Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sleeping Beauty Puts Me to Sleep

My sentiments, exactly.

I just watched the new DVD release of Sleeping Beauty. It’s the first time I’ve seen the film in over a decade and maybe two. It has never been one of my favourites, but watching it now I’m struck by how poor the story and characterizations are. If not for the high production values and the presence of artists that I know to be more than capable, I would say that Sleeping Beauty is a poor imitation of a Disney film.

I am not a fan of Eyvind Earle’s artwork. I don’t have any insightful reasons for that; it just leaves me cold. Beyond Earle’s design style, I’m also not one who is impressed by detail. For me, all stories are about people and if the visuals don’t support a worthwhile story and characters, they are wasted. It’s no different than the common refrain that a particular movie isn’t very good, but the special effects are great. If a movie isn’t very good, I don’t care about any of the elements.

The story of Sleeping Beauty is ludicrous. An evil fairy is insulted for not being invited to a party, so she puts a curse on the princess in the cradle. By the sunset of her sixteenth birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. I can’t begin to fathom how absurd this is. If Maleficent is angry enough to kill the child, why not do it on the spot? Why drag out the process for 16 years? And why a spinning wheel? Why not a disease or a fall or choking on food? This may be what the fairy tale original demands, but the Disney studio was never shy about rewriting its source material.

What’s worse is that Maleficent has no motivation to speak of beyond being miffed. Does she have a history with the royal family? Have the three good fairies caused her trouble in the past? Is she unable to have a child of her own? We are told nothing. Furthermore, Maleficent is a dolt. Her henchman search for the princess unsuccessfully for 16 years and she only questions them closely at the end of that time? What’s she been doing all those years? Watching the clock?

The three good fairies are even more empty-headed than Maleficent. They know that the curse will expire at sundown on the princess’s sixteenth birthday. They put away their wands so that their magic will not draw attention to her. Yet with hours to go, they bring out the wands and tip off the bad guys. Their reasons for using magic are also unbelievable. They’ve been living in the woods for 16 years and haven’t figured out how to make clothing or prepare food? Who made the princess’s clothing as she grew? What have they been eating all this time?

This stupidity is compounded by them bringing the princess back to the castle before the sun sets. Instead of leaving her hidden in the woods until the curse expires, they tempt fate by bring her out into the open. Why? The only reason I can think of is because the story artists couldn’t think of anything better. There is no logic to this.

What’s most disappointing is that the good fairies and Maleficent are the most interesting characters in the film. The king and queen have longed to have a child. When they finally do, they are forced to give up all contact with her for 16 years in order to protect her life. In the interim, they have no other children. Imagine the psychological stress these parents would endure and how their loss would colour their entire lives. That’s meaty material, but the film ignores the Queen entirely and the king is barely more fleshed out. When it comes to the climax of the film, the royal family is literally asleep, unable to influence events in any way. When the king and queen are finally reunited with their daughter, the sum total of the emotion displayed is a hug.

The two kings are more poorly developed than the two kings in the Fleischer version of Gulliver’s Travels. It isn’t often you can credit the Fleischers with better character development than Disney, but it is absolutely the case here.

The princess is stuck in the woods for 16 years. Has she had contact with anyone besides the three fairies? Has she ever encountered men? She dreams of romance, so she has to be aware of them. She can see the castle from the woods. Has she never been curious to visit it, just as a tourist? If the princess has any thoughts, the audience is not privy to them. In dramatic terms, she has no motivation; she seeks romance, but only in the most generic way. Unlike later Disney heroines like Ariel, she does nothing to find or sustain her relationship. The prince finds her in the woods and she falls instantly in love. Is it possible to be more passive?

The prince is over-matched by Maleficent if not for the fairies. Every step of the way, they use magic to allow him to escape and battle the dragon. Why don’t they cut out the middle man and just battle Maleficent themselves? What’s worse, they put the inhabitants of the King’s castle to sleep, so why don’t they do the same to the inhabitants of Maleficent’s? That would have saved everyone a lot of effort.

There are many Disney features done while Disney himself was alive that suffer from story structure problems. What was usually present, though, were memorable personalities. Many claim that Sleeping Beauty suffered due to Disney’s interest in Disneyland and the studio’s TV work. That may be so, but the film looks like the studio forgot everything it knew about story and character when it made this film. The fact that nobody could see this or stop it, plus the fact that so much money was spent to finish the film, resulted in major layoffs and marginalized the animation department. While some people celebrate this film, I see it as a self-inflicted wound.

28 comments:

Pete Emslie said...

Ouch! Though my opinion of "Sleeping Beauty" is certainly more generous than yours, Mark, I can well appreciate your criticisms of the film. Admittedly, I really love the Eyvind Earle backgrounds, but I agree that they should not overwhelm the characters and the story. As it is a fairy tale, I'm willing to cut the film some slack in the story department and overlook a few of the plot contrivances and unanswered questions you bring up. Until you mentioned it just now, I can't say I ever thought about how Briar Rose had been fed and clothed up until her 16th birthday - yet it does seem worth questioning.

As one who has seen "Sleeping Beauty" a fair number of times over the years, my main beef with the film is how little actual screen time is alloted to the title character. The film starts with the birth of the baby Aurora, then jumps ahead 16 years to re-introduce her as a young woman with the pseudonym of "Briar Rose", which in itself seems rather schizophrenic. Unfortunately, we don't get to spend much time with her, as she only has the short time with the animals in the forest, sings her song, meets and dances with Prince Philip, and is shortly thereafter whisked back to the castle where she gets lured away to prick her finger and fall into her preordained sleeping curse. The next time we see her conscious is after the climactic battle leading to love's true kiss. Then all she gets to do is regally descend a staircase, hug her parents, and waltz with Philip while the Fairies battle once again over her dress colour!

The real stars of the film are Maleficent and the 3 Fairies, all of whom should be secondary to Aurora and Philip. So, yes, it is a very weakly plotted film as you say and, though I can appreciate the visual stylings (and the Tchaikovsky score via George Bruns), I agree that it doesn't have much else going for it. In fact, considering the plotline is so very slight, it's hard to justify its screen time.

john said...

Not cool. This is one of my favorites and a Disney masterpiece.

Not cool.

Pete Emslie said...

John, though you may personally love "Sleeping Beauty", no film should be above honest and thoughtful criticism as Mark has presented here. Heck, I love "Robin Hood" myself, yet it may be one of the least liked by the critics among all of Disney's animated library. And I'll bet Mark really hates that one! :)

Thad said...

I love you.

Francesco said...

There is a quote from Disney in one of the extras the gist of which is - that was dull lets add more cute forest animals. The quote was about the scene were Aurora meets the Prince , but to me it could be about the entire movie.

Allieep said...

Thank you SO much for this review, Mark. For years I have wondered what exactly makes Sleeping Beauty so popular, apart from its art style(which to be honest, is not my cup of tea either). It is easily my least favorite non-sequel Disney movie. I loved the Grimm tale when I was a child but I find this movie so dull in plot and character, and just so darned contrived. I'd go into further detail, but you've already written the same points out so well that I think I'll just skip it and just heartily agree with everything you've said. :)

JPilot said...

Cutting straight to the heart of the matter, once the blue fairy (Merryweather, I am guessing) blesses her child with "being awaken by true love's kiss", after Maleficent had left, she needed no more protection or whisking away in the woods for 16 years, the curse had been successfully deflected. The one who really needed protection was the Prince. All that Maleficent would have to do is seek him out and kill him.

But don't be so harsh on Disney about a story that was poorly conceived as the original fairy tale was in the first place. Trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear must not have been easy.

JPilot said...

Blesses THE child, not "her" child...

Bill White said...

I concur with you, Mark. One of Disney's most boring films. Not as dull as "Rescuers Down Under", but close.

Mark Mayerson said...

Jpilot, there's even a bigger logic flaw regarding the curse. Merryweather deflects it after Maleficent has gone, so how does Maleficent know about it? Once she gets Aurora to prick her finger, Maleficent should assume that the curse has succeeded and go home. Why does she search for Aurora's love when she should have no knowledge that a kiss would make any difference at all?

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Excellent analysis, Mark. You hit it right on the head. I have to agree that Sleeping Beauty is the most boring out of all the Disney animated features.

Michael J. Ruocco said...

Part of me likes Sleeping Beauty & another part doesn't, & unfortunately for me, the latter outweighs the former. Sure, there are SOME small aspects of Sleeping Beauty I DO admire, but not enough to excuse the fact that it's a fairly decent substitute for Nyquil for me. Bores me to sleep.

But still, there's an audience for everything. People do watch it, & people do enjoy it. Sure it ain't perfect, but I know plenty of friend's little sisters who think just the opposite.

rdms said...

So, Mark, when can we expect to see the mosaic for this? ;)

Anonymous said...

Shesh, is this "I hate Disney year"? At least they didn't produced a poorly 3D moster TV show.

Floyd Norman said...

For all us young kids learning our craft, "Sleeping Beauty" was an excellent training opportunity.

Walt was distracted by the park, and the old guys were left in charge of the playpen.

I still remember those years as a truly fun time, and we overlooked the many flaws of the film because we were all having one helluva time.

Michael Sporn said...

The film was a daring challenge to the animation style they had been doing at Disney. It's the opera to all those B'way musicals.

To my mind, it's a great film, but I understand and enjoy hearing/reading all the critical comments - certainly, the intelligent, thoughtful ones.

Nancy said...

This film's story would have sustained a ten minute short, no more.
The problem is the studio: they weren't used to creating strong, positive female characters. Just about the only one I can think of in an early Disney film is Slue Foot Sue in PECOS BILL.
Aurora is a passive character partly because of the story, but mostly because the story men couldn't think of anything more to do with her than use bad outtakes from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS that were cut for a reason, the first time.
She has no other function than to be pretty.
The original story has a lot of strangeness, as do most fairy stories, but there could have been a lot more going for SLEEPING BEAUTY than a literal retelling of it. Why couldn't some of the film have taken place in the Fairy Kingdom, since four of the major characters are fairies? But most importantly--why didn't the animators put some humor into Aurora's character by having her act like a peasant before she meets the prince? After all, she's lived in a woodcutter's cottage for 16 years. But her body language is precisely the same all through the picture; the sort of bland ballet-dance poses that were thought appropriate for female characters.
They could have taken a bit of inspiration from a contemporary Broadway show--MY FAIR LADY--and had a guttersnipe turn into a 'real lady'. This would not only make the conflict more interesting, it would make Aurora a character we cared about and liked. But this is something that they were not able to do--everything about the studio (and national) culture was geared toward strong male and passive female characters. Check out some of Disney's contemporary live action shows to see more of the same attitude. Girls can't DO anything. So instead of being inspired by MY FAIR LADY, they seem to have been inspired by Barbie dolls. Even the conflict is tepid--the color of a dress is no poisoned apple.
SLEEPING BEAUTY is a product of its time, but unlike other, better Disney features, it does not hold up well for later audiences, except on the most superficial level (art direction.)

Steve Schnier said...

Sleeping Beauty was never a favorite of mine. I've seen it many times over the years and it has never worked for me, either as a child or as a pro in the industry.

This brings to mind the question "What were they thinking?" Is it a case, as Nancy says, where the film simply doesn't hold up? Or, was it poorly recieved at the time of its production and release?

Floyd Norman said...

There was a lot going on at Disney during the fifties, and clearly Walt had other things on his mind. He was an excellent story editor, so he was hardly unaware of “Sleeping Beauty’s” story problems. Whatever interest Walt had in this fairy tale evaporated long before the film was completed.

In my opinion, Walt just wanted this movie out of the way. I think that’s why he eagerly jumped right into “101 Dalmatians.” And, in the years to come, he always griped whenever we suggested changing the “Disney house style.”

“Sleeping Beauty” was a bold experiment, and in many ways, it was a masterpiece.
However, I think Walt Disney thought it was a mistake.

billburgNYC said...

Another thoughtful and insightful post, Mark. A pleasure to read. Thank you.

Zartok-35 said...

I can't disagree with any of the factors brought up here...They are all relevant to the film. After watching it, I can't deny that I didn't get the same kick I got from 101 Dalmations or Peter Pan. It came off as- 'THIN'.
But it was well rendered. It's fantastic to look at!
I can't bash that Drunken Minstrel, either...

Mr. Semaj said...

I always loved the art of Sleeping Beauty. But I have to agree that this film really belongs to the three fairies, since Disney had a habit of letting their secondary characters (Jiminy Cricket, Tinker Bell) dominate their films anyway. Not to mention the passiveness of the female lead, which wasn't tackled head on until their next fairy tale 30 years later.

One solution to the fairy fight over Aurora's dress color that I thought would've been cool was Fauna changing the dress green once and for all. :D

Nancy said...

It is interesting to compare SLEEPING BEAUTY with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST to see the changing attitudes toward female leads in the ensuing years. B & B was also in development at Disney's in the Fifties, but it was considered too static-- 'a lot of shots of people having dinner with one another'. Once the girl, and the Beast, got to do something, it got easier to tell the story. Over-literal interpretation is the bane of modern storytelling.

Jenny Lerew said...

Sleeping Beauty has always seemed to me like a pastiche of a Disney feature rather than the real thing--at least, where the actual story is concerned. It's all about the Art-it certainly has some incredible color styling, and some of the most gorgeous backgrounds and designs in the layout dept that were ever done-BUT...aside from the total proficiency of the animation technically(Aurora, Maleficent and her raven and goons, Prince Phillip's horse, the forest animals, the movement of the 3 fairies and the kings)it feels like everyone was loaned out to a pretender of a Disney studio. The stiff, stentorian narration(totally unnecessary), the ciphers of the main characters...the film as a story just doesn't add up to match the beauty of the visual elements. Little old depression-era Snow White and mild mannered Cinderella kick these characters to the curb, entertainment wise.

I will say that the Blu-Ray is jaw-dropping to look at.

Mitch K said...

She fell in love with the prince because he was a good dancer. That's what women really want!

The battle with Maleficient is really dramatic and really cool. It happens to be one of my favorites.

And although you're not a fan of the artwork, I think the colours are very nice. (I've never seen appealing pinks until Sleeping Beauty!) That's more than I can say for Pocahontas!

disneyfan93 said...

I know this blog is old but your review of Sleeping Beauty basically describes why I don't like the movie in a nutshell.

Anonymous said...

It's a fact that Sleeping Beauty is totally overlooked, most of the people love Cinderella and Snow White... I really prefer Sleeping Beauty, even with a weak plot, don't know why, it's the soundtrack or the scenarios. I still believe that an amazing director will remake this as a live-action (Not Maleficent 2014 film), with more story and dialogues, some day...

Jill Marie Young said...

I found this movie to be boring, it is not worth the $25 for Blu-Ray release. Frozen is way better then this... I liked Sleeping Beauty when I was little, but 30+ years later, I found it boring. I mean isn't the "Princess" is suppose to be the hero of any story? This is why I am glad I did not purchase the Blu-ray because it is freaking boring! This is out of my Disney collection for life.