Defending Disney: Aladdin

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I think that when critiquing the ’90s Disney films a lot of people forget just how different they all are from one another. The Little Mermaid is very much a step to make Disney up to date with a new teen culture, but Beauty and the Beast is a mega-musical style romance, and now we have Aladdin. In some ways, we could say that Aladdin is the natural child of the two previous princess films. It’s a sassy, anachronistic, teen-culture film, and it is a mega-musical-style romance. It even has Lea Salonga doing Jasmine’s singing voice, coming from Broadway’s Miss Saigon. (She would later go to do the singing  voice for Mulan, and played Eponine in the 10th Anniversary edition of Les Miserables.) But, while the movie does have this natural inheritance, it is again its own thing, and really quite different from its predecessors.

The most obvious change is that this isn’t from a female perspective. It is noteworthy for being the first Disney prince story. Yes, Princess Jasmine is a major character, but it’s not her story. It’s Aladdin’s story, and that’s where the emphasis falls: on a male hero, who is also kind of a wise-cracking scamp, a little street, and who has more action-based adventures. For some reason when Disney made Tangled there was a lot of buzz about how the studio was stepping away from female-focused princess movies and doing something totally new. I guess everyone had amnesia, because before Flynn there was Aladdin. This isn’t new. The Disney Company, for being a studio known for such a recognizable image, has been noteworthy for not wanting to do the same film over and over again. That was a real concern all the way back to Sleeping Beauty, and it was only when the company was in a slump that its films looked more generically like one another. As for having male characters, from the start, Disney made a male-focused, scamp-type character who has more action-based adventures, and that was Pinocchio, the second Disney feature. However, the company had not decided to combine the girl-focused princess movies (of which there is only actually a small handful in a long list of features, by the way) with a more boy-driven story. It aimed to bring boys to princess movies without compromising girl interests. So, again, like Tangled (why do people think that movie is so unusual?).

However, the movie is radically different from the previous two ’90s Disney pics in other ways, as well. While The Little Mermaid has expanded character development and more playful songs and anachronistic references to being a teen, it’s still played very straight. It’s a late ’80s early ’90s youth culture, but, like the ’50s style in Cinderella, this doesn’t dominate the film. The era’s concerns are “cast” in the film’s fairytale world. And, Beauty and the Beast takes itself very seriously and is a very mature story, one of the reasons why it was a Best Picture nomination. So, what were they going to do with Aladdin?

I think that a lot of people who make something that was as much of a hit as Beauty and the Beast feel the need to do the same thing again, to recreate that success story. And, usually that doesn’t pan out very well. Disney made a great choice. Like their decision in the past not to make Sleeping Beauty a re-treat of their (successful) previous films, they chose to take Aladdin in a radically different direction. If Little Mermaid was Disney’s first blatantly teenaged movie, and Beauty and the Beast was its first straight-up romantic movie, Aladdin was a fairytale  buddy-comedy.

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Now, I don’t mean that the movie is just a dumb parody. But, the studio’s decision to make a comedic, self-referential movie, complete with Robin Williams as the Genie (a casting decision so successful that the studio will shoot itself in the foot time and again to recreate  that success), was a major departure from the rather self-serious princess movies. In fact, Disney had been known for trying to make its audience of little girls get teary-eyed, what with Snow White’s apparent death, Cinderella’s torn dress scene, the three good fairies’s reaction to the loss of Aurora, Ariel almost not marrying Eric, and straight-up stabbing The Beast in the back. This isn’t even counting Bambi’s mom or the entire Fox and the Hound movie, and what they’ll do to children’s psyches everywhere in The Lion King. And, of course, the films are also known for having very self-serious love stories, fights of good vs. evil, and so on. This is all still in Aladdin, but instead of comic relief being in a serious movie, it has serious parts in a comedic movie.

The writing and animation is very fast, especially with Robin Williams as Genie, who basically just does Robin Williams routines throughout the entire movie. The animation has to speed to keep up with his jokes, with all kinds of sight gags, physical comedy, and random references to other Disney films and pop-culture jokes.

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It’s a hipper Disney, like the Shrek before Shrek, but without deconstructing the fairytale elements. And, this new formula worked. In fact, adult audiences today, women and men, often list this as one of their favorite childhood films. I think that, looking back, the style and tone made me feel grown up, like I got the jokes and I was with-it enough to laugh at the jokes. I liked how cool and together the characters were, with Genie always getting the last joke, Jasmine’s independence, and Aladdin’s just… Aladdin-ness. He’s the fast-talking, street-smart sort of person that seems really cool to young kids, like he was Disney’s first non-villain badass.

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The animation is interesting in that it is just so fast. The movement problems of the past were over. The sight gags go by quickly, even by adult standards, and the movement is fluid, moving from realistic to over-the-top cartoony without ever being jarring. There is a stronger illusion of camera work, as well, and while some of the old CG work feels a little dated it was thrilling at the time, and best used in all the flying scenes with the magic carpet. The color scheme is interesting, as well, full of jewel tones and white palaces, making for some great contrasts. Unfortunately, like Little Mermaid, the trade-off for movement is detail, and if you’re looking for more of the lush designs of Beauty and the Beast you will be disappointed. But, this isn’t meant to be Beauty and the Beast. It’s less arty, but it isn’t meant to be. Its focus is on being comedic, fast-paced, and upping the ante for action scenes. There are chase scenes, escapes, treasure hunting, and, again, flying. It’s interest is expanding the Disney boundaries, and it accomplishes this.

The music is also pretty good, although I would argue less impressive than Beauty and the Beast. I can’t say I’m fond of lyrics like “But when I’m way up here, it’s crystal clear
That now I’m in a whole new world with you…” and I think Tim Rice may be an overrated lyricist –though far be it from me to criticize the man who penned “Go, go, go Joseph!” as an actual lyric. However, like the movie itself, the music is more lighthearted than arty and I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who really disliked the songs or didn’t think they were fun and catchy.

But, like everything else, this film also has controversy, so let’s get to it!

On the left: The film is racist.

On the right: Jasmine is immodest, the movie is too sexy. Also, the Sultan is an offensive depiction of fathers.

Everyone else: Why can’t I have a pet tiger? No, I’m kidding. There is no controversy.

First of all, the big elephant in the room: Disney does not have a great history with depicting non-white characters. Few very existed in early Disney, and among these are fleeting images of “the blackfish”, a crow name Jim (why? Just… why?), shadowy circus workers who admit that they cannot read, a super happy depiction of slavery… It’s not stellar. And, even when Disney depicts other cultures favorably, they usually end up in very stereotypical roles. So, the big elephant in the room with this movie is that it straight up calls Arabia “barbaric”. Also, people say that Aladdin and Jasmine look white while Jafar looks more “ethnic”.

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To the first criticism, I think it might be fair to consider that the story isn’t supposed to be “today’s” Middle East, but rather the setting of the Arabian Nights, with stories about 40 thieves and the like. But, that would still be a lot more acceptable if the depiction didn’t come from white America. Yeah, it is a pretty awkward depiction of a culture, and if you think that kids might not be able to process this I do understand waiting to show it. However, speaking for myself, I never considered that the Middle East was barbaric from this film. I thought that the rule of a specific fantasy kingdom, like the kingdoms in previous Disney films, had a very harsh code of law. But, this seems to come from inequality and the police, not from being of Arabian decent. So, I don’t think that kids are likely to come away as mini-Glenn Becks after a viewing, but I do understand the concern.

However, I don’t think that Jafar looks “ethnic”. I think he looks like a cartoon villain, even complete with a scary mustache. And while Aladdin’s voice is definitely American-teen, I think that the character is actually positive, showing cross-cultural sympathies with being put-upon and underprivileged, something all societies have. I think that making Aladdin more “street”, if in a cute and Disney way, does bring to life the fictional character in a way that resonates with kids, and that this was the goal rather that whitewashing his character too much.

Jasmine is sort of a social conundrum. On the one hand, yeah, the belly-baring, sexy depiction of a Middle Eastern woman does fit with some pretty classic race-fetish issues. In a world where white pop-singers dress up in sexed-up versions of traditional foreign garb, and people stereotype women of certain races as being especially s-s-s-sexy, I do see why people have a problem with this design.

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However, I would argue that the character kind of subverts this cliches. She looks at first like the stereotype, but her character is different, an independent princess, one who wants to even give up her royalty to have some freedom, who doesn’t want the men who see her as this sexy object. And, that kind of challenges viewers. Is the problem her design or our expectations concerning her design? (Basically, is she “just drawn that way”?) And, I think a Disney princess who doesn’t dream of a prince, who wants freedom, who stands up for herself, and who challenges those who try to objectify her or win her as some kind of prize (actual line addressed) is a good role model for kids.

And… also, I don’t actually think she looks European. I think the question is whether or not she’s a stereotype of the “sexed-up Arabian woman”, not whether or not she is whitewashed. I don’t think she’s particularly differently complected from actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, other than the fact that she’s, you know, a cartoon drawing.

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But, does the depiction actually make the viewers question their preconceived notions, that any attractive woman of Middle Eastern descent is a fetish character? No one thinks Ariel is a fetish character, and she wears less than Jasmine. And, Jasmine doesn’t act like a fetishized character. In fact, she’d probably be classified as the independent princess, or the freedom princess.

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As for the right’s concerns, I’ll just say, again, that if you’re really getting turned on my Disney princesses, you’re weird. You probably have problems. No normal person has this issue. And, I think it’s great that Disney shows that a woman can wear what she wants and still be within her rights to demand respect. So, I don’t buy the immodesty argument. She’s a 2D drawing.

Then, there’s that all-pervasive concern about the depiction of fathers. And, for once in the entire princess series, or perhaps the only time other than the King in Cinderella, the father character isn’t portrayed in a stellar light. He is a buffoon. That’s accurate. He basically is the King in Cinderella, but in some vaguely Arabian setting. He wants to marry his daughter off, and is otherwise kind of a nut. However, like I said before, I don’t think that the predominantly male creators of these shows are attacking men. In fact, this show has two very positive male figures, Aladdin and Genie. I don’t think you can point to a rather minor figure and say, “Ah, see, they hate men!” while the two main characters and heroes are in fact men. That makes no sense. But, they are not fathers and fatherhood has become a real brand on the right. I hate to be cynical, but I neither think these groups are helpful nor attacking real social issues. I understand the concerns of the people who buy their merchandise, but I don’t always buy the sincerity of the producers or the value of their product (Courageous, anyone? I mean, give me a break…).

Again, I don’t think dads become deadbeat dads from watching Disney princess shows. And, a lot of people have countered this by pointing out that at least Sultan is alive. Where is Jasmine’s mother? In the end, though, I think that, once again, this is about telling a story where young people make decisions and have to face frightening situations, and the anxiety it plays off of is having to do this without parents. That I think is the real purpose. However, I do see why a parent might be concerned with this portrayal –not because it portrays men badly, but because it might encourage a particularly sassy child to be particularly sassy. That’s a personal decision, however.

And, for what it’s worth, I never saw either the King in Cinderella or the Sultan as dads. I saw them as royals, which seems to be the real satire. I also heard, though cannot really confirm, that the Sultan was based on the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz, which, again, makes sense with the satire of royalty thing and the fact that these are American shows.

Again, like the depiction of race, it really comes down to how these issues are addressed within the household. If you introduce kids to very positive, multiracial role models, I don’t think that Aladdin will be the way kids understand the Middle East. I think they will see it as a fantasy kingdom. And, if you have good parent-child values in your home, I don’t think that kids will see the Sultan and decide to disrespect dad. I certainly never got that message.

In the end, I think this movie is innocuously awkward, trying a lot of things, succeeding at some and failing at others. It’s a fun movie, but also one that does require some further discussion with kids. Perhaps you could introduce your kids to Middle Eastern movies like Children of Heaven?

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I actually think that it’s good when movies bring up questions about how we talk about people, how we think of people, just so long as we discuss it. And, it really does a disservice to film as a medium when you forget to discuss the films and instead just mindlessly absorb the information. Parents have the duty to do this with their children, and children can handle it. They absolutely can have discussions about the movies they watch, and actually they really want to. Have you ever noticed how kids love talking about their favorite movies? Engage them. You might come up with something worth while!

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Defending Disney: The Little Mermaid

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I’m skipping ahead a little. After Sleeping Beauty, the Disney franchise didn’t make films that were as big and, frankly, expensive. There are real classics from this era, of course, and it’s interesting to note that the idea of making more male-focused cartoons is not recent. In fact the second major Disney film after Snow White was Pinocchio, and in this era we have our Jungle Book and our Robin Hood  and Peter Pan. Some of these, like the previously mentioned three, are classics. Some are underrated and unfairly forgotten, like The Great Mouse Detective, and some are just not that interesting, like the original Rescuers and Oliver and Company. And, eventually Disney went through a bit of a slump, in an era dominated by classic Don Bluth cartoons, and culminating in a really terrible adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and bits of The Black Cauldron, but going by the latter book’s title because the studio didn’t care about that project.

So, so stupid...

So, so stupid…

Despite the handful of classics, I am skipping ahead simply for two reasons. The first is that the technological innovation sort of plateaued, despite some greater sense of “camera motion” in the animation. But, in general, in Disney’s age the focus seemed to be on creating solid and recognizably Disney pictures, and after his passing many of the features began to take a bit of a downturn in quality. And, furthermore, there wasn’t another big, controversial film until the princess movies came back. And, yes, I know that technically I am skipping probably the most controversial Disney film, Song of the South. This is because I haven’t seen it. It’s also not really a cartoon, but more of a Who Framed Roger Rabbit  type meld. I have heard reviews saying it isn’t as controversial as people think, and I’ve heard counter reviews saying that making the treatment of black people in the South so happy is actually horribly offensive. But, I haven’t seen it. I don’t know how the movie plays out. I’m inclined to agree with the arguments against the film, as they tend to be historically and socially stronger, but, again, I can’t speak for the movie’s quality myself.

So, instead, I want to jump ahead to 1989.

The so-called Disney Renaissance films may or may not have been started by technological innovations in Roger Rabbit but the look, style, and storytelling comes firmly from The Little Mermaid. Here’s where we get our ’90s Disney formula, of “wanting more”, and heroes who feel insecure and out of place, and big Broadway-styled musical numbers matching the mega-musical style of the ’80s, like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. And this trend would continue to dominate Disney from this point onward.

The Little Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name, but shares basically nothing with that plot outside of the title and the mermaids. Otherwise, this is a very loose adaptation. This is the American Disney fairytale, with happy endings, cute animal friends, and big songs. Interestingly the original story is very quiet and dark, and, spoilers, she dies in the end. So, the man who brought us The Little Match Girl killed The Little Mermaid as well. I think that whatever unfair criticisms of Snow White‘s lack of darkness are, they are better served here, because this is truly the first time that Disney has completely chosen its wholesome, happy image over the source material in a princess movie. (It did this in The Jungle Book, previously, however, and I think that adaptation paved the way for audiences to be okay with these changes.)

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So, let’s jump right into the controversies:

On the left: Ariel sells her soul for a man.

On the right: Ariel is disobedient and doesn’t learn much from her disobedience. Also, the modesty movement finds her shell-bikini offensive.

Everyone: Ariel is a brat who never learns anything.

First of all, Ariel is absolutely a brat. That’s completely accurate. And, I think that her character is why this, after Cinderella, is the most controversial Disney princess. She gets on a lot of parents’ nerves. She makes poor choices. I think a lot of people find her not only a bad example for kids, but kind of an annoying character. You see, Disney has always been involved with the budding youth culture of America since its inception, but by 1989 the youth culture brand of teenager was fully recognized. This is the first teenaged princess, not youthful but straight up teenaged. And, boy do they play this up!

I want to address this first because a.) I loved this movie as a kid and b.) I think that the storytelling is really pretty interesting here. You see, I think Disney’s wholesome image has led a lot of people to see the studio not simply as happy and family-friendly (you can trust that Ariel does not die in this version), but instead that it serves as some moral compass, the fables of America. And, I think that’s really bad. While definitely a parent who worries that her child will imitate Ariel’s moodiness might wait on showing this film, Disney really should not be America’s beacon of morality. On the one hand, these are pretty abstract and simplistic stories, with very basic good-vs-evil morals that need to be supplemented by parents and teachers with meatier ethical instruction. On the other hand, it hampers the studio’s artistic freedom to be constantly worried about people who seem to want their entire moral instruction to come from The House of Mouse.

I am going to posit that Ariel isn’t meant to be a fully didactic, good character, an example of princessly goodness. The earlier Disney princess films, both artistically and structurally, have a sort of diorama feel to them. This is because they basically are dioramas of images placed upon one another in layers of transparent cells and shot into. On the one hand, it makes for some of the most lush and detailed animation in the studio’s history. On the other hand, there’s not a strong illusion of “camera” movement. The characters are mostly shot straight on, which allow for the scenery to be far more detailed than future productions simply because it didn’t have to move. It’s like they are shot on beautiful sets. But, with more movement and less lush detail getting adapted into Disney, and some new computer innovation (first used to create movement in Oliver and Company, I believe, which was released the year before), the stories moved away from the beautiful stage play look. They created worlds you could more freely move around in, which from a movement perspective is really wonderful, but which also loses something by ending those static but gorgeous background pieces.

However, with more movement came more room for the characters to express themselves physically, to “act”. While early Disney works in a sort of comedia dell’arte style of archetypal characters (the sweet princess, handsome prince, funny sidekicks, cute animals, scary villains) the increase of movement let the animators and writers create characters with more personality and, well, flaws. And here is where Ariel comes in. Ariel is a very flawed character. She’s naive, disobedient, moody, full of teen angst, and, interestingly, she also isn’t as graceful and poised as her predecessors. Can you imagine Cinderella tripping around the way Ariel does when she first gets legs? Or Snow White brushing her hair with a fork? Or Aurora running around barefoot in her nightgown, her hair a mess?

The awkward princess. Also, the first princess with toes.

The awkward princess. Also, the first princess with toes.

I think when people critique Ariel they forget just how innovative she is as a character. She isn’t an archetype. She’s not a didactic image of goodness. She’s a character, and she has flaws and quirks. But, what I will suggest is that these are actually good. Ariel is selfish, awkward, naive, and moody, just wanting to do her thing and hang out in her room with her collection of stuff, and sing her songs, and dream of romance, and awkwardly want to grow up. Sound familiar? Disney has always had this great knack for picking up on young concerns, and that’s usually where the controversies come from: that Disney is addressing the concerns and anxieties of young people rather than the rules and concerns of grownups. But, honestly, I think that the adults will survive. Truly. I think there is a place for Disney creations that aren’t just teaching “be good” but understand that sometimes kids don’t do the right thing, and can be moody, angsty, and selfish, and have a collection of junk, and sing songs alone about how misunderstood they are. I think Disney actually really captured this aspect of teen years, and, frankly, weren’t we all a little like this? Should we all be punished for being teens? I kind of like that Ariel is simply understood, as flawed as she is, because teenagers are flawed. And this doesn’t make them bad. In fact, in some ways, we can learn from these flawed teens, learn from their aspirations, their stubbornness, their joy at some pretty silly stuff, their passion.

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I said before that Ariel would be the feisty princess, and she is, but she’s also the angsty princess. And, that’s good. That’s a part of growing up. If Snow White shows you can get through scary situations with a positive attitude and some friends, Ariel shows kids that you can get through your own major screw-ups, and that being an angsty, teenaged screw-up isn’t the end of the world. That people will still love you, your parents will still love you, and that this kind of parental love may not make sense at first but eventually you’ll understand and appreciate it. Which, I think, should counter the right’s concern that Ariel is too disobedient. Because sometimes kids disobey, but that doesn’t mean that we want them to be killed by Sea Witches. And, reassuring kids that sometimes the parent who seems harsh really does love you is probably a better deterrent for disobedience than just having her be obedient.

The left’s concern is that Ariel encourages girls to give away everything to get a man. Honestly, I don’t think that’s accurate to the story at all. For one thing, did you know that originally critics liked how Ariel was active in her romance, that this was considered progressive? We don’t think that Prince Philip is giving away everything when he literally risks his life to fight a dragon and save a woman he only just met. I think that the idea that a woman might be the pursuer is somehow anti-feminist only reflects the critic’s own preconceived notion that women cannot have it all. It’s love or a career, kids! No, no, I don’t buy that. Also, I think that, again, Ariel isn’t a didactic character. She’s a character, and sometimes characters aren’t perfect for any one political movement. Besides, I’d like to point out that the entire beginning of the movie is devoted to showing how obsessed with humans Ariel is, so it’s reasonable to say that her crush on the prince isn’t her only motivation. In fact, it seems like her real motivation is that her dad broke her collection of human stuff and she rebelled out of emotion. So, I think that criticism might be made by people who didn’t watch the show very carefully.

Ariel is the fangirl princess who collects human images like teenagers collect pop-idol posters.

Ariel is the fangirl princess who collects human images like teenagers collect pop-idol posters.

As for the modestly argument, can I just say that first of all, this is a cartoon. It’s not a real body. It’s a collection of circles, inking, and coloring effects. So, there’s that. Furthermore, traditionally, mermaid characters would be topless, so there’s that, too. And, lastly, she’s sixteen and wearing a bikini top. If you think that’s murderously immoral, then we probably aren’t going to be able to discuss it. But, for me, personally, the drawing of a sixteen-year-old fish-woman in a bikini isn’t immodest, and usually this argument comes from the same fringe group that thinks Sleeping Beauty is bad.

Now, from an art history perspective, the show doesn’t reference or draw from art as much as the previous princess films, other than a quick reference to a sculpture of The Little Mermaid.

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I’ve heard people make claims that she is inspired by Waterhouse, but I don’t see it and haven’t heard anything about that in cinema history studies.

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No, the artistic direction here is based more on the animation itself, the movement. It has illusions of cinematography, and this is really probably the most interesting thing about the film. I am not kidding. Cinematography has been a huge discussion recently, what with the use of CGI. What does it mean anymore? What does it mean, say, for a film like Gravity?

Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

What do we mean when our “camera” is a computer? How does this change our perception of what cinematography is, as an art form and from a technical level? This year, especially, the subject has been on all the film nerd sites. But, I say we can take the discussion and look back, retroactively, and apply it to animation, as well. Animation has to create an illusion of a world that isn’t there. While the earlier princess movies did have illusions of crane shots, they were mostly shot straight on, like an audience watching a play. In this film, however, we get an idea that a “camera” is moving in and out, capturing all sorts of angles and movement, following the characters around.

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illusion of a low-angle shot

illusion of a low-angle shot

This is a fascinating illusion and technologically masterful, because there obviously is not a moving camera in the water with Ariel or following her through the scenes. It’s all illusion, done by animation angles and perspective shots. That’s fascinating. Also, this would be a great time to introduce kids to perspective art…

The School of Athens by Raphael

The School of Athens by Raphael

The film’s other strength is, of course, its music. While earlier Disney does have some classic songs, they don’t tend to be as catchy or as pop-memorable as the pseudo-mega-musical numbers of ’90s Disney. A lot of this, I think, comes from character developments in the Disney films we kind of skipped, like the desire to make The Jungle Book more fun and reference a lot of popular music styles, and how that film and The Great Mouse Detective  introduced us to villain songs. Little Mermaid is the first princess movie with a villain song, and man is it a classic. (Also, fun fact, Ursula’s character was based on Divine, the drag queen from Pink Flamingos.) But, it’s not just Ursula who has great songs. In fact, the music was what really captured audiences and, I think, may have been why people wanted a resurgence of Disney princess stories instead of, say, more Oliver and Company. Ariel’s songs are catchy, pop-ballads, still wonderfully sing-able, and other characters, like Sebastian, the crab, have great tunes, as well.

There is some controversy over Sebastian, like the fact that he is Jamaican and everyone else is so white. And there is a throw-away scene of “the blackfish” which… yeah, if you catch it, it is pretty bad. But, I don’t think that kids catch this. I never did. So, I think that if you are introducing kids to racially diverse media, this is unlikely to create subconscious racism. I don’t think they’re going to notice, although I also wish it wasn’t in the film. But, for me, it’s like the naked woman in RescuersShe’s there, but did anyone notice her as kids? I certainly didn’t.

Also, I think Sebastian is Jamaican because of the music the studio wanted to do, and probably that’s where the entire rationale went. For better or for worse, I don’t think he’s meant to be offensive. And, for better, I think his songs are great. “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are catchy, fun songs, at least as memorable as a lot of stuff Andrew Lloyd Webber was producing at the time.

So, in the end, I wouldn’t say this is the greatest film ever made, but I do think it is important. It ushered in a new era of Disney, and it created a new kind of female character. I know she’s flawed, but I like that she’s flawed, because as a teenager I was also very flawed. I still am flawed. And, somehow having a princess be this flawed is really reassuring.

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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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