by Jacob Rubin
The most expensive Disney movie at the time, Sleeping Beauty (1959) was one of the most arduous projects the Disney studio ever undertook, resulting in it being in production for six years. The backgrounds of this piece, developed by Disney animator Eyvind Earle, were inspired by early Renaissance paintings, and looked almost otherworldly with the character designs. The multi-plane camera, the revolutionary animation tool Disney popularized and employed in his films from the beginning, was pushed to its limits (at the time) to show the complete scope of King Stefan’s domain, with copious amounts of well-envisioned background characters, and deeply detailed buildings within the little kingdom, all animated separately in layers, creating a terrific sense of depth.
Later, as we get into the film’s more sinister side, and we witness Maleficent’s home life, surrounded by green flames and gruesome little gremlins (eerily similar to the creatures dancing around the Chernabog in the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia (1940)), we see that the same approach that made us feel so immersed and comfortable in the setting can also scare us, as the villain’s world feels more real than it ever has (compared to the evil queen’s dungeon in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), or Captain Hook’s ship in Peter Pan (1953)). Thanks to this, Maleficent feels like a real threat to our heroes, whereas other villains have just felt like mere obstacles to get our happy ending.
This brings us to Maleficent herself. Villains have always been essential in films like this (the medieval heroic quest-type), and the evil witch who curses Aurora with the horrible jinx that makes her have an adverse reaction to spinning wheels would have to be a malicious creature indeed. Maleficent is clearly influenced by the evil queen from Disney’s first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The pair of them have similar motives, and, like any good villain, are pushed on their quests by selfishness and jealousy, hoping the amount of chaos they can cause with their magic, large or small, will grant them what they want. However, unlike the evil queen, Maleficent beats around no bushes. She comes down from her realm of terror to call the king and queen out on their fatal mistake in excluding her from the princess’ christening, executes her vengeance swiftly, and gets the hell out of there (presumably to return to her realm, which may in fact be Hell). She does so all while maintaining her unbreakable composure, and never loses her cool until her minions fail her years later.
Maleficent is a chilled, cunning plotter, who only raises her voice when she finds it necessary. Of all the threats in the early-era Disney films, hers seem the most real, as we see how effortlessly she curses Aurora, how easily she tempts the princess to the spinning wheel, and how simply she surrounds her castle prison with thorns. (She also turns into a dragon, but that looks like it takes some planning.) By contrast, we have Captain Hook in Peter Pan, a bumbling doofus. Though clever, his plans are easily foiled once Peter Pan appears, due to his loud and childlike persona.
In the classic hero-verses-villain story, the more potent the villain, the more the story is about them. Every story needs an antagonist, but the degree of relevance of the antagonist varies from story to story. Maleficent is a potent villain, and the story of Sleeping Beauty is about how Aurora, Philip, and the fairies overcome her. All plot points and issues to tend with relate to Maleficent in one way or another. Captain Hook is a less effective nemesis, but Peter Pan isn’t about Peter Pan fighting Captain Hook, it’s about Wendy and the Darling children discovering Neverland and what that means for their childhood.
Not only does Sleeping Beauty have the first real villain, it also has a developed romantic lead. Before Sleeping Beauty, the princes in the Disney Princess movies are underdeveloped cardboard standees with little to no dialogue (outside of singing, and they’re lucky if they even get that). In the studio’s previous film, Lady and the Tramp (1955), Disney learned that a love story works more effectively if we’re seeing both sides of the relationship, and not just the pretty girl pining after the haircut in the regal clothes. With that, we are given Prince Phillip, the first fleshed-out Disney prince.
Phillip flirts, dances, engages in slapstick with his horse, confesses his new love of Briar Rose (the name Aurora uses when she’s in hiding) to his father, defies the rules, and fights – with a sword and everything – to earn his happy ending instead of simply having it handed to him like the princes before. Admittedly, yes, he’s not nearly as explored as he could be, and can’t even hold a candle to Tramp or some of the later Disney heroes, such as Aladdin in Aladdin (1992) or Captain Phoebus in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), but there are steps taken with Phillip toward real consistent heroic development for the studio. This was severely helped by giving him a first name. You’d think giving major characters first names would be a no-brainer, but it looks like it took them a few years to figure that out.
Sleeping Beauty represented many firsts for the studio, but also ended an era. The next film, 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians, was shot using Xerox cels, a major time-saver for the studio. This means that Sleeping Beauty was the last film to rely on the traditional technique of hand-inking every frame, and the subsequent movies had much more fast-paced and spontaneous animation. This is very evident in 101 Dalmatians, as well as The Sword in the Stone (1963) and The Jungle Book (1967), which would be the last film produced under Walt Disney’s supervision, before his death in 1966. Sadly, Sleeping Beauty was something of a fiasco, and only made back slightly more money than it cost to produce (it cost $6 million, and made $7.7 million). Though the second highest grossing film of the year, Sleeping Beauty – like Fantasia and Alice in Wonderland (1951) before it – was an artistic struggle that saw mixed critical reception in its time. Today, however, it is one of Disney’s most popular princess films, and has been called one of the best animated films ever made.
Jacob Rubin is an Oakland-based writer and comedian, currently finishing up his undergrad in Creative Writing at Goddard College. His piece for Paper Tape was part of a larger project on Disney film, the research process of which made Jacob happier than he has ever been in his life. He can be followed on Twitter at @jacobsrubin.
(Licensed: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)