51 Days of Disney (Day 16): Sleeping Beauty

Here we are, the end of the 50’s. It’s been four years since there has been an animated Disney film, and what a way to return.

The three faeries, Flora (Verna Felton), Fauna, and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy), bestow gifts upon the young Princess Aurora. Flora gives her the gift of beauty and Fauna the gift of song, but Maleficent, the dark faerie, after finding out that she was snubbed an invitation to the new princesses’ baby shower, casts a spell that makes it so that by the sunset of Aurora’s 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Merryweather does not have the power to overturn Maleficent’s spell, but she is able to make it so that instead of dying, Aurora will just fall into a deep sleep that can only be broken by true love’s kiss. In order to keep Aurora safe, the faeries take her away from the kingdom and hide her in the forest for 16 years. She is hidden entirely, even going so far as to rename her Briar Rose. Aurora accidentally meets Prince Phillip, whom she was betrothed to from birth, and they fall in love saying that they met “once upon a dream,” all while not knowing who the other one is.

In standard Disney fashion, the crap hits the fan as soon as Aurora arrives back at the castle and Maleficent tricks her into pricking her finger on a spinning wheel. Aurora falls into a deep magical sleep and Maleficent captures Phillip, who is the only one who can break the spell, and imprisons him in her dungeon on the Forbidden Mountain, her aptly named home. The three good faeries help him escape and bestow upon him the power to slay Maleficent and save Aurora.

Sleeping Beauty somewhat fails as a princess movie, as it is all about the faeries. You are watching the movie for Maleficent, who is easily the 2nd best Disney villain (2nd only behind Chernabog, but seriously, the Black God deserves to be in the number 1 position) and for Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather’s magic and bickering. Aurora, as a character, is exceptionally bland. She really does not have any sort of character to her, she’s really just supposed to be the image of perfect in every single way. As such, comparisons between her and Barbie are rather spot on. Phillip is a bit more interesting, but he just does not get enough screen time to develop. Really the only characters in the film that are likable besides the faeries are the Kings, Stefan and Hubert, but the only reason they are remembered is the hilarious toasting scene.

The Disney Studios had this movie in production for almost all of the 50’s. The story was written in 1951, voices were recorded and live action reference footage was done in 1952, and animation took place from 1953 to 1958. The film was in production for so long that it even holds the dubious honor of being the first use of the more modern concept of synergy in the parks. When Disneyland was being constructed, Walt wanted a castle in the centre of the park to serve as what he referred to as a “weenie”, something to get people to go farther into the park. the plans were initially to have it be Snow White’s Castle, but it was suggested to name it Sleeping Beauty’s Castle as an advertising for the upcoming film. A second Sleeping Beauty’s Castle was built for Disneyland Resort Paris, but this time it took a much more fanciful appearance compared to the original, and a third for Hong Kong Disneyland.

There also exists a Sleeping Beauty walk-through attraction at both Disneyland in California and in Paris. The Disneyland version originally opened in 1957 to further promote the film and featured dioramas similar to the ones on Main Street that told the story of the film. The attraction received 1977 refurbishment that added animated figures to the dioramas (that now didn’t look anything like the movie), but the attraction closed in October of 2001. When Disneyland Resort Paris opened in 1992, it also had a walk-through component, but was a much larger and more open attraction. In Paris, the castle is much more open than it’s American counterpart, with multiple levels and rooms that all have stained glass windows and tapestries telling the story of Aurora along with the more traditional animated figures.  In 2008, the Disneyland walk-through received another refurbishment that restored the attraction back to it’s 1957 roots. This is one of the attractions that I am very excited to see on my upcoming trip to Disneyland.

What is highly amusing in retrospect is how little the park synergy helped the film. The budget spiraled up to 6 million by the time the film was completed (in comparison, all of the other films in the 50’s had a budget of 3 million) and the film only took in 7.7 million in it’s original theatrical run. People did not appreciate the slower pacing of the film and the lack of character development of the breeding pair. Walt was fond of saying that the animated films would become more profitable upon re-release, and this was completely true in just about every case. The film not only made more money, but also found more of an audience and received the critical acclaim that it rightly deserved, even going so far as to be called one of the greatest animated films ever.

The film is based heavily on both the Tchaikovsky ballet and the Charles Perrault version. Perrault is known as the creator of the modern fairy tale as he wrote stories that borrowed heavily from local folk tales. He is credited for not only writing Sleeping Beauty, but also Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Cinderella, and Bluebeard. The story structure is based heavily off of the Perrault version, but changes were made (such as reducing the number of good faeries from 7 to 3) to make the story flow better within the context of the film. The music is mostly taken from Tchaikowky’s ballet and was adapted by George Bruns, who later did the music for the Jungle Book, wrote “the Ballad of Davy Crockett”, and co-wrote “Yo-ho (a Pirates Life for Me)” with X. Atencio for the Pirates of the Caribbean.

Sleeping Beauty is easily one of the most artistic of the Disney films. Ken Anderson was put in charge of designing the look of the film, but it was heavily derived from the backgrounds done by Eyvind Earle. Earle’s style gave the film a very sharp angular look that was very different from the much softer look of all of the Disney films that came before. It makes the film look incredibly distinct from the other entries of the Disney canon and the movie greatly benefits from it. The backgrounds done by Earle took anywhere from 7-10 days to complete as they were so intricately detailed, but this presented a problem for the production. It stretched out the production time significantly longer than previous films, as noted before. Normally a background would take an entire workday to complete, but these took much longer.

Sleeping Beauty is one of my favourite Disney films, which surprises me as I had not seen it until the 2009 Platinum release, but being a male fan of this film is really hard. I have the same problem with being a fan of Alice in Wonderland. There is little to no male intended merchandise and a tiny amount of even gender neutral merch available. The most that I have found are figurines, pins (which I am not, have not, and will not ever get into), Vinylmation (which I have dipped a toe into and luckily got the Alice Vinylmation from the Animation set), occasionally mugs, and snow globes.

Also have it be noted, this is one of the very few Disney films in which a hero directly kills a villain as most of them conveniently fall to their deaths. I will be sure to mention the rare occasion in which the villain is killed in the review of each film that it happens in. It is also good to remember that this is the last Disney Princess film for 30 years, and they come back with a vengeance.

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