Friday, January 29, 2010

#16: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

'Sleeping Beauty' was quite a big project by Disney. And by 'big' I mean massive. From story to finished film, it spanned a decade, and is one of the studio's most ambitious projects, being shot in Technirama widescreen (ie: super duper widescreen), done in six-channel stereo sound, and printed on 70mm film. It was also their most expensive to date at $6 million. Thankfully it was a rousing success, as audiences embraced this new fairy tale as they did with 'Snow White' and 'Cinderella' before it, and for me, I'd say 'Beauty' falls somewhere between those two.
In a medieval kingdom, king and queen welcome a baby girl Aurora into the world, and set up an arranged marriage to the young prince of a neighboring kingdom to unite them. Unfortunately, the mistress of evil Maleficent is right pissed about not getting invited to the baby shower (not making this up) and curses the child, setting forth that on her 16th birthday she shall prick her finger on a spinner's wheel and die. However, the three Good Faeries, who had been previously blessing the child, manage to modify the curse to make it so the child merely falls asleep, to awaken at love's first kiss. They pose as mortals and go off into the woods to raise the girl to avoid rousing suspicion. As Aurora's 16th birthday arrives, she meets the Prince in the forest and falls in love, neither knowing they're set to marry anyway, and are irate about their arranged marriages. Meanwhile Maleficent finds out her hiding place and is ready to stir the shit, leaving it up to the Prince and the Faeries to save the day.
In attempting to distinguish itself from the fairy tales before it, this film implements a more illustrative style, almost like medieval-like drawings come to life, with a less rounded look. I like how they were shifting up their character designs slightly. The backgrounds are lush and beautiful, although at times some of the shots of the kingdom start to become bothersome with a bunch of pinks and purples. The super widescreen here looks great, with the artists taking full advantage of the full frame, and works especially well in long wide shots of the castle, and serves to make the final dragon battle more epic.
While the look is good, I can't help but say I had issues with the story. In a similar fashion as 'Cinderella,' there is not so much emphasis on Aurora or the Prince; the whole movie is spent with the three Good Faeries, who are serviceable maybe as side characters, but since they get the most screen time, we have to treat them as primary. Unfortunately they're rather uninteresting, and also rather reckless. They haphazardly alert Maleficent's raven to their forest hideout, they leave Aurora alone in a room in the castle to get taken away a few moments later as they sit outside, and what do they do when Aurora has been put into a deep sleep? They put the whole damn kingdom to sleep as they go off to find the Prince. That's nice. Now Maleficent or some other neighboring force can ransack the whole place and no one would ever know. That's wise. Their methods of equipping the Prince to fight is odd too. They give him the sword and shield, and meanwhile leave him to fight through the sharp thickets. Hey, why not turn his horse into a unicorn? That way it can fly and impale shit with its horn? I could go on and nitpick like this, but it's not really nitpicking to me when these characters keep picking and choosing when to best use their magic powers. You also may be thinking I shouldn't be thinking too deep into the plot of a Disney cartoon. By thinking that, you therefore view animation as a lower form of storytelling, which it isn't, and I shall ask you to leave this blog now before I stab you.
So yeah. With the boring Faeries getting most all of the screen time, we don't really feel much of Aurora's despair or the Prince's determination since we're not too invested in their characters. At least I wasn't. However there are a few scenes that perked my interest. Anything with Maleficent was great fun to watch: she has no real motives for her evil (although that kind of makes her more awesome) but she's incredibly well designed and has a great evil presence. The squabbling kings of the two kingdoms are great too, as is their loyal bard who's constantly trying to get drunk. Yep, classic Disney.

Verdict? An artistic and filmic masterpiece, that I'm sorry to say falls a bit short in the story department. It's nowhere near as scatter-brained as 'Cinderella,' but is not even close to the level of solid storytelling as in 'Snow White.' I put this one right smack dab in the middle. Yep, that's where it belongs.

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