Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Disney's Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty was going to be something special, and Walt Disney knew it. Production on the film had been going on since 1951 and the animation process itself took five years to complete for the film. Disney had wanted an animated style unlike any in a Disney film. He wanted the film to look like moving artwork, like the people on the tapestry were alive. Disney had done two fairy tales before in Cinderella and Snow White, but was determined to make Sleeping Beauty stand out from the others. Besides the change in artistic style, Sleeping Beauty would mark the end of the ink-cell era, with the next film, 101 Dalmatians using the new process of xerography. If you compare Sleeping Beauty in it's animated artwork to it's predecessors, you can tell that they went for a much more stylized look.

The Disney team initially went for songs that were like the ones in other Disney movies, i.e. Broadway-type songs. This idea was later scrapped when Disney decided to base almost all the music off of Pytor Tchaikovsky's ballet version of Sleeping Beauty which premiered in 1890. If you listen to the ballet, you cannot help but think of Disney's Sleeping Beauty and vice versa. Tchaidovsky's ballet inspired Disney in more ways than just the musical score. The princess was named Aurora, which means "dawn" in Latin, just like in the ballet version. The name does appear in Charles Perrault's version, but as Sleeping Beauty's daughter's name. Yes, that's right, Perrault had a hand in this fairy tale as well. When Sleeping Beauty goes into hiding and is named Briar Rose, this is reminiscent of the Grimm Brother's version of the tale. Basically Disney took bits and pieces out of each rendition of the story and mashed it together. The Prince on the other hand was given a name that was easily recognizable to American's in the 50's: Phillip. Phillip was also named after Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh(he's married to Queen Elizabeth II, and yes, they are both still alive). This is the equivalent of Disney naming a Disney prince after Prince William, as Phillip and Elizabeth had been married less than ten years before. The name of the evil witch Maleficent was easy enough to come up with, since the name speaks for itself.

Some characters would have been completely different had Walt Disney had his way. He wanted to have the three good fairies completely identical. The Disney animators scoffed at this and claimed that it would be just plain boring watching three identical fairies. They wanted instead for the fairies to be like Huey, Dewey, and Louie; each wearing different colors and each having a distinct personality. Luckily for us, the animators won out. Maleficent went through many different designs before settling on her current appearance. They tried making her look like a stereotypical witch, but found her to look too much like the evil witch from Snow White. The animators decided on a more elegant look for Maleficent, drawing inspiration from medieval pictures. Many parts of the movie were actually cast off parts from Snow White. The Prince's capture, his escape, and the dance with the "fake prince" had all been parts of Snow White. The biggest reason for the prince parts being cut from Snow White were the fact that at that time, the animators couldn't draw a realistic looking male character.

Like in the last couple movies, all of Sleeping Beauty's scenes were acted out by live actors to give the film an even more realistic look. Ed Kemmer played the part of Prince Phillip, while Aurora was played by both Mary Costa and Helene Stanley. Costa provided the singing voice of Aurora, as she was able to produce a classical opera voice, but still have it sound youthful and understandable.

I'm going to be honest here and say that this is one of my favorite Disney films. Not only is the animation top notch and unprecedented, but the action and final battle are the best in any animated film, and many live action ones for that matter. Prince Phillip is the archetype for the valiant prince that saves the fair maiden from a dragon. Does he have some fairies helping him? Yes, but he still does more than a lot of the male characters in the early Disney films. He takes on a legion of Maleficent's minions, a forest of thorns, and a fire-breathing dragon. If that's not BA then I don't know what is. Maleficent makes the movie though. She is one of the greatest Disney villains and probably the one that is the complete embodiment of evil. The scene where she explodes into the dragon form is probably one of my favorite animated scenes in a Disney movie. No matter what age you are, that image sticks with you. I mean come on, it's a black dragon that breaths green fire. That's a pretty good villain.

Like I said before, Disney's version takes a few parts from different Sleeping Beauty interpretations. In the Perrault version, when Sleeping Beauty is born, fairies are invited to be godmothers and give her gifts. A wicked fairy that was overlooked decides that she will curse the baby, making so that when she reaches adulthood, she will prick her finger on the spindle of the Spinning Wheel of Death and die. Yes, apparently the kingdom had a notorious Spinning Wheel of Death that they just had lying around. A last fairy gives her gift, which basically makes it so Sleeping Beauty will fall asleep for 100 years instead of die. The King ordered that all spindles and spinning wheels be forbidden, but that was all in vain. Once the princess turned sixteen, she chanced upon an old woman spinning (spinning cloth, not literally spinning). The old woman is of course the wicked fairy in disguise and she convinces the princess to try spinning (again, not literally). The inevitable happens and she pricks her finger and falls asleep. The good fairy returns and puts everyone to sleep, and puts a forest of thorns around the castle so no one can get in. This is a bit odd, but I'm sure she had a good reason for doing so. A hundred years later, a prince who had heard about the legend of the castle decided to brave the thorns and see what was inside. He finds the sleeping princess and marvels at her beauty, eventually deciding to do what every creeper does and kiss her while she's sleeping. She, along with everyone in the kingdom wake up and they all live happily ever after. They must of been cryogenically frozen because they all didn't seem to age at all in the time they were asleep. There is a second part of the Perrault tale but it literally has nothing to do with the Disney version, so I won't bother expounding.

Perrault didn't invent the Sleeping Beauty tale however, just cleaned it up a bit from earlier workings. The earliest known written version of Sleeping Beauty was by an Italian named Giambattista Basile(the picture, left, was made for the tale). In this version, the princess is named Talia. The king is forewarned by some wise men that his daughter is in danger and that when she pricks her finger on a poison splinter in the palace's flax, she'll drop dead. The king ordered all flax to be disposed of and no one was to spin any. Of course Talia eventually did what the wise men said she would do and pricked her finger and dropped dead. The king then decided to put her on a velvet cloth, lock the palace gates and leave the forest where the kingdom was. Enter a nobleman. He sees the abandoned kingdom and decides to pop in. He finds Talia's dead body and decides not to kiss her, but to rape her. Yes, it's not a classic fairy tale if it doesn't have necrophilia. Nine months later, the dead princess gives birth to twins named after the sun and the moon. Remember, anything can happen in a fairy tale, even if you don't want it to. A bunch of fairies take care of the twins, as I don't imagine the nobleman just waited around for a dead chick to pop out some babies. One day, the boy was sucking on his mother's dead clammy fingers when he sucked out the poisoned flax splinter. She wakes up and is probably freaking out since she is surrounded by babies and fairies.

The nobleman comes back for another go and finds that Talia is alive and well. He explains that he is the father and since this apparently doesn't bother her, they get it on. The nobleman returns home to his wife and she somehow finds out about the illegitimate children and orders her cook to slit the young children's throats and make a hash with their flesh. MMMMM kid-flavored hash browns. Anyway, later that night when they are all eating dinner, the nobleman's wife can hardly contain herself at the fact that her husband is eating his own children. She finally declares the horrible truth, but we come to find out that the cook took mercy on the children and instead used goat meat. The enraged wife finds out and orders Talia to be burned at the stake, the nobleman saves her life and they all live happily ever after. Ewwww. The story has different interpretations, such as the prince's mother wanting to eat Talia's kids to Talia being the one that was supposed to be eaten. Whatever weird Italian version, it involved a woman trying to eat children. I'm very glad that Disney didn't use this version. Not exactly kid-friendly. Also, what's up with Italian authors and messed up stories? You thought the story of Pinocchio was weird.

Sleeping Beauty was released on 70mm prints instead of the standard 35mm, so it was basically in widescreen. It was released in theaters in 1959, and made $7.7 million in it's initial run. The film cost $6 million to make and was by far the most expensive animated film that Disney had ever undertaken. With the high production cost and lackluster performance, coupled with other Disney properties and films not doing well, Disney recorded it's first loss in over ten years. Let's just say that the animation department thinned out a bit after this. Critics gave the movie mixed reviews, claiming that it was slow paced and had little character development. Like Alice in Wonderland, it wasn't re-released again until Walt had passed away. It found new life when it was re-issued in 1970, 1979, 1986, 1993, and 1995. I personally don't remember it being in theaters again in 1995, but I was ten so I probably wasn't paying that much attention. With the re-issues, Sleeping Beauty has a lifetime gross of $51.6 million. When adjusted for inflation, that gross skyrockets to $478.22 million. Not bad for a artsy little film. Of course today we all view Sleeping Beauty as a visual and musical masterpiece, as it should have been viewed at the time of it's release. It's consistently ranked as one of the best Disney animated films and is well loved by the masses. This is either proof that we shouldn't listen to movie critics, or that critics at that time just really sucked.

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