Defending Disney: Sleeping Beauty

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For the most part, Sleeping Beauty rectifies the artistic wrongs of Cinderella. The animation is better. The story is better. The script is better. The characters are better. The music, well, it’s Tchaikovsky, so, yeah, it’s better. While not perfect, Sleeping Beauty marks a big step in maturity and grandness for the Disney company. The film is huge, on an artistic scale, with a vastness to its art history roots and lush ballet music accompanied by operatic vocals, and even huge on a film level, considering the wide frame it was shot in. Where Cinderella feels a little sparse and simplistic, Sleeping Beauty is lush, dynamic, and something wholly unusual, pushing the envelope. Snow White was cutting-edge for its time, a groundbreaking piece, and the films that followed directly after simply worked on polishing up the kinks from the original, but didn’t do very much in terms of artistic progression. Not so here. This is cutting-edge animation art, technologically brilliant, time-consuming, labor intensive, a work of both love and enormous financial risk on the part of the studio. And it pays off! This film is not only one of the very best works from the Disney company, in terms of technique and cinema art, but it is also one of the most visually impressive animated films of all time, ranking neatly alongside works like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Ghost In the Shell as a stunning and rich visual masterpiece.

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Like Snow White, this is a film I would suggest showing to children simply for the art aspect. Now, some people might disagree and think that kids would be bored by talking about movie tech details and where the art design came from. I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that because not only did I adore this film as a child, but we had the collectors’ edition VHS with the “making of” documentary at the end. I watched that documentary more times than I watched the actual film, and I watched the film more times than I can even remember. The work that went into the movie isn’t boring. It’s exciting! I would highly recommend watching the making of the film with a child because it really is pure, old-fashioned Disney magic to see the animators paint a rock or a tree with so many layers of detail that you almost think it’s real. And this is just the background scenery. The film is crammed with brilliant artistry and technological genius, fluid moving characters, and brilliant designs.

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The animation style moved away from the Rococo of Cinderella, though Disney would return to that art influence later on, and chose instead to pull from two distinctly different sources. On the one hand, the most obvious source is Medieval artistry, but not a vague sense of Medieval. The work pulls directly in terms of color, perspective, style, and form from illumination, tapestry, works like The Book of Hours by the Limbourg Brothers, and Jan van Eyck.

May from The Book of Hours

May from The Book of Hours

Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck

However, the Medieval work was not the only style. The film, like every Disney, is a pop-art work, drawing from the style of the time. But, while in Cinderella the 1950s style is confusing and probably the lead cause in the film’s controversy, Sleeping Beauty does not simply draw on fashion and female beauty standards of the time. No, the film is interested in art, and draws upon modern art, such as art deco, as well as its pop-art fashion influence in the princess’s character design. This makes for a far more lush and nuanced visual experience than its immediate predecessor’s Rococo gone ’50s look.

Art deco design style by fashion artist Helen Dryden.

Art deco design style by fashion artist Helen Dryden.

Musically, the film chose to step away from the Disney formula and present instead the music from the ballet. This was a bold move, and the only Disney film to date to actually do this, minus some Merry Melodies and Fantasia work. The other princess films, as well as non-princess Disney musicals, like Fox and the Hound and Mulan use original scores, often pegging that Best Original Song Oscar. However, here, just as the filmmakers used unusual animation styles, very unlike anything they did before or since, all or almost all of the music is from the ballet, and given a pop-art twist by adding easy-to-sing lyrics. I once had a children’s cassette version of The Magic Flute which did this same thing as a way to introduce kids to classical music and opera. I think it’s a wonderful way to get young people interested in beautiful music. And, according to NPR, listening to music more helps one understand and process more complex notes and appreciate genres one might not have been able to understand prior to exposure. So, contrary to some musical elites, I fully appreciate make-for-kids introductions to great musical compositions! It’d make a wonderful lead-in to watching the ballet, as well. And, let’s not forget Mary Costa’s beautiful singing voice as the Princess Aurora, so unlike the usual Disney Princess sound!

As for the story, while it remains a Disney story and fully age-appropriate for young children, most of the unsophisticated writing problems in Cinderella are gone. Due to greater technological innovation, there is a fuller cast of both female and male characters. The characters aren’t exactly deep psychological portraits, but they are more compelling and active than the previous princess films. Furthermore, the story has a much more obvious setting and goal, and there is a stronger sense of action. The film doesn’t have all the pointless padding of Cinderella and is less archetypal than Snow White. One major development was an active and present prince, Prince Philip. While by today’s standards Prince Philip isn’t that interesting, he is a huge improvement on the last two princes. He has personality. He’s playful. He has a cute animal sidekick. He’s a hero figure. He’s basically the character that Disney wanted to write for Snow White but couldn’t due to animation difficulties. And, when you remember this and see how fluidly and realistically Prince Philip moves, this is a huge technological advancement! Furthermore, I don’t really get the dislike of Prince Philip as a boring character. True, he’s not the main character (more on the structure later), but he is an active character. He’s kind of funny. He has a sense of humor. He seems like kind of a fun guy, really, what with his funny relationship with his semi-talking horse. The writers give him a lot of one-liners, like “This is the 14th Century!” That’s actually pretty funny.

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Both Aurora and Philip are categorized by their youthful aspirations. They are the coming-of-age princess and prince. They aren’t as solidly optimistic as Snow White or as dreamy as Cinderella, although they are both of these things to an extent. But, their defining traits are that they are young and there’s a big world of possibilities out there for them. Aurora’s main cause of tension with her three fairy godmothers is that she’s sixteen and she’s still a child in their eyes, but a young woman in her own. She wants love and romance and a bigger world than the cottage. But, her only friends are woodland animals, because this is Disney and woodland animals are always friends. Philip and his father have a similar contention, with his father being traditional and wanting to decide who Philip marries and Philip being a funnily modern person who realizes the 14th Century has new ways. (I do think this was a funny take for the story.)

But, while Aurora and Philip are both more dynamic and interesting than Cinderella and Prince Charming, the story, surprisingly, isn’t about either of these characters. The real action and plot concerns the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, and the evil fairy, Maleficent. This is another point that makes the story unique, since every other Disney Princess story is actually about the princess. But, nope. This really isn’t. Aurora spends a lot of her story asleep, which, well, makes sense, all things considered. And Prince Philip doesn’t really save her without being saved first by the fairies and assisted the entire way. The heart of the story is that the fairies have raised Aurora, and the real pathos and drive is that these characters love her. We care because they care, and we love the fairies. The fairies are both the action and humor. They save the day, come up with plans, and move the plot forward. But, they also are pretty funny characters, like three sisters who always bicker, in a good-natured way, over things like who is in charge and whose favorite color is best.

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Maleficent is also a great character. Her design, for one thing, is one of the single best character designs in Disney, and also she’s just a scary, badass villain. That’s Eleanor Audley doing her voice, and she also did the evil stepmother in Cinderella. And, she is fantastic! She has this great, deep voice that’s both elegant and a little sexy, and also regal and frightening. She’s the only Disney villain to call on not just some but freaking ALL the powers of Hell. There’s no doubt this lady means business. And, like the fairies, her motivations are kind of based on what seems like years of bickering. There’s a line about how she ruins the good fairies’s flowers for no apparent reason other than she doesn’t like them. Her whole motivation against Aurora is just that she wasn’t invited to a baby shower. I kind of see the fairies as a part of some family that had a rift and have been using magic to mess with each other ever since. Aurora is just the innocent victim of some on-going battle that, frankly, we never really get to know about. Why do they hate each other? Why is Maleficent evil? Why does she live in a scary tower filled with monsters? We never know. Although, apparently, Disney wants to tell us in the new live-action movie coming out soon, but as far as the animated world is concerned, we don’t know. I like to think that Flora, the bossy fairy, pissed Maleficent off over something, and Maleficent, being a vindictive sociopath, started screwing with her for years.

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Now, as far as controversies go, this one really isn’t that controversial. I think most people like this movie, and why not? It’s heart-felt, funny, cute, beautiful, arty, and has enough good action scenes and romantic moments to keep older audiences involved. Furthermore, it’s really, really not offensive. At all. But, because some people have nothing better to do with their lives than complain, there are some controversies.

(Warning: Some harsh words of intolerance for fake controversy coming right up…)

On the left: Again, Princess Aurora isn’t active enough and has to be rescued. Also, some people online have been (bizarrely) saying the kiss that saves her wasn’t consensual.

On the right: Father figures are not good enough.

Everyone else: No controversy. Most people like this movie because it’s a good movie and the controversies are very, very silly.

First, to address the left. This problem with Aurora is, to be blunt, stupid. This is not only a film dominated by fairly complex and dynamic female characters, but female characters are the entire drive, saviors, and heart of the film! They just aren’t Aurora. The main characters aren’t the princess and prince. The main characters are Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. And, for a group that constantly whines about how Disney doesn’t portray older women well, there you go. Three older women who are not only good but the heroes! For those who think Enchanted was the first time a Disney woman saved the man, think again. The fairies not only save Prince Philip, but they basically do ALL his work for him in the rescue of Aurora. Because the prince isn’t there to fight. He’s a lover, not a fighter, and his motivation is love. The fairies are actual fights, mother-bear types, really, who kind of do want to fight. Sure, the power of love is the way they outsmart Maleficent, but they also straight-up kill her, with Prince Philip holding the sword but… they kind of do the work. This is the first on-screen death of a Disney villain, as well.

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Also, as a child, I never wanted to pretend to be Aurora. I thought she was pretty, but she wasn’t the character I liked best. I liked Merryweather, because kids can relate to characters who are not kids themselves.

Furthermore, Mary Costa said in an interview that she wanted Aurora to be a character who encourages young people to follow their dreams, to be inspired. That fits with the coming-of-age, youthful aspirations of the story, characters who inspire hope and happiness in the young. That’s a good message.

And, the kiss controversy is stupid, as well. The way to wake her was with love’s first kiss. Pay attention. That’s the key word here. Also, it’s established that this not only saves her life, but that she is in love with the prince. I cannot believe this is a controversy, but apparently it is.

On the right, the sudden obsession with policing the world for any slightly less than godlike father figure has got to end. I know, I know, there are real-world problems with bad fathers, et cetera, et cetera. But, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest most of these dads didn’t get their ideas from too much Disney Princess. Also, I would like to point out that a lot of people are making a nice sum of money off the commercialization of this idea. The entire movie Courageous was just a long advertisement for a fatherhood merchandise line of “pledges” and booklets, all at your local Walmart! This isn’t to say that people don’t have their hearts in the right place when they worry about bad fathering. However, I don’t think that the kings, who really do seem to have their hearts in the right place and are not major characters, are going to encourage an outbreak of deadbeat dads. Furthermore, I don’t think that the predominantly male Disney directors and writers were writing covert anti-man messages into their films. I would think that conservatives would like this movie due to the Biblical references about the sword and shield of virtue and truth smiting the dragon from Hell… But, politics aside, I think they wanted to tell a story, first and foremost, which brings me to…

…the fact that Disney Princess may possibly be directed at little girls.

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I know, that’s shocking news. But, bear with me. Disney Princess, while certainly enjoyable for all, may have a target audience of girls. Just maybe. And, this is something that is actually unusual in the world. Most media for kids is very boy-driven. There’s not a lot out there that’s just straight up directed at girls, and girl concerns. For better or worse, the Disney princess stories do look at girl interests, and because of this very often the dynamics are female-led. This doesn’t means boys don’t enjoy the movies, just as girls enjoy boy-targeted Transformers cartoons. This doesn’t mean that strictly male or female targeted media is a good thing. This doesn’t mean that negative portrayals of a gender are right, although I don’t think the kings are really negative, not in the same sense as, say, the women in the Michael Bay Transformers movies are negative. But, I do think it explains why maybe the film isn’t about adult concerns about fatherhood and parenting. Because the target audience of little girls aren’t fathers. That would be my guess.

In the end, I think the complainers are kind of fringe extremists, like the kind of people who ban rock music from their kids or refuse to even let their children have birthday cake, who freaked out over Y2K. People like that. Most ordinary people don’t have a problem with this film, and really it doesn’t need defending. I think most people know it’s a good movie, one that really transcends audiences and genre with its gorgeous art and music. If anything, it just needs to be remembered for the great film it is and to remind people that Disney is more than bad sequels and commercialization. When it wants to, the studio can do great things and reach for real heights of beauty. This is one of those times. And, if it seems a little naive now, remember to look again at its art, beauty, and message of love and the value of inspiration. It has the naivete of youth, and that is probably more valuable than sophisticated cynicism, in the end. So, I’ll happily accept that love conquers all, and good will endure, because whether or not that is true I believe it’s best for us as people to live as though it is. Happy New Year!

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