Monday, November 19, 2012

Sleeping Beauty (1959) - A Disney Movies Sleeper Hit

Sleeping Beauty: Maleficent on the Prowl Against Princess Aurora

DVD Cover Sleeping Beauty 1959
Everybody knows the fairy tale story of the Walt Disney movie "Sleeping Beauty" (1959). Princess Aurora (Mary Costa) is the beloved only daughter of her loving royal parents, who name Aurora that because she brings sunshine into their lives. A neighboring kingdom, ruled by King Hubert (Bill Thompson), has an eligible suitor, Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley). A marriage is arranged to bring the two families together.
Maleficent enters the castle in Sleeping Beauty 1959
An uninvited guest
There are three Good Fairies who come to bestow blessings on the match and lavish gifts upon young princess Aurora: Flora (Verna Felton); Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen); and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy). They are good-natured, though quarrelsome. There is an uninvited Fairy, however, and when she shows up, that is when the trouble starts.
Aurora and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Touch the spindle!
The uninvited guest in this Disney movie is Maleficent (Eleanor Audley), who is known to all as The Mistress of All Evil. Maleficent has come down from her lonely perch on Forbidden Mountain because she is upset at being excluded from the festivities. Just like with "The Godfather,"you have to show a little respect, so it isn't all her fault. Maleficent curses Aurora, and Maleficent is someone you don't want cursing you. Maleficent states that at the age of 16, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.
Maleficent plotting in her castle in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Maleficent has an idea
The Good Fairies cannot stop Maleficent, but they can help in other ways, and boy do they help. Merryweather places Aurora into a deep sleep until the spell can be broken, and the fairies carry Sleeping Beauty Aurora off into the forest so she can hide, incognito, under the name "Briar Rose." King Stefan (Taylor Holmes), frantic to save Aurora even though she must leave him forever in order to survive, orders all the spinning wheels in the land destroyed, and they are - all except one. An evil creature like Maleficent will not be deterred, however, so Maleficent scours the kingdom to find Sleeping Beauty Aurora and make her prophecy turn into reality.
Maleficent gesturing in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Maleficent talking to her bird
While this Disney movie follows the basic "Sleeping Beauty" fairy tale closely, it makes a few modifications. The prince, who in fairy tales usually only arrives at the last minute and does very little, is very active in this film. Prince Phillip battles dragons and witches, actively courts Aurora in the forest even though he doesn't know her identity, sings and dances more, and generally acts like the first super-hero. Comparing this film to "Snow White," you see the stylistic changes that Walt Disney probably, in hindsight, wishes that he had incorporated into that earlier film rather than in "Sleeping Beauty."
Maleficent in all her glory in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Maleficent in her palace
The really startling character of this Disney movie, though, is Maleficent. The fearsome Maleficent is brilliantly drawn, quite beautiful in her own way, with garish stylistic similarities to the Evil Queen in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and the cackling laugh of the Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz." The evil oozing out of Maleficent is all the worse because it stems from common emotions such as petty jealousy and spite that we all can understand. When the furious Maleficent turns into a dragon and threatens Prince Phillip with "Hell," a rarity indeed in a Disney movie), it is obvious that it is not just any old dragon, but a dragon embodying the fiery spirit that drives a Maleficent crazed with hatred and frustration. Maleficent is voiced by Eleanor Audley, who also did Lady Tremaine in the original "Cinderella," so she was an old hand at creating classic characters in Disney movies. As portrayed, the character of Maleficent is one of the great villains of all literature. From time to time, you even read about someone like Tim Burton being interested in making a film focusing squarely on her. There actually is a film called "Maleficent" nearing completion, starring Angelina Jolie. It will be interesting to see a Disney move fairy tale villainess from her own point of view. "Sleeping Beauty" may be a fairy tale you subconsciously have filed away in the back of your brain as passé, but it is has been and remains front and center to very powerful people in the creative arts in the past, today, and always.
Aurora asleep in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Aurora, beautifully drawn
"Sleeping Beauty" Aurora also is one of the great creations of Disney movie animation, though Maleficent is a hard act with which to compete. She is beautiful, and must be for the story to resonate. Mary Costa as Aurora demonstrates a fantastic operatic singing voice, and never got her full due for voicing this classic role of "Sleeping Beauty's Aurora." Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty Ballet" is used throughout, and the original song "Once Upon a Dream" is one of the great tunes of all animation. George Bruns scored the film with cutting edge 6-track stereo which he went all the way to Germany to find (the Beatles several years later had to make do for much of their existence with four tracks, and began with only two) and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.
Aurora in forest in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Aurora, like Snow White, is a friend to nature
There are many scary scenes in this Disney movie. The background music adds an air of foreboding to "Sleeping Beauty," and some of the scenes almost appear psychedelic, such as the evil Maleficent inducing Aurora to touch the deadly spindle, leading her there with a spectral ball of green fire. Even Maleficent doing simple things like oozing up the stairs of her dark palace, or her pet raven looking back with malevolence, are spooky. The "Sleeping Beauty" artwork was the brainchild of Eyvind Earle, officially the color stylist, who lavished inordinate time and detail on the backgrounds and the artwork. "Sleeping Beauty" has a unique look that combines the medieval and the modernistic, something a modern-day computer simply can't replicate in quite the same way.
Aurora asleep Sleeping Beauty 1959
Aurora in her chamber
The most surprising thing about "Sleeping Beauty" is that this Disney movie, the most expensive animation ($6 million) made by the Disney movie studio up to that time due to Walt's rigid refusal to accept less than perfection for the fairy tale story of "Sleeping Beauty" Aurora, was a financial failure when it came out (though it was re-released many times and thereby ultimately became the second-highest grossing film of 1959). Clyde Geronimi, who had helped direct "Cinderella" back in 1950,gets the directing credit for "Sleeping Beauty," but this was Walt's pet project from start to finish, almost an all-star affair. Even the great Chuck Jones worked on "Sleeping Beauty" during a brief time when Warner thought that 3D was going to take over, but it didn't matter. The time simply was not right for animation, or a classical fairy tale, or both. Also, the tale and style is very similar to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," enough so that it seemed as though Ol' Walt had run out of ideas and was repeating himself (and he even originally wanted seven fairies, not three....). It didn't matter that his mantra throughout production was "It can't be like Snow White," when you see Aurora in the forest mingling with the gentle forest creatures, it almost seems like a remake of that classic Disney movie - and no remake was necessary, the original still held up quite nicely. Several scenes discarded from "Snow White" were used in "Sleeping Beauty," underlining the similarities. In addition, the heroine almost disappears for much of the film and only has eighteen lined of dialogue in the entire Disney movie, so essentially this becomes a Disney movie about the supporting players such as the royal parents, Maleficent and the fairies. The fairies are all very nice, but the film is "Sleeping Beauty," not "The Three Good Fairies." A final problem was the rise of Television: Disney had a weekly program on throughout the '50s, and the "common wisdom" was that there was no reason to pay to see something you could see for free on the little box in the living room anyway. The entire film industry quaked in terror, not just the Disney movies studio, leading to the first "3D" craze (sound familiar?). Of course, there was nothing quite like a quality Disney movie such as "Sleeping Beauty" on the tiny black-and-white sets most people were using then, but many people at time followed what seemed like common sense like sheep. A fine example of peer pressure in action, or maybe mass psychosis.
Prince Phillip battles the dragon in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Maleficent the Dragon
Disney lost money on "Sleeping Beauty" that year, apparently a lot of money, but was saved by the Disney studio's huge television revenues. Walt Disney, badly burned, became gun-shy. Wouldn't you if you had other sources of revenue that were steady, growing and enabling you to expand to new, profitable ventures such as theme parks? Walt Disney even talked about shutting down the Disney movie feature film animation operation entirely, though he never actually followed through on that threat. Disney did look for ways to cut costs on the production of Disney movies and had to lay off a lot of people. In any event, the Disney movies studio didn't experience a true revival, despite occasional huge financial successes such as "The Jungle Book" and "The Rescuers," to its former heights of glory until it finally, at long last, took a chance on another fairy tale in 1989l, thirty years later, with "The Little Mermaid." When that Disney movie succeeded, "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) followed and cemented the Disney Renaissance, pumping new life into the whole animation genre. Disney movies returned to being the powerhouses in animation that they once seemed destined to become. But, despite the problems this Disney movie caused and its initial lack of popularity, "Sleeping Beauty" holds up well beside any of those later films, and perhaps above them all. "Sleeping Beauty" is one of the absolute classics and delights in the Disney movie library is this tale of love and redemption.
Prince Phillip finds his Princess in Sleeping Beauty 1959
The Prince finds his love
You could say that "Sleeping Beauty" is a film only for little girls. You can say that "Sleeping Beauty" is old and tired and nobody now needs to view it to understand animation's possibilities. You can say that all of women's troubles in the world are caused by wanting the "Sleeping Beauty" fairy tale to be true for everyone, when it can't be. You can say that animation has surpassed "Sleeping Beauty" and that this Disney movie wasn't ever as good as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" anyway.
Prince Phillip Aurora in Sleeping Beauty 1959
True love's kiss is what it takes
You can say all that about "Sleeping Beauty" - and you'd be wrong. Ask yourself a question, but answer secretly, only to yourself, and never tell a soul, especially me - in your heart of hearts, when all is said and done - wouldn't it be nice?

Below is a link to the entire film, if you wish to view it.



Post a Comment

//PART 2