I’ve watched Disney’s 1959 animated feature film version of Sleeping Beauty several times, the most recent time being in its utterly pristine, gorgeous Blu-ray. And when I say gorgeous, I mean gorgeous. I’m no Blu-ray expert, but even I can tell they pulled out all the stops on this one. Every frame is like a great painting. And really, that speaks to the film’s strengths as a whole. It’s easily the most opulent film made under Walt’s regime, full of pomp, beauty, terrific character animation in a different, far more angular and abstract style than usual, and one of their best action climaxes ever (not just the short dragon fight, but the escape and build up). So saying all of that, what’s my opinion on the film as a whole? In a word: good. Or rather, the rest of the film BESIDES the visuals is good, but those are amazing. The rest is just not on the same level, whereas in some other cases, even if the animation isn’t up to par, I can recommend Disney films on writing or acting levels (Robin Hood, for instance).
This is not so much the case here, though there are a few things I do enjoy re: the writing and acting, and I suppose I should go ahead and mention them now. First things first, the three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are clearly the film’s main characters, and the story is much better off for that realization. Like most films (hell, this film) during this era of Disney, they’re broadly drawn stereotypes, but are amusing in their flaws and foibles: Flora is the leader, Fauna is a bit of a scatterbrain, and Merryweather a smartass grouch. My favorite non-Maleficent line in the film is, when told she can’t turn Maleficent into a toad because their magic is supposed to make people happy, to respond “Well, it would make ME happy.” Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston supervised the animation on them, and they’re full of life throughout as a result, while Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen and Barbara Luddy do a great job as the voices. The other side characters like Kings Hubert and Stefan are also well done; the scene where they drunkenly celebrate and argue while a minstrel sneaks wine into his glass and then guitar is a film highlight.
And then we have our villain, Maleficent. Wooooooo boy is she AWESOME. While I enjoyed the revisionist Angelina Jolie-starring Maleficent from last year to a certain degree (mostly because Jolie acted the shit out of it), I have to admit to preferring the unapologetically pure-evil version found in the animated film. Surprisingly, she’s not actually in the film all that much; the film is 75 minutes long and she’s onscreen in total for maybe about 10-15 of those. But between Marc Davis’ brilliant design and animation, her getting the best lines (in particular a marvelous little scene where she outlines a cruel future for Prince Philip, in rhyme no less), and Eleanor Audley’s terrific performance, she’s a Disney villain for the ages. Even her dragon form is onscreen for a very short amount of time, roughly a minute, but it kicks so much ass that it’s what a lot of people only remember about the movie. Even her goons are memorable, sharp edged and nasty like her, and her crumbling castle lair has some great backgrounds, though this is basically “Great Backgrounds For Your Desktop: The Movie”. Little wonder that Maleficent ends up as the architect or leader in a lot of Disney’s crossover material like Kingdom Hearts.
And now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, there’s a big gaping hole in the middle of the film that just does not really work for me at all: our ostensible leading lady and man. Now, I should note that they’re not awful characters. Aurora/Briar Rose and Philip are, like the rest of the film, brilliantly designed and animated (Davis pulling double duty on her, and Milt Kahl doing Philip), and as a result show more personality than, say, Snow White or Cinderella or their princes. There are some great bits where Aurora slyly figures out that the fairies are hiding something from her, but plays along anyway, and Philip gets some good facial reactions. Mary Costa and Bill Shirley do an admirable job with their vocal and sung parts. And “Once Upon A Dream” is a great song, one of the classic Disney love songs, even if perhaps the film doesn’t completely earn it. Really, the music as a whole is wonderful, with composer George Bruns rearranging Tchiakovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet into the score and songs (“Once Upon A Dream” is the ballet’s waltz for instance).
Honestly, after all that, there’s not really a whole lot I feel I can say about the film. It’s a straightforward, uncomplicated fairy tale that benefits immensely from the artistry and not much else. As a technical exercise, it’s brilliant, and story-wise it’s far from unwatchable or boring; I might not buy “Once Upon A Dream”, but I can certainly appreciate how it looks and moves. It just doesn’t quite strike me as the best of the best, the cream of the crop. I like my Disney films to have a little more meat on them character-wise, and no matter how hard those fairies, good and evil, work, I just can’t buy into the film emotionally when its romantic leads are duller than dirt.
So in the end, I do quite LIKE Sleeping Beauty. It’s a fantastic experience. I only wish it were a little better as a film.