One of my best friends from high school and I were obsessed with this movie, so much so that I half expect her to crash my daughter’s naming ceremony next month and inform me that she, too, has a gift to bestow upon the child. Which, provided there were no spinning wheels involved, I’d welcome; I miss her. We shared the mutual pen name of Maleficent to publish poetry in the school’s literary magazine (to pad out the number of authors appearing in it; we didn’t get as many submissions as we would have liked), and in fact one of the last times I saw her was Grad Night 1995. It was very early morning on Main Street, and I bought the stuffed dragon that has since had its portrait painted and now appears as my Disqus avatar.
But Angie and I came to our love separately. It was a thing we had in common, not a thing we discovered together. I barely ever had a chance to see Sleeping Beauty growing up; the Disney Channel seldom played it, and we didn’t own it on VHS. But I loved it and watched it every chance I got. I know Angie felt the same. These days, I own it, and I have upgraded once or twice, too.
It’s a fairly standard telling of the fairy tale, of course. Princess Aurora. Maleficent. The three good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. (Though I always get Flora and Fauna backwards, because I feel as though Flora should wear green because plants.) Prince Philip. The Sword of Truth (fly swift and sure, that Evil die and Good endure). Spindles, spinning wheels, etc. Having decided to actually let her meet her True Love before the spell is broken, they do rather skip that whole “hundred years’ sleep” thing, but other than that, it’s the same as a lot of other adaptations of the story except in its minor details.
I mean, that’s what Disney really made a name doing, when it comes to feature animation, right? Though fewer of its movies are fairy tale adaptations than people think—not even a dozen, depending on what you consider a fairy tale adaptation—that’s what most people seem to think of when it comes to the features. There’s that whole Disney Princess line, for example. There are a few more, if you add in adaptations of things like children’s books and so forth, but still.
Still, the reason they’ve been so successful at it is the quality of the film. Particularly this one, which I consider the finest animated movie Disney ever made. It’s got some strong competition—we’ll be getting to you some day, Fantasia—but I will go to the barricades for this one. It’s got music based on Tchaikovsky and art based on medieval paintings; what do I have to do, draw you a road map? And I also have good things to say about the script, the characterization, and all kinds of other things.
Still, you’ve got to start with the art. Just spectacular. Supervising director Clyde Geronimi was not a fan of the elaborate ornamentation Eyvind Earle created, especially when contrasted with the relatively flat character design, but I’m a huge fan of even the watered-down version that appears in the finished film. Yes, it’s unusual that so much effort was put into the background while the characters are fairly simple, but I like that. I love the idea, as Earle suggests in the Wonderful World of Disney about the making of the movie, that you could see every leaf on every bush, every crack in every rock.
It’s also not unlike medieval art in that right. Many of the “extras” are painted right onto the backgrounds, which does have the basic feel of a medieval-art crowd scene, where the more minor characters aren’t important enough to get detail. The humans are as detailed as they need to be. In a way, it also helps them stand out where a more detailed drawing might get lost in all that background detail—and a more detailed character would have a lot more to get wrong from cel to cel, come to that.
Aurora/Briar Rose (Mary Costa) is, in my opinion, an underrated character. She takes a lot of grief from a lot of people as having slept through her entire movie, but of course that isn’t true. Yes, she’s a baby at the beginning and does sleep through a fair chunk of the movie, but she’s awake for enough for her to develop a personality. For one thing, we see that she has a sly sense of humour, especially regarding her guardians. Sure, it’s more conveyed by looks than anything, as Aurora barely has any lines. But we do see it. She may have fewer lines than any title character other than the mute Dumbo, but she is a strong enough personality that I think she’s better developed than, say, Snow White.
On the other hand, I’m not sure her mother (Rosa Crosby) has any real lines, and it wasn’t until I started work on this piece that I realized that she has a name—Leah. Her father, King Stefan (Taylor Holmes), gets a personality, including obvious love for a daughter he hasn’t seen in nearly sixteen years. Her betrothed father-in-law, Hubert (Bill Thompson), is a bit of a buffoon but developed enough so we know that. And Philip (Bill Shirley) is not merely the first Disney Prince with a name but developed enough so that it’s possible to have an opinion on how well he’ll actually get along with his future bride. But Philip doesn’t have a mother at all, and Apparently Queen Leah lets her child go without a word, just tears.
Walt originally wanted the Three Good Fairies to look identical, in a Huey, Louie, and Dewey kind of way, and thank goodness he lost that argument. My favourite has, of course, always been Merryweather (Barbara Luddy). It’s strongly implied, I thought, that she’s the one doing all the work. As they are preparing for a last celebration with their beloved Briar Rose, she points out that Flora (Verna Felton) can’t sew and Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen) has never cooked, and it doesn’t take much to piece together that Merryweather has been doing all the work for sixteen years. She’s short and feisty and the smartest of the three, even if Flora takes control of everything.
I will also confess to a perverse fondness for the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland. Completed before the movie was, the version of my childhood was a walk-through exhibit of the movie’s plot that didn’t seem to have been part of the Fantasyland remodel of the ’80s. The part of the mystic light that Aurora followed to the spinning wheel was still, even in the ’90s, played by a cotton ball on a stick with a lightbulb in the middle. It was hokey and I loved it.
Maleficent? Best Disney villain ever. It’s not just that she got to say “Hell,” albeit as a place name. It’s not her horde of Bill Peet-designed demon-things. It’s not just that she turns into an awfully cool dragon, though I have had that dragon for all these years. Or her costume while she’s in humanoid form, itself inspired by a specific image from medieval art. Or her cool demeanor half the time, or her towering rage when it feels necessary. Or her snarkiness. Or the enormous list of other things about her. She doesn’t get a Villain Song, and indeed I don’t know if Eleanor Audley could sing. But other than that, can anyone else even come near her?
And the music. I’m a classically trained musician, and I’ve even played some Tchaikovsky in its original—abridged, but not adapted. Not from the ballet Sleeping Beauty, granted, but still. I remember singing “Once Upon a Dream” with my older sister in our backyard when we were kids. I think we had a tape of various Disney favourites, one that came with a picture book where we would Know It Was Time To Turn The Page When We Heard The Chimes Ring Like This. Aurora may not get many lines, but she does get two songs.
I find myself tripping over more and more things I could mention about this movie, which is probably my second-favourite of all time (after Roman Holiday). I’ve probably forgotten three or four worth mentioning, and I know I’ve only slightly touched on others. Apparently, the “pink or blue?” debate between Flora and Merryweather was inspired by the animators’ uncertainty about it themselves. I always kind of wondered why it never occurred to anyone to compromise and make it purple.