The Up Too Late Film Club #2: You're living in the past... this is the 14th century! (Thoughts on Disney's Sleeping Beauty)

I'm the youngest in my family by a wide margin - my sister and brother are 15 and 12 years older than me respectively. One of the biggest disadvantages of that age gap (besides there almost never being anyone my age at family gatherings) was that I missed out on a lot of the childhood entertainments that the siblings got to enjoy, particularly the movies, because my parents did not want to "sit through that shit again" (which I kind of get, because there are a lot of really bad kids movies, but still).  So basically, I caught it on TV or video at some point on my own, or else I missed it.

That latter category includes the lion's share of the Disney "classics" catalog, which seems weird even to me given how much I love animation and that I'm decently well-versed in the live-action Disney output of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (and for the record, the Witch Mountain movies have 'em all beat).  I'm pretty good from about Beauty and the Beast onward, but my record prior to that period is pretty spotty.  I've seen Fantasia, The Sword in the Stone, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Robin Hood, Oliver and Company, maybe The Great Mouse Detective, but I think that's it.

All of this is a probably-too-long prologue to say that I've decided that I needed to fix that, and I started with Sleeping Beauty, due in large part to its good reputation among animation aficionados, the fact that it has a notable villain who eventually turns into an effectively frightening dragon, a fight with said dragon, and perhaps most importantly, it was on the shelf at my public library the day I went in looking for a Disney movie to watch.  I think if we're honest we'll admit that many of life's decisions are driven by simple availability.

Anyway, I liked it, or at least I mostly liked it.  I went in to it expecting memorable songs and  iconic characters, and those weren't areas where the movie delivered particularly well.  As far as the former goes, the songs weren't bad by any means, but hardly a "Bippity Boppity Boo" or a "Someday My Prince Will Come" in the lot.  "Once Upon a Dream" was serviceable and sets up a decent meet-cute scene, but although I remember the title I can't for the life of me remember how it actually goes.

As for the latter, I should specify that although the movie does present some iconic characters, they are not in the form of our leads.  Aurora / Briar Rose is certainly as lovely and kind as you expect a Disney princess to be, but she doesn't get to do a whole lot other than alternate between being happy, sad, lonely, and drowsy; and the whole "wanting to marry literally the first dude she meets after knowing him for the length of one song" seems like it would a bit rash even before Disney itself would call out that trope in Frozen.  Her fella, Prince Phillip, gets to show a little more personality, and he does get to fight a dragon, but he's still mostly Generic Prince Type Guy for most of the story, and in more than a few scenes gets upstaged by his horse (which, admittedly, is a bit of a Disney tradition).  And though he does get to be the hero, he owes all of that experience to the help of the fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, who steal every scene, literally keep the dude from spending most of the rest of his life in a cell, and bring me to an important point about this movie.


The success of Sleeping Beauty as a film has only a little to do with the story, and almost nothing to do with our supposed main characters, but everything to do with the supporting cast and the villain.  Aurora technically has title billing, I suppose, but the story really belongs to Flora, Fauna, Merryweather, and Maleficent.  These characters all drive the plot, shape nearly every action and reaction of our romantic leads, take over every scene by virtue of just being in them, and get every good line.  Consider the second act, as we watch the last day or so of Aurora's childhood in the woods with her "aunts" on the eve of her 16th birthday and return to princesshood.  She's off dancing in the woods with an owl and falling in love at the drop of a hat, which is fine, but the important stuff us happening with Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather as they deal with giving their adopted daughter back to her real parents, a desire to make their last night together truly special, the decision to mix magic with traditional household tasks (while switching up their usual division of labor), and how this all eventually gets away from them and reveals the princess's hidden identity to Maleficent's minions.  The whole sequence has heart, a little suspense, and a lot of legitimate laugh-out-loud moments, especially as Flora and Merryweather fight over the dress.  Who cares about the singin' in the woods when there's a comedy clinic being put on in the cottage?

As for Maleficent, what more can be said?  I think it is fair to say that she became the definitive Disney movie villain, even before she got her own spin-off backstory movie.  A creepy but still strangely beautiful look (green women, amirite?), a voice performance that charms as it scares, and a motivation that makes sense to the audience - the lust for power is hard to relate to, but I think everyone has been pissed about not being invited to a party before, and unlike most of us Maleficent had the perfect comeback to the slight AND the ability to do something about it.  Petty? Sure, but so are most human failings, and the best villains are the ones we can see a little bit of ourselves in.

Also, there's the whole turning into a dragon thing.  I mean, that's always going to be awesome, and it looks amazing, as does pretty much every other frame of the movie.  For what it lacks in story, this is arguably the high point in terms of animation from the Disney studio.  Lush backgrounds, wild visual designs whenever there's anything remotely magical happening, the use of color and lighting to set the mood without a word needing to be spoken, it's all just amazing.  Even the character design stands out, surprisingly; the characters in most of the movies in the Disney canon have a similar look that is uniquely, identifiably Disney, making it easy to believe that Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, The Sword in the Stone, 101 Dalmatians, and even something like Atlantis: The Lost Continent could all kind of be the same world.  Sleeping Beauty has this look, too, but something about it is kicked up a notch. The fairies, Maleficent, the drunk jester, Prince Phillip's nearly-perfectly-round father, and many others all have a little something extra that conveys personality as much as the voice actors' performances.  Even if you somehow cannot stand the story at all, just sit back and let your eyes soak in all the sights. They will thank you for it.

In the end, Sleeping Beauty reminds me a little more of an early Marx Brothers movie than it does and early Disney one.  The real action is with the three characters running around carrying the plot and making you laugh, and the big scenery-chewing villain you love to hate and don't hate to love but still want to see get the inevitable comeuppance.  The rest of the time you're forced to sit through some trifling songs and a pair of bland romantic leads, biding your time until the next "pink or blue" argument or someone has to fight their way through a forest of thorns. Thankfully, it's totally worth the wait.


(Obviously all images in this post are (c) and property of Disney, and used for purposes of tribute & review.)

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