By Kim Hollis
September 25, 2003
Growing up and even into my adult years, I had always remembered the super-villainous Maleficent from Disney's Sleeping Beauty as one of the classic "bad guys" of all time. Needless to say, when I learned that the movie would be given the ultra treatment in a mega two-disc package, I was thrilled that I would have the opportunity to rediscover a classic in an outstanding, remastered format.
Imagine my sadness when I came to realize that Sleeping Beauty has not aged all that well. Despite being a gorgeously animated movie, the story is far too slight to amount to much substance.
Based on the Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky ballet and the fairy tale by French writer Charles Perrault, this well-known animated version of the allegory is softened and simplified for a more wide-ranging audience. Where the original 1696 story is somewhat religious in nature, the Disney-fied version of 1959 turns angels into fairies and converts 100 years sleep into a much briefer time span out of necessity.
The movie is ostensibly about Princess Aurora, the long-awaited daughter of King Stefan his Queen. Upon her birth, the kingdom celebrates mightily. King Hubert and his son Prince Phillip are on hand with a gift and an announcement that the two children will be betrothed, and the aforementioned fairies -- Flora, Fauna and Merryweather -- also arrive to bestow their gifts upon her. Flora gives her the gift of beauty, and Fauna follows up by bequeathing her the lovely voice of a nightingale. Just as Merryweather is set to declare her present to the child, an angry dark fairy named Maleficent shows up and ruins the celebration.
It seems that the dark one is quite miffed at not being invited to the proceedings, and as such, determines to truly spoil the show by proclaiming that her "gift" will be that on her 16th birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle and die.
Maleficent leaves with great pomp and circumstance but fortunately, Merryweather is able to soften the blow somewhat since she hadn't given her gift yet. Instead of dying as a result of the spindle, Merryweather is able to change the curse so that she falls into a deep sleep that can only be awakened by Aurora's true love's kiss.
Taking no chances, King Stefan has all the spindles in the kingdom destroyed, and regretfully sends his infant daughter out to the woods to live an anonymous life with the three good fairies, who call her Briar Rose. She meets her true love, a man who she knows from her dreams, on the eve of her 16th birthday, but the fairies inform her that she is promised to another -- and also shocks her with the news that she is a princess. From there, it's a tale of coincidences and surprises, as people learn true identities and Maleficent re-emerges to fulfill her ominous promises.
Despite the fact that Sleeping Beauty is remembered as one of Disney's "Princess" stories, Aurora/Briar Rose is almost relegated to supporting character status, as is her true love. Center stage is occupied by Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, three kindly Disney sidekick types who probably manage to not be annoying by virtue of the fact that the movie simply isn't long enough to allow them to do so. Maleficent, who made such a thundering impression in my younger days, is still the very personification of evil, with both a wickedly iniquitous appearance and a heart full of malice. Her goons rather closely resemble the Sheriff of Nottingham's henchmen from Robin Hood, which was a Disney adaptation that came 14 years after Aurora's long sleep.
Probably because I just don't find the fairies to be compelling or interesting, Sleeping Beauty drags even though it clocks in at a mere 75 minutes. The most we learn about Aurora/Briar Rose is that she is a wonderful singer and that she is in love with a man who she encountered "once upon a dream." The prince himself is extraordinarily vanilla, so much so that his face appears to be modeled after any given screen idol of the day.
In the face of its flaws, Sleeping Beauty is nonetheless a breathtaking piece of animation. The detail in the scenery is astonishing, and the character design is occasionally awe-inspiring. Maleficent and Aurora in particular are luscious to watch, and the goons are definitely the kind of thing that springs to mind when thinking of little demons. As for Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, the characters themselves are unremarkable, but their activities are very engaging. A bit of sparkle, an inspired magic "fight" over whether a dress's color should be pink or blue, and an ability to become very, very small in comparison to their surroundings makes them feel as magical as they are written to be.
In the end, though, the strengths just aren't enough to pull the film out of its plodding, dreary pace. A box office failure upon its release, Sleeping Beauty is one from the Disney vault that deserves to be remembered for its artistic advances, but it really could have been a far superior picture with a little bit of character development and perhaps even more adherence to its source material.