Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Beautiful Dreamer: Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty”

Disney’s Sixteenth Animated Feature — 1959
Sleeping Beauty, or rather Princess Aurora (or maybe you know her as Briar Rose) has been given new life as one of the Disney Princesses (trademark symbol most definitely here). She’s the princess with long blonde hair and pink dress. My daughter has a Disney Princess snow shovel with her picture on it. That’s one broad product line. Why three names? The character is born and named Princess Aurora in the Disney film, based on a 17th century story La Belle au bois dormant, (The beauty asleep in the wood) by Charles Perrault, later interpreted as Little Briar Rose by the brothers Grimm. Disney uses “Briar Rose” as her alias when she goes into protective hiding as a peasant girl.

Notice the difference in animation
styles in these squirrels from 1959's
Sleeping Beauty (left) and
Snow White.
This film is a feast for the eyes. The look of the world of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was inspired by medieval tapestries, re-interpreted with a modern color palette—lots of red/pink combinations, electric blues, acid greens—that keeps the look very modern. The background paintings are elaborately drawn, with a single background painting taking a solid week of work as opposed to the usual one day’s effort to create backgrounds for other films of that era. Characters that inhabit this visually complex world are drawn with a modern, streamlined touch. If you compare the look of squirrels from Sleeping Beauty (seen on the left) and Snow White, you can see the evolution of Disney style.

Left to right: Merryweather, Fauna, Flora,
and Sleeping Beauty.
The story does share a few plot points with Snow White: both princesses escape to the forest and live as peasant girls, though Sleeping Beauty was hidden as a baby and does not realize she’s royalty. Both have lovely voices and are friends with the adorable animals of the forest. In both cases, a handsome prince falls in love with a girl he presumes to be a peasant girl. And in both cases, the girls are the objects of scorn: Snow White’s stepmother is jealous of her beauty; and the evil fairy Maleficent is angry at Beauty’s parents for excluding her from a reception for the baby princess. And in Snow White, her evil stepmother (who knows witchcraft) tricks her into tasting a poison apple that puts her into a magical “sleeping death” spell. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent curses her so that by her 16th birthday, she’ll prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into an enchanted sleep. In both cases, the spell can be broken with a kiss.

The art direction in the background
art is magnificent.
Disney decided to re-use some particularly effective voice talent from earlier pictures. Verna Felton voiced the character Flora. She’s the “lead” good fairy, dressed in orange. Felton had already voiced the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, the Queen of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland and Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp. Barbara Luddy who voiced Lady in Lady and the Tramp is the voice of good fairy Merryweather. And actress Eleanor Audley who did such a great job with the voice of the wicked stepmother in Cinderella provides the voice of the sorceress Maleficent in Beauty, so it might be easy to perceive Sleeping Beauty as a re-tread. That would be a mistake.

Sleeping Beauty’s a rip-roaring, magical, escapist adventure. And Sleeping Beauty is filled with memorable female characters—Princess Aurora herself; the wicked fairy, Maleficent; and the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather—who make it their life’s work to raise and protect the princess and un-do the evil done by Maleficent.

The character of Briar Rose/Princess Aurora is very sweet but also strong. When she finds out that she’s actually a princess and must give up the young man she just met (Prince Philip in disguise), she faces down her sad fate and accepts her duty. When she returns to the castle, wicked Maleficent puts a spell on her, tricking her into touching a spindle and falling into her enchanted sleep. Little did she know that Prince Philip had just informed his father that he had no intention of going through with his arranged marriage, because he had just met and fallen in love with a peasant girl (Aurora in disguise), “After all, father, this is the fourteenth century.” So Philip gets to have all the fun and hack through the forest of thorns, fight the dragon, and break the magic spell, all as Aurora sleeps. But in fighting the dragon, Prince Philip actually does battle with Maleficent, so there is a strong female presence in every action scene. Maleficent’s a formidable foe.

Prince Philip gets a little help from
the good fairies.
But here’s the true story of Sleeping Beauty: If you look closely, Prince Philip doesn’t defeat Maleficent; the Good Fairies do. Philip was a defeated man, captured and chained in Maleficent’s dungeon. The Good Fairies break him out. They give him enchanted weapons. They enable his escape, even using magic to allow his horse to make an impossible leap over a gorge. They help him hack through the thorn forest, and when Maleficent changes into a dragon and Philip is almost defeated again, the Good Fairies step up. Flora uses a magic spell to enable Philip’s sword to find its mark. An eruption of colored sparkles in orange, green, and blue—the colors of the Good Fairies—underscores that it was their magic that defeated Maleficent. This really is the 1950s in miniature: women do all the work; men grab the glory.

The happy couple's final waltz from
Sleeping Beauty (top) is duplicated
in 1991's
Beauty and the Beast.
But Philip does break the sleeping spell. He saves Aurora by loving her, for as the song lyrics say, “True love conquers all!” This is the ultimate message of virtually every Disney film that incorporates romance into its narrative: love is the greatest power in the universe; not such a bad message. The celebration of the triumph of love is celebrated in Aurora and Philip’s final dance to the charming love song, “Once Upon A Dream.” As I noted in my essay on Beauty and the Beast in 3-D, this moment is duplicated in Beauty and the Beast, right down to the pattern on the floor and the clasped hands behind the back of King Hubert in Sleeping Beauty/Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast. And why not? They are, after all, virtually identical moments. Love saved Princess Aurora, just as it saved the Beast; just as it can save us all.

My daughter Julia as Sleeping Beauty.
My little girl loves this story. In fact, she was Sleeping Beauty last Halloween. I don’t have a problem with that. There are more than enough strong women in Sleeping Beauty to go around. All of the Disney Princesses seem to fulfill a child’s dearest wish: to be the center of their parents’ world, attentions, and affections. When my daughter grows up, nobody will expect her to sit silently while a man takes credit for her work. And that’s progress. The magic of Sleeping Beauty continues to charm audiences, decade after decade, with its memorable characters, exciting story, and exquisite animation. And that’s why it’s a classic.


  1. What a beautiful little girl you have! I have most of these movies. I guess you could say I've collected them. I still love them.

    1. Thank you, Mary! This is one of my all-time favorites.