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Let’s talk a little about “house styles” shall we? A house style is basically where you have a large number of creators working on a single work, and so they modify their individual artistic voices to conform to a uniform style. The goal is essentially to make something that is the product of all these individual people seem like it’s the work of one person, a single artistic voice.
Say you’re a journalist. Depending on which publication you get work for, you will have to write in a completely different style than you might normally use. It’s almost like becoming a different person.
It’s something that most writers have to deal with, and learning to adapt to a house style is a vital skill for anyone hoping to make their living as a scribe. And I absolutely SUCK at it. I learned this when I tried to get a job writing for Ireland’s most popular soap opera.
Pff. No RTÉ. I think you’ll find that it is you who are “wildly impractical“.
House styles are certainly a necessary part of collaborative work but they have their drawbacks. For starters, a house style has to be fairly basic and easy to pick up which limits your scope to produce something unique and innovative. It can also result in a stifling culture of conformity and aversion to risk taking. Let’s take a look at the Disney house style.
Two drawings, by two different artists, from two different movies, most likely drawn years apart.
That’s just how effective Disney was at imposing its house style on its animators. Now, personally, I love the Disney style. It’s attractive, fluid, detailed without being busy and wonderfully innocent. But the Disney style has always had its critics. There are those that think it’s bland, tame and lacking in flair. And guess who one of those people was?
Yes. Amazingly, by the nineteen fifties Walt Disney himself was sick of his own house style and decided to do something about it. To understand why, I want you to take a look at these…
Those are pieces of concept art done by the inimitable Mary Blair. Blair worked on many of Disney’s movies and may in fact have been his favorite artist, which is kind of like being Caesar’s favorite emperor. Now Walt Disney was many things; a brilliant marketer, an entrepreneurial visionary, a hard-headed and often ruthlessly anti-labor business man…
…but he was first and foremost an artist and I will fight anyone who says different in the street with a broken wine bottle in each hand. And it killed Walt that Blair was producing these lavish, gorgeously distinctive works of art which were then stripped of their essential “Blairness” by having to be reduced to the Disney house style. So Disney decided to attempt an animated film that was as beautiful and distinctive as its concept art.
Spoiler alert. He did it.
It took eight long years, but he did it.
It cost six million dollars, more than any animated film up to that point, but he did it.
It cost so much to make that, despite being the second most successful animated movie in history at the time, Walt was forced to make massive layoffs in the animation department in 1960. But he did it.
The movie is Sleeping Beauty. And it is a glory to behold.
We start (don’t we always?) with the opening credits and c’mon baby Poppa needs a new pair of Putnams!
He’s gone. No more Thor Putnam. I…I don’t know if I can even finish the review. What happened to Thor Putnam?
The movie begins in the same way as the previous two fairy tale movies did, with an opening book. We see beautifully detailed medieval style illustrations which set up the basic premise, King Stefan and Queen Leah have had a beautiful baby daughter named Aurora and the whole kingdom has turned out to greet the new princess. We then fade from these gorgeous manuscript style illustrations to the animated artwork.
Beautiful. Sumptuous. Jaw-dropping. Gob-smacking. Stunning. Eye-popping. Divine. Awe inspiring. Radiant. Superb. Magical. Breathtaking. Ravishing. Sublime. Resplendent. Gorgeous. Revelatory. Angelic. Dazzling. Magnificent, Pulchritudinous,Wonderful.
Real darn purty.
Okay, if the movie will give me a second to pick my eyeballs up off the floor we’ll continue.
King Stefan and Queen Leah are throwing a royal baby shower. And you read that correctly, Aurora is a Disney princess whose mother is still alive! And SHE EVEN GETS A LINE OR TWO!!
You know, in my lifetime I’ve witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union, the election of the first black US President and the reshaping of society by the internet. But I never thought I’d live to see that.
King Stefan welcomes King Hubert and his young son, the Prince Philip to the court. The plan is that Philip is going to be betrothed to marry Aurora because it’s the Middle Ages and child marriage is how they roll.
Hubert tells Stefan that…wait a minute. Otto Von Bismarck?! You were in this one too?
Jesus you’d gotten fat.
Anyway, we are now introduced to our leads. No, not Sleeping Beauty and Philip.
Yes, I know Aurora and Philip are technically the main characters but a funny thing happened in the process of making this movie. The three good fairies were so appealing and interesting that more and more of the story was given over to them with the end result being that they are the true heroes of the movie. All the action of the film arises either from their agency or Maleficent’s. In fact, the good fairies play such a dominating role in the film that it’s practically the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead of the original story, a version told from the perspective of three very minor characters in the original tale. This leads into what I said last week about Sleeping Beauty being one of the greatest feminist movies of the twentieth century. I want you to consider this:
Name me a big, blockbuster, mainstream film made in the last fifty years that has:
- A predominately female cast.
- Where none of the main female protagonists are young or conventionally attractive (this is if you consider Aurora to be a supporting character.)
- Where they are not sexualised in any way.
- Where the fact that they are women is simply incidental and in no way effects their competence.
- Where the female protagonists are working with rather than against each other.
Give up? I thought maybe Calender Girls but then I remembered it’s about making a nude calender so that’s three out. This is what I mean. This is a fantastic movie in its portrayal of its women characters, I honestly can’t think of a mainstream Hollywood movie that does it better. And Walt Disney made this. Walt friggin’ Disney! What could he possibly have seen or experienced that would turn him into a radical feminist?
Anyway, the fairies. In red we have Flora (voiced by Verna Felton), in green is Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen) and finally in blue we have Merryweather (Barabara Luddy, who also voiced Lady).
Red, green and blue…
Red green and blue.
Oh god no, the flashbacks!
Disney originally wanted the three fairies to be identical, like Huey, Dewey and Louie but they eventually became far more distinct both visually and in their personalities. Flora is the no-nonsense leader, Fauna is the ditzy sweet natured flower child and Merryweather is the tough hothead of the group. Their Wolverine, if you will.
The three fairies have come to give the newborn princess three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Sorry, no. Flora gives her the gift of beauty, Fauna gives her the gift of song and Merryweather gives her…well we never find out what Merryweather was going to give her and it’s been a source of some speculation. A poll on the Disney princess site chose “Intelligence” which is a very good answer, but not as good as mine.
But we never find out if Aurora could have survived the bonding process because the doors of the palace are flung open and we are introduced to the sheer dark awesomeness that is Maleficent.
When Disney villains go to college to learn how to be Disney villains, they pass Maleficent’s statue in the courtyard.
She is it. She is the gold standard. Everything about her, the design, the voicework by Eleanor Audley, the music that her scenes are set to. I’m just about ready to call her the greatest Disney villain of all time but I know we have some strong contenders coming up when we get to the Renaissance so I’ll hold off for now. But my God she’s awesome. And yes, I am aware of the upcoming Maleficent movie starring Angelina Jolie (who has managed to become the most famous actress in the world despite appearing in almost no good or successful films) and I am not having it. Eleanor Audley is the only actress who I will ever consider to be worthy of Maleficent and nothing can change my mind.
Okay, that looks fucking amazing but I’m staying the course dammit!
Maleficent says that she’s quite upset that she didn’t receive an invitation and Merryweather blurts out “You weren’t wanted!” which seems to take Maleficent aback.
Maleficent curses the baby, saying that when she turns sixteen she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Why sixteen? Why a spinning wheel? Why not just turn into a dragon and go Godzilla on the whole place?
Fuck you, that’s why.
Maleficent departs and the fairies tell the king and queen that Merryweather still has her gift to give, and that while she can’t undo Maleficent’s curse, she can take the edge off a little bit. Merryweather casts a spell that will make Aurora fall into a deep sleep rather than die, and says that she can be awakened by love’s true kiss. So instead of getting absolutely bitchin’ adamantium claws, Aurora gets beauty, song and a coma. Worst. Birthday. Ever.
King Stefan, not holding with all this hippie “love’s true kiss” crap rather sensibly orders every spinning wheel in the kingdom destroyed. All part of Maleficent’s master plan.
The three fairies sit down and try to decide the best course of action and the scene perfectly illustrates their different approaches and personalities. Fauna believes there’s some good in everyone and wants to reason with Maleficent. Merryweather wants to go on the offensive and turn Maleficent into a toad. Flora takes the pragmatic middle approach. Maleficent is too powerful to go to war with, and too evil to reason with. So she will have to be outsmarted. This scene also tells us a lot about Maleficent even though she’s not actually in it. One of the reasons why Maleficent is quite possible the greatest of all Disney villains is that she is devastatingly effective. She always seems two steps ahead of the good fairies. She never makes stupid mistakes (her henchmen do, but that’s hardly her fault) or strategic errors. And the way the three fairies talk about her she seems almost omniscient, with Merryweather flat out saying “She knows everything”. Fauna responds that she doesn’t know anything about love or kindness or the joy of helping others and muses “I don’t think she’s really very happy.”
Flora’s plan is this; they will go off the grid. Disguise themselves as humans, take the baby into the forest and care for her themselves.
Sixteen years pass and Maleficent is furious that her army of weird…orc…things hasn’t found the Princess. Her chief henchman tells her that they’ve searched every cradle in the kingdom and Maleficent realises that they’ve spent the last sixteen years looking for a baby and unleashes a thunderstorm of pure rage on their asses.
Wearily, Maleficent turns to her most loyal servant, her pet crow, and sends him off to find Aurora.
Meanwhile we transition to the fairies cottage in the woods and get our first look at Aurora (or Briar Rose as she’s been named by the fairies). The third Disney Princess is voiced by professional opera singer Mary Costa. In a way, Aurora is probably the most passive of any of the princesses we’ve seen so far, but that’s really more the fault of the source material. It’s a story about a woman who falls asleep and is rescued by a prince. If you have her freeing herself and defeating Maleficent then its not Sleeping Beauty, it’s She-Ra.
Having said that, Mary Costa has a fantastic voice and brings a regal dignity to Aurora that we don’t really see in Cinderella and Snow White. Also, both the character design and animation are stunningly beautiful.
Anyway, the fairies send Aurora out into the woods so that they can prepare her surprise birthday party. Her birthday party. Alone in her house in the middle of the forest. With her three aunts and no friends. Hm. I guess that would be the worst birthday ever. The three fairies set about making a birthday cake and a dress for Aurora and Flora is adamant that they don’t use magic to do it for fear of attracting Maleficent’s attention. Flora uses Merryweather as a mannequin as she makes the dress which turns out terribly. Merryweather remarks “It’s awful!” but Flora simply replies “That’s because it’s on you dear.”
The fairies reminisce about the last sixteen years, and get weepy when then realise that they’ll soon have to give Briar Rose up. Meanwhile we cut to the forest and mabadaeelemajollop…
Oh my God. Oh my God in heaven. Look at this. Look at this thing. Apparently one of the hardest things about directing this movie was staging the scenes so that the characters weren’t overwhelmed by the gorgeous backdrops. Also, they were able to get so much detail into the scenes by using extra large pages which apparently were a cumbersome nightmare to animate.
Anyway, Briar Rose sings (and my God but Costa’s got the pipes) and this of course attracts the usual Disney forest detritus; rabbits, an owl, couple of birds. You know the drill.
We also see Prince Philip riding through the forest on his horse Samson. Now apparently Prince Philip is a MAJOR object of fangirl affection.
I kid, I kid. No. Evidently Prince Philip is considered to be one of the dreamier of the Disney leading men and I suppose I can sort of see why. He’s definitely got more personality than the princes in Snow White and Cinderella, in that he actually has a personality. His character design is also more expressive and he does get more lines. But by the end of the movie he is very much a prop to be moved around by the good fairies and he doesn’t actually speak for the last quarter or so of the film. Regardless, he is definitely a step up.
Briar Rose sings what’s probably the only mem0rable song in the movie, Once upon a Dream, which draws the attention of the Prince. Philip wastes no time in taking Briar Rose’s hand and getting up in her personal space and basically doing the whole aggressively charming thing that makes any girl want to say those three magic words.
Anyway, they sing a duet in a forest for a few minutes which in the Disney universe is the equivalent of a steady five year long relationship. And of course they fall in love despite not knowing each other’s names.
Briar Rose suddenly remembers she’s not supposed to talk to strangers and panics. She runs off and the Prince runs after her leading to a legitimately funny exchange:
“But when will I see you again?”
“Well, maybe someday!”
“Oh no…this evening!”
Back at the cottage, things aren’t going so well. Fauna’s cake is a shambling abomination unto the Lord.
And Flora’s dress is loaded with troubling symbolism.
Merryweather’s finally had enough and storms off to get the wands. Flora and Fauna finally cave and they use magic to make a new cake, and a new dress while Merryweather cleans the room by bringing the broom to life.
Unfortunately, Merryweather and Flora get into a wizard’s duel over whether Briar Rose’s dress should be pink or blue, shooting colours at each other which shoot out the chimney, attracting the attention of Maleficent’s crow.
Briar Rose is delighted when she sees the dress and cake, but her joy doesn’t last long. The fairies finally reveal her parentage to her and tell her that she’s not marrying some weird forest bum because she’s betrothed to Prince Philip. Briar Rose is heartbroken but goes with the fairies to the palace. The fairies give her a few moments alone in a bedroom to compose herself before the wedding.
And Maleficent strikes.
The scene where Briar Rose is hypnotised by a ball of green flame and led up a spiral staircase to her destiny with the Spinning Wheel is breathtaking in its macabre, eerie beauty.
George Bruns score for this sequence, a piece called “Maleficent’s Evil Spell” is darkly wonderful, a twisting, jet-black serpent of a piece, snaking unpredictably while a female voice hauntingly calls “Aurora, Aurora”. The fairies’ panic and desperation as they realise they’ve been outsmarted is heartbreaking. They arrive too late, with Maleficent standing gloating over Aurora’s prone body. Maleficent asks how they thought they could defeat her, the mistress of all evil and…yeah. That is a legitimate question. She’s awesome. They should have realised that. Could have saved everyone a lot of time.
The fairies lay the sleeping Aurora in a bed at the top of a tower and consider what to do next. Merryweather notes that the King and Queen will be devastated when they realise what’s happened but Flora says they won’t find out because they’ll put them all to sleep. As in, the entire kingdom.
The Princess is in a coma so you’re going to put an ENTIRE KINGDOM in a coma too? What the fuck!? That’s so much worse than what Maleficent has just done! I mean, think for a minute of the devastation this is going to cause. Even allowing that this is a magical sleep and they won’t die of dehydration or starvation, this is 14th century Europe and you have just put the entire army to sleep! They are going to be conquered in literally minutes. And don’t forget, one of the guests at the wedding is King Hubert, the ruler of a neighbouring kingdom. What happens to his kingdom now that their king is as good as dead and the heir to the throne is off chasing some peasant girl in the forest? It’s a Game of Thrones! There’s going to be dwarfs plotting and armies fighting and brothers and sisters doing things that brothers and sisters should not be doing! And winter is coming.
So well done Flora. Bravo. Great plan. To save two people the heartbreak of losing their daughter you have devastated half a frickin’ continent. I guess we should be grateful that Briar Rose didn’t actually die like Maleficent had planned otherwise Flora probably would have just set the entire kingdom on fire as her funeral pyre. Can you imagine if monarchies actually worked that way?
Well anyway, the fairies make their transition to cartoonish super villainy but as Flora is putting King Hubert to sleep he drowsily reveals that Philip has fallen in love with a peasant girl that he met in the forest. Putting two and two together, Flora realises that Philip is the one fated to break the curse and the fairies head back to the cottage to find him.
But as usual, Maleficent is two steps ahead of them and is waiting for Philip at the fairies’ cottage with a whole posse of orc things. They get the drop on him and beat him up while Maleficent looks on with a gaze of satanic glee.
The fairies race back to the cottage through the forest and MMamamamasmar
I swear to God movie, if you don’t stop being so beautiful I will go mad like some Romantic-era poet.
The three fairies fly in through the window but they’re too late. Philip is gone.
Flora decides that they have no choice. They will have to rescue Prince Philip from Maleficent’s stronghold on the Forbidden Mountain.
In the Forbidden Mountain, Maleficent takes a break from her celebration to visit Philip in the dungeon. In one of the most notorious scenes in the movie, Maleficent shows him his future. While she narrates a fairy tale of him escaping the castle and waking Aurora with love’s first kiss, she shows him what will actually happen. She will keep him imprisoned for decades until finally releasing him, an old, frail, broken shell of man. It is a quite stunningly dark scene, and shows how sometimes it’s the small scale moments that really bring home a character’s true evil.
The fairies manage to infiltrate the castle and free Prince Philip. Flora tells him that there will many more dangers to face, and so she’s going to give him the shield of virtue and the sword of truth.
After a thrilling chase through the castle on horseback the movie takes on a truly operatic scope as Philip gallops towards the palace with Maleficent casting down thunderbolts on him. As Philip gets closer Maleficent raises a forest of thorns around the castle but Philip is able to cut through them with the sword of truth, most likely because it’s truthful and not because it’s a sword. Philip reaches the other side and Maleficent realises it’s time for the boss fight. She appears in front of Philip in a burst of green flame and gives the famous line:
“Now shall you deal with ME O Prince! AND ALL THE POWERS OF HELL!”
And then…well, you know what time it is.
Maleficent transforms into a massive obsidian dragon, setting the standard for almost every magically powered Disney villain that will come after her. The dragon is an absolute masterwork, the kind of fusion of evil and beauty that you don’t often see outside of the works of HR Gieger.
Finally, after a desperate battle, the fairies give the sword of truth an extra jolt of magic and Philip flings it into the dragon’s chest.
With Maleficent dead, her power fades away. Philip enters the castle and kisses Aurora, waking her. The couple walk into the now awakened royal court. Aurora is reunited with her parents at last and the movie ends with Aurora and Philip dancing to the strains of Once Upon a Dream while Merryweather and Flora keep switching her dress between blue and pink.
Sleeping Beauty closes out the Restoration period of Disney movies on the highest possible note. This is a gorgeous, wonderful, breathtakingly beautiful film that nonetheless manages to keep it’s warmth and humanity and not simply be a cold setpiece for stunning background art. This is Disney back at his best, shooting for the moon and damn the expense. And the expense was colossal. Simply put, you can’t produce animation of this quality and expect to turn a profit. And it’s not like this was a flop. This was the studio’s biggest hit with the exception of Snow White.
Sleeping Beauty ran for weeks. It was the second most successful film of the year and there ain’t no shame in losing to Ben Hur (unless you’re a Roman) . And it still wasn’t enough to cover the movie’s costs and the relatively lacklustre performance of the studio’s live action movies in1959. If Sleeping Beauty was the high watermark for this type of animation, it was also its swansong. After Sleeping Beauty and the financial havoc it wrecked on Disney, everything would change in how the studio produced its animation. Everything, from the technology used, to the style and aesthetic, to the look and feel and sound of the movies would be fundamentally different. Walt Disney would never make another film like Sleeping Beauty in his lifetime. It truly marked the end of an era. But at least, in true fairytale fashion, it was a happy ending.
I wrestled with this a little. There could perhaps be an argument made that Pinocchio was a more technically accomplished film, but Sleeping Beauty is by far the more beautiful work so I guess they’ll both have to share the top slot.
The Leads: 12/20
Yes, I know it’s a little hypocritical of me to call Aurora and Philip the leads after my whole spiel up there, but it is still their movie technically. A little less dull than the typical Disney royal couple.
The Villain: 20/20
I believe I’ve made my feelings clear.
Supporting Characters: 17/20
Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are terrific. King Stefan and King Hubert are fun too. That’s pretty much it, it’s a pretty sparsely populated film actually.
The Music: 17/20
Only one really memorable song but some phenomenal incidental music from George Bruns, particularly “Maleficent’s Evil Spell.”
FINAL SCORE: 86%
NEXT WEEK: The Restoration is over. The Scratchy Period begins. Do you know what makes you scratchy? Fleas. Do you know where you get fleas? Dogs. Know what’s a kind of dog? A Dalmatian. Do you know what is a number of Dalmatians one could conceivably have? 101. Can you guess what our next movie is?
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!