“Sleeping Beauty” is the final film of the Storybook Trilogy, a term I’m using to describe the three Disney Princess films that are framed by a storybook. These have films that are ultimately fairly faithful elaborations on classic fairy tales and feature incredibly detailed visuals. What’s also interesting is that while we have three films that feature princesses or girls who become princesses heavily in the plot, the next time we see an official Disney Princess is 30 years later with “The Little Mermaid.” (“The Black Cauldron” features a princess, but that movie failed and isn’t included probably because of how dark it is and how poorly it did at the box office.)
“Sleeping Beauty,” which is adapted from the Charles Perrault story and has a score adapted from the ballet by Tchalkovsky, is essentially Disney’s art film. Yes, the film’s titular character is being used now to sell shoes, socks and sippy cups, but if you pay close attention to the film it isn’t like most Disney films. (Neither is “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” but we’ll get to that in a few weeks.) There’s really only one major musical number, “Once Upon a Dream,” and all of the other songs are choral pieces that underscore scenes, similar to the Latin singing in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
The film however does not really focus on Princess Aurora (Mary Costa), the Sleeping Beauty. The film starts off at the birth of Aurora, which is a wildly celebrated event. Everyone is invited, except Maleficent (Eleanor Audley), who decides to gift Aurora with a curse that she will die on her sixteenth birthday after pricking her finger with the needle of a spinning wheel. Concerned for her safety, King Stefan (Taylor Holmes), burns all of the spinning wheels while three fairies, Flora (Verna Felton), Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen) and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy); decide to raise Aurora as Briar Rose and lead her to believe that she’s been taken in by three peasant women. Shortly before her sixteenth birthday, the fairies prep for the party while Aurora is out in the woods. There, she meets Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley), whom she’s been engaged to since she was born. They fall in love and return to where they came from. Meanwhile, the fairies fighting has informed Maleficent that the fairies are in the forest, so she knows where Aurora is. When the fairies take Aurora to the castle, Maleficent leads Aurora to a spinning wheel where she pricks herself and falls asleep, but does not die thanks to a spell put on her by Merryweather. The fairies put the entire castle under a sleeping spell and they try to save Phillip so he can save the kingdom.
Although this is entitled “Sleeping Beauty,” it could really be retitled “Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.” In fact, other than to have Aurora fall in love with Phillip so that they’re in love and not just fulfilling the obligations of arranged marriage, the scene set in the forest is basically about the fairies trying to prep for a party without magic. Is it compelling film? No. But that’s what the film focuses on. In fact, Aurora could never be seen on screen and we could just be told of what happens and the film could possibly function quite well. This isn’t to suggest that the film would be better without Aurora, I’m just trying to point out how unimportant she feels to the film. I can excuse that Phillip seems to take over the film in the last quarter of it since he has to save the princess, but it does seem odd that the fairies–there were seven in the Perrault story–dominate the story.
The best part of watching the film, other than the arranged and adapted score, has to be the visuals. While there were already great backgrounds with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Cinderella,” here are backgrounds that have depth, such as in a banquet hall in the castle. Another interesting thing is that almost all of the characters have either sharp lines for faces or very round lines, an interesting character design since it’s not exactly realistic, but some of it would carry on in Disney animation.
Honestly, if you’re looking for a film to enjoy based on how it is constructed as art, I would say that “Sleeping Beauty” would be a great movie. But for a movie to watch based on its princess, not so much. Which brings me to the main point.
But is Aurora a Good Role Model for Children? No.
This is mostly because of the lack of characterization for Aurora that I discussed earlier. Maybe if she felt as instrumental to the plot as Snow White or Cinderella were, I could give a definitive answer. But other than that she’s pretty, kind and sings well, but two of those were the result of gifts that Flora and Fauna bestowed on her. Normally, I would criticize her falling in love with a guy she thinks she just met, but I feel like that was put in so that it wouldn’t seem so bad when she ends up with the guy she’s been betrothed to since she was a baby. I also can’t criticize her engagement since that was kind of common back then.