So here’s another Disney-related scenario for you to picture – it’s the 1950s and Disney has been on a roll since the war ended. Cinderella was just as big as Snow White was so now Disney decides to make it a hat-trick and create another fairytale, this time the known and loved Sleeping Beauty (only without the whole raping the princess while she’s asleep thing). Disney decides to go all out with his new creation which will be his masterpiece with a new stylised art direction, complex backgrounds and some music inspired by the famous Tchaikovsky ballet adaptation of the fairytale. The result is a film that cost $6 million to make (this is the 1950s, bear in mind), spent a whole decade in production and ultimately nearly bankrupted the Disney studio. Oh and it was the final Disney film to use hand-inked cels as the rest after that would use the Xerox process.
King Stefan and his unnamed Queen (whose voice actor Disney doesn’t have any record of) are finally blessed with their long time wish for a child, a baby daughter named Aurora. On the day of her christening, the young princess is betrothed to Prince Philip of another kingdom and the three good fairies – Flora, Fauna and Merryweather – are invited to present the princess with a single gift. Flora gives her beautiful golden hair and Fauna gives her a lovely singing voice. However the festivities are interrupted by the evil sorceress Maleficent who is apparently severely pissed off that she wasn’t invited. This lack of being included prompts her to make a curse – before the sun sets on the princess’s sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Luckily Merryweather steps in and changes the curse – Aurora will only sleep and will wake up when her true love kisses her. Still wary of Maleficent, the three fairies take Aurora into the forest and raise her as a peasant called Briar Rose. On the day of her 16th birthday they plan to take her back to the castle but Maleficent is still searching for her, and she comes across an unwitting Prince Philip in her travels.
People will notice that this is the only pre-Renaissance Disney film on my list and the main reason for that is the films made while Walt was alive just don’t really do much for me. They are all masterpieces and innovative but they do seem dated now and the animation style is a little too cute and soft for my tastes. This film however has a fantastic art style, based on designs of Medieval paintings and tapestries. The backgrounds are especially detailed, with each one reportedly taking seven days to finish (a normal one usually took just one day). There are no really cartoony characters here – some are drawn a little more comically than others but all of them fit in with the serious tone of the film. The animals are also a lot less cute and cuddly than the likes of Snow White and Cinderella and they don’t talk this time around. Their only appearance is a small scene with Aurora in the forest. Aurora herself is definitely one of the prettiest Disney Princesses and much better looking than the aforementioned other two, apparently being modelled after Audrey Hepburn. Prince Philip is also the first Disney prince to get a lot of screen time because Disney was finally convinced his animators could draw a human male realistically. Maleficent is far removed from the stereotypical hag view of witches and is designed to be more elegant with a theme of flames for her cloak and bats wings for her collar. Then there’s the devil horns on her head. Maleficent certainly creeped me out as a kid and she remains the best Disney villain ever made in my opinion. No real motive, except she’s pure evil and voiced excellently by the late Eleanor Audley.
Now since this is back in the old Disney days which are always forced to go through endless analyzing and all that, I guess Aurora isn’t exactly the most feminist princess considering she spends half the film asleep and doesn’t speak at all in the second half of it. But I wouldn’t necessarily call her a bad role model since she’s shown to be a very nurturing character with a personality that a few other animated heroines don’t seem to have (*cough* Odette). If we’re talking about feminism then the fairies more than fit the bill since they are the real heroes of the story, helping the main characters as well as providing comic relief for a bit. The fairies are shown to be brave and helpful and of course the story wouldn’t work without them. On the other side of the scale is Prince Philip who is arguably the first Disney masculist (yes that is a word) since the last two princes didn’t have much character or any at all. Their only role in the story was to conveniently arrive and whisk the princess away to a better life. Philip on the other hand is a fleshed out character and really has to earn his happy ending. And the fact that the two lovers meet beforehand and fall in love that way was very progressive on the part of Disney. They were going to be married anyway so it’s a lot better that they got to meet properly first.
As you can tell with my reviews of The Last Unicorn, Watership Down and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I do have a thing for dark animated films. This is one of Disney’s darker films in that in contrast to Hunchback and Pocahontas, which both dealt with mature themes, this one relied on good old fashioned scare tactics. The sequence where Maleficent hypnotises Aurora into following her up the stairs and towards the spinning wheel is one of the most chilling scenes in the Disney Animated Canon, from the moment Maleficent’s shadow appears in that fireplace. And would you believe that the eerie music actually came from a light-hearted scene in the ballet where two cats snarl and claw at each other? As mentioned earlier, the subtlety in Maleficent’s appearance really adds to how menacing she is since I never found the Evil Queen’s hag disguise scary, just a little ugly and sometimes comical. Eleanor Audley is probably one of the best cacklers there is – I didn’t even know we could rank actresses on their ability to cackle. She certainly scared me out of my wits as a child. Then there’s that big damn dragon she morphs into (which is a real pain to fight against in Kingdom Hearts I might add).
The entire final act of the film is really my favourite scene. From the moment the fairies enter Maleficent’s Forbidden Mountain, it is just amazing to watch. It’s probably the childhood nostalgia talking but these days I can’t not pay attention during those scenes, particularly as Philip escapes. The part where Maleficent conjures up the storm and then the thorns is quite exciting and of course very impressively animated. Who knew someone could actually make thorns so frickin scary? And of course the final climactic battle with the dragon is probably one of the most epic Disney scenes in history. I guess this is the film that showed Disney could do action excellently as well as drama. If there’s a scene I don’t like then it’s that moment where Aurora is in the forest and starts singing with the animals. When I was watching as a child, I always wanted to skip that part so we could go back to the fairies trying to get the house ready. But I guess that scene is necessary to give Aurora an actual personality and of course the then-progressive plot line of actually meeting her prince and spending time with him.
So I’m nearing the half-way point in my challenge and I can’t believe I’ve gotten so far already. I seem to be really dishing out the childhood favourites these days. I remember as a kid this film was the most epic and exciting thing there was and I just remember getting up on a Saturday morning to watch the dragon fight one more time. I was actually pretty pissed to find out years ago that my mother had given away our old VHS of it so I had to go through the rather embarrassing moment of finding a DVD on E-Bay and getting my parents to help me (I was fifteen at the time so that just adds to it, me trying to hide it from my brother as long as I could). Speaking of my brother, he and I always used to argue about the end of the film and what colour the dress was when the book closed. After some careful examination, I can rule that I was right all along and that the dress does turn pink just as the book closes. It turns out I was right about a lot of those childhood arguments. Oh well, till next time and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.