What’s not to like in a film that contains the line, “Father, you’re living in the past. This is the 14th century”? Disney’s restored DVD version of the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty is worthy of note, not just because it provides a welcome contrast to the sort of thoughtless mediocrity that kids now typically endure at the local metroplex. The just-released DVD — which contains informative extras, interactive games, and the option of wide- or full-screen viewing — impresses upon the viewer the remarkable stylistic coherence and captivating narrative of Sleeping Beauty, a film justifiably labeled an animated classic.
The restoration involved attention to 118,000 separate frames. The result is visually stunning. Disney had previously restored Snow White, its first release and the standard by which its subsequent productions were measured. But Cinderella, which followed Snow White, sparked some criticism for mimicking the story and style of its predecessor. At Disney, the original plans for Sleeping Beauty emerged as early as 1952, yet it was not completed and released until 1959. In the intervening years and under the stewardship of designer, Eyvind Earle, the artistry and plot were transformed into something quite different from what Disney had ever done before. Earl was a student of pre-Renaissance Gothic art. As he explains in the wonderful commentary track, he wanted the distinct verticals and horizontals to dominate. He added resonance and depth to the film through the rich construction of colors and an unparalleled attention to detail in the background of each scene. For these, the Gothic tapestries and illuminated manuscripts provided the model. It was also the first (and last until the 1980s) of the wide-frame Disney productions.
The design finds a complement in the nuance of characterization and in the marvelous way in which the plot integrates the comic and the grave. Nearly all the classic Disney films feature some sort of contest between good and evil, but Sleeping Beauty ranks at the very top for its complexity of characterization and its rich symbolism. The good fairies could quite easily have become saccharine cutouts — imagine three versions of Cinderella’s fairy godmother. But the fairies have distinct personalities. Complexity is added through comic elements, as in their bumbling attempts, after having eschewed magic, to make Aurora’s birthday cake, whose liquidity ends up resembling something out of a Salvador Dali painting, and her gown, which looks like it was custom made to be worn to the Academy Awards.
The artistry of the bad fairy Maleficent, whose very name means evildoer, is splendid. With her flowing gown resembling flames, her horns, bat-like wings, and chilling voice — the same voice as Cinderella’s viciously frigid stepmother, Maleficent is the most serious of Disney villains. When she materializes from smoke with a green ball propped in her hand, draped in black, with beady, motionless white eyes, she appears as a confident and mysterious, demonic figure, a theme she makes explicit just before her final battle with Philip: “How shall you deal with me, oh prince, and all the powers of Hell?” As she transforms herself into a giant dragon, the good fairies provide Philip with a magic sword, “Now, sword of truth, fly swift and sure, that evil die and good endure.” Thus begins a ferocious battle, which ends with Philip triumphant, Aurora awakened by “love’s first kiss,” a royal wedding, and the restoration of order and peace in the kingdom.
The “once upon a dream” theme song that runs through the film certainly captures the story’s fantasy and magic. But it does more than that. The song states that “visions are seldom what they seem” but adds, “if I know you…I know you’ll love me as you did once upon a dream.” Of course, the prince and the princess have met before, as children, when after Aurora’s birth, their parents arranged for their future marriage. As Prince Philip is sent to the baby girl, the narrator comments, “And so to her a gift he brought and looked unknowing on his future bride.” But the film is saying something else about dreaming, loving, and remembering.
When they meet as young adults, it is by chance in the woods near the cottage where the three fairies have secretly raised Aurora, called Briar Rose. Each thinks the other is a peasant. The meeting sparks instant love between them and, since they do not know one another’s identities, engenders resistance to the marriage arranged by their royal parents. Eventually, of course, they come to recognize that the true object of affection is the person they have been arranged to wed. The movement from dream anticipated to dream realized involves a series of trials and tribulations, a journey that transforms the young into adults and renders them worthy of inheriting the throne and ruling justly. Thus the film, which has the structure of a classic Shakespearean comedy, moves toward an integration of arrangement and consent, politics, and personal affection, the high (the royal) and the low (the peasant).
The film fulfills the promise of its opening frames, in which we enter the story through the pages of an illuminated storybook. We willingly suspend disbelief as we enter another world, another time, and find ourselves enraptured by classic themes in the very contemporary medium of film.