as there is to Cinderella because Sleeping Beauty is structured differently than the previous film. Sleeping Beauty, more than any other Disney film before it (except maybe Bambi) consists mainly of vignettes. There are long scenes devoted to Aurora and Phillip's fathers discussing about their children's engagement and the three fairies baking a cake and making a dress for Aurora. These fairies are the closest we get to Disney's typical supporting characters in this film, and while they are quite entertaining, children for some reason tend to identify more easily with little mice than they do with older british ladies. 

Sleeping Beauty doesn't quite sport the same level of complexity and psychological work put in other Disney movies, but it is an effective one. There is enough visual wonder and personality put into the characters as to dazzle children. And bear in mind that my theory of children not connecting with Sleeping Beauty might be utter crap. After all, just because I haven't personally met someone who obsessed over Sleeping Beauty when he/she was a child doesn't mean those people don't exist. This is all to say that I do think Sleeping Beauty is a worthy watch for the children in your family, boys and girls. Also, Aurora sports the first big trade mark of a modern woman in a Disney princess that I could find, when after meeting Phillip she tells the fairies she wants to marry him. That she falls in love with someone she doesn't know is a prince is quite a step in the liberated women camp, even if Phillip is royalty after all.

Before I go, let me just express how amazing a villain Maleficent is. The design and voice work of the character is pretty flawless. And talking about Maleficent, Disney is planning on making a live-action of this story titled Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie and to be released in 2014. Let's just hope it isn't another Alice in Wonderland, although considering Alice's production designer Robert Stromberg is making his debut as a director with the film, I'd hold my breath on this one being any good.

Next Week: Yes, I promise to be back next week, this time with Disney's beloved 101 Dalmatians. 

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