"Once Upon a Dream..."
One thing that fascinates me about Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is that it’s really not about Princess Aurora at all. She’s certainly in the middle of everything – the reason for the story’s being – but truly, the film makes me think of an internecine fairy war between Maleficent and the three good fairies: Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. They’re the ones causing the tension, pushing the plot along, duking it out amongst themselves, though never quite directly. Prince Philip does have to face Maleficent at the end, but without the fairies’ aid, he would have been scorched toast before he’d even started.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that Aurora does not feature much in Sleeping Beauty. Because the story calls for her to fall asleep, she’s always out of the action…the really climactic action. She’s more a beautiful ideal – the reason all the other characters think and do and love or hate. Even in this modern society of ours, Disney seems to have tacitly acknowledged that there’s not much you can do with her by making their new Sleeping Beauty movie about Maleficent instead of Aurora.
I’ve always loved Sleeping Beauty. It’s one of my top two most cherished animated films from my childhood (the other is Beauty and the Beast), and it was partly because I loved those three fairies. They’re the real heroes, the main protagonists. I’ve read a lot, recently, about the destructive princess myth and how far Disney’s come from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Frozen – in terms of women being less helpless and supinely waiting for a prince to kiss and save them. But in Sleeping Beauty, you could argue that it is humans in general, and not specifically women, who are doing pretty badly in terms of empowerment. The fairies have it all – and they are all female.
It’s true, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather can be like bumbling, fluttery old maid aunts, but they do have ability…and they have dedication. They are the ones who hide Aurora in an effort to keep her from Maleficent; they are the ones who rescue Prince Philip from Maleficent and aid him (multiple times) in his escape and finally, in his defeat of her. Meanwhile, Aurora sleeps, her father and Philip’s father get drunk and sleep, the kingdom sleeps. Everyone sleeps while the epic fairy battle is waged – vicariously through Philip (apparently the fairies can’t challenge Maleficent directly).
I’ve always felt that Sleeping Beauty is one of the most visually unique and lovely Disney films. Walt Disney had already done two princess films – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella – and he wanted to make this one as unlike the others as he could. Disney said that he wanted it to look like “living illustrations.” To do this, he hired Eyvind Earle to do the artwork.
The film took six years to make and went over budget and one of the reasons was how long it took to draw everything because all the animators had to match Earle’s style. Neal Gabler, in his book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, describes his style as “influenced by Dürer, Van Eyck, and Brueghel, but with a modernist twist in that the images were more abstract and less realistic and three-dimensional…” It was based heavily on Medieval art and architecture – there was a lot of research – and to me it looks like animated medieval mural. It was shot in Super Technirama 70, which was much wider than usual and contributed to that long mural look.
When Sleeping Beauty was released, it didn’t actually do that well with either the critics or the audience. It did much better, however, in subsequent releases throughout the years and become beloved and admired by many people, from animators to young children. Neal Gabler felt that the way the film was drawn made it too cold and that the story suffered with too much fairy interaction and too little Aurora. To me, however it is perfect. I love the fairies and rather than having a cold look, it looks magical – like an art gallery come alive – but a slightly darker magical as befits a slightly darker, medieval magic.
Alex Cranz, in her article “Sleeping Beauty (1959) May Not Be Progressive But It Is Critical,” says that “owing largely to that sumptuous artwork and thrilling use of Tchaikovsky’s music, [Sleeping Beauty] is more like a dream. It effortlessly flows from scene to scene, and Aurora, despite being unconscious for more than half the film, is ever-present.” I think a dream is exactly the right assessment of the film.
The music in the film is almost entirely drawn from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty ballet. The music and the singing is more classical than popular or Broadway-esque. To find a voice for Aurora, Disney took years. He wanted someone with a more operatic voice (if a character has a heavenly gift of song, they probably shouldn’t sound like a pop singer) but also a youthful and clear voice. Finally, he found Mary Costa and felt her voice had absolutely everything he wanted.
Of course, I don’t think the film would be nearly as memorable without the voicing of Maleficent by Eleanor Audley (click here for my previous post about both character and actor). She is quite simply the most marvelously undiluted villain in the Disney canon – the perfect blend of voice and visual art.
She’s so spiteful and evil that she’s willing to devote sixteen years of her life just to make sure that her curse is fulfilled. That’s dedication. And the three fairies are equally willing to dedicate sixteen years of their lives to ensure that Aurora does not fall victim to the curse. I always wondered what Maleficent and the three fairies did before Aurora was born. What wars they must have had. There’s a prequel I would pay to see.
Notes: Mary Costa is most known for being the voice of Aurora, but after doing the movie, she went on to have a very successful career in opera. The voice for Prince Philip was provided by Bill Shirley, who also provided the singing voice for Jeremy Brett in the film version of My Fair Lady.
A running gag throughout the film is Merryweather and Flora’s fight over what color Aurora’s dress should be: pink or blue. I always wanted blue. Merryweather is my favorite character and I was rooting for her to win…and I like blue. My sister wanted pink. In the closing moments of the film, Flora and Merryweather are alternately changing the color of the dress as Aurora and Philip’s dance morphs into a picture in a book and there was a debate in our house for some time about what color the dress was just before the book closes. After careful viewing, however, we determined that it was pink. However, I like to think that the battle continued after the book closed.
Here is the link to the documentary, “Once Upon a Dream: The Making of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.”
For a further flavor of the beauty of the animation in Sleeping Beauty, here are some more images.