Friday, December 3, 2010

Sleeping Beauty Is Very Average Children's Fare, Even On An Exceptional DVD

The Good: Bright and colorful, Good DVD bonus features
The Bad: Light on character development, Short, Very obvious and saccharine family fare.
The Basics: A very simple fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty embodies Disney's obsession with obvious and wholesome animated films.

It is a rare thing that I sit down and watch a Disney film and while I went and saw Up last year, it has been a while since I was actually excited about going to see a Disney film. My wife, however, seems to like such things more than I and in an effort to spend time with her in ways she enjoys, I found myself today watching Sleeping Beauty. This is generally considered one of Disney's classic animated films and it is a solid children's animated movie.

Made in the 1950s, Sleeping Beauty is an adaptation of a book and an opera and one suspects that the trippy animation wowed viewers quite a bit more back in the day than it does now. This is intended as a very pure review of the Disney film, not of the source material upon which it is based. That said, Sleeping Beauty is charming and fun, but it is also rather simple and very short, making it hold up poorly for adult audiences.

King Stefan and his queen have a baby, the Princess Aurora, whom they love very much. The pair invites the entire kingdom to come and pledge their loyalty and love for the baby Aurora. At that event, three fairies come to bestow blessings upon her. Right before the third comes to bless her, the evil witch Malificent arrives to place a curse on the baby. At age sixteen, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. The third fairy circumvents the curse by proclaiming that when she pricks her finger, she will fall asleep instead and will awaken when she is kissed by her one true love. The three fairies then disguise themselves as humans and take the baby to the safety of the woods to raise her as her own.

On her sixteenth birthday, Briar Rose - as Aurora is now known - goes off into the woods while her caretakers try to bake her a cake and make her a dress. There, she sings to the animals and tells them of her dream lover. Her prince, who happens to be in the forest at the time, hears her singing and they dance and she runs off home. Malificent's bird familiar hones in on Aurora's location and when Aurora is returned to the castle, Malificent uses the opportunity to hypnotize and curse Aurora. Aurora, ensorcelled, awaits the kiss from her true love, who happens to be Philip.

Sleeping Beauty is very much a film more about style than substance and in our world now, it seems like exactly what it is, a very old version of what was once considered stylish or new. So, for example, the movie wastes a couple minutes with two of the fairies changing the color of Rose's dress with their magic wands. As well, there is a rather simple sense of novelty to the inanimate objects moving around in the cottage on their own volition.

This is not to say there are no moments that hold up. Malificent's entrance into the film is appropriately spooky and the scene where she punishes her minions is decent. But many of the scenes look like exactly what they are, classic animation film based upon cells. So, the initial procession has three distinct layers the animation was done on and it looks assembled, even in the cleaned-up DVD print. Conversely, some of the scenes, like where Briar Rose interacts with the animals, there is a decent sense of movement and depth.

The charm of Sleeping Beauty, though, comes often at the expense of genuine character development. In true Disney form, Sleeping Beauty is a love-at-first sight story with little to actually connect the prince and princess. Similarly, Philip's father King Hubert, interacts with King Stefan in a way that is more about movement than substance. After sixteen years, they are sparring as if they are still on tenuous terms. This results in a ridiculous fight where Hubert attacks Stefan with a fish and the resolution comes with as little sense of consequence as the fight did.

Sleeping Beauty is remarkably wholesome, if in a very obvious and character-restrictive way. The young man rebels against his father, though he is unwittingly doing exactly what his father wants. In this way, the movie is very safe and does not threaten the social order in any way. This is in contrast to virtually every other form of mythology where the current generation overthrows the prior one (usually violently). As a result, audiences are taught to respect their elders instead of developing beyond them. Similarly, the film is remarkably disappointing for how it neglects consequences. Even as Philip rebels, the fairies put everyone in the kingdom to sleep so they will never know Aurora has fallen victim to Malificent's magic or Philip has run off to be with his peasant love. This lack of consequence becomes utterly ridiculous to those who have an attention for detail when Philip is captured; he is menaced by a goblin with a mace, but the goblin never actually swings at him or uses the weapon!

More than being about Aurora or even Prince Philip, Sleeping Beauty is fleshed out by the three fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. These three women are courageous enough to invade Malificent's Forbidden Mountain and just clever enough to keep Aurora from being killed. And yet, they are hapless enough that bad things still befall Philip and Aurora and theirs is the solution that denies the actual sense of consequence.

The music in Sleeping Beauty is particularly unmemorable, despite the recurring song from Aurora about meeting her love in a dream. The songs with lyrics are mediocre and this is not truly a musical and the incidental music is almost constant and telegraphs the emotions the director wants viewers to feel. This might work for children, but it is less likely to entertain or inspire adult audiences.

Indeed, Sleeping Beauty is very much a children's movie and the story is short and simple as a result. On DVD, the film arrives as a two-disc version that is loaded with previews for other films and a bonus disc packed with featurettes. On the bonus disc, the animation and music are explored in such depth that there is no point to having a commentary track (which there is not). As well, there are featurettes on how the film was restored for the DVD and seeing how the movie looked before allows younger audiences to appreciate just how good they have it.

Even so, it is hard for me to look at Sleeping Beauty as a very mediocre story of love at first sight and the triumph of good over evil with remarkably little spice in between. Even my partner, who was excited to see the movie after many, many years of not seeing it, seemed a bit underwhelmed. But for me, from Disney, that is pretty much par for the course.

For other Disney films, please check out my reviews of:
Lady And The Tramp
The Little Mermaid


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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