Disney's Blu-Ray restoration of Sleeping Beauty presents the film in the widescreen format of its original production, making even clearer the movie's aesthetic roots in the embroidered scrolls of the Middle Ages, massive cloths that told a story visually from left to right using pictures and the occasional, clarifying text scrawl. Sleeping Beauty, out of all the studio's fairy tale adaptations, most looks the part, despite the daring art direction that separates the film from the animation pack even today.
As is befitting the old scrolls, most movement is horizontal, whisking the 75-minute story from point to point without dallying. The plot moves from Princess Aurora's birth to her hidden away from the evil wizard, Maleficent, to the villain finding her and so on. Yet enough pauses are given to give a bit of meat to the story, if mainly for the supporting characters, particularly the three good fairies. Originally conceived to look alike, animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston wisely gave distinct dimensions to Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, not only separating them by color but giving each her own personality. Yet the animators keep the fairies small enough that they fit in to the animation style and keep the story moving.
Objects that loom upward, like the tallest tower in the castle where the princess eventually lies in wait or Maleficent, thus stand out by breaking up the flow of the horizontal movement. Maleficent herself is the greatest of all the Disney villains, perfectly animated and drawn as a nearly unbroken black punctuated by sickly green skin and the flashes of purple in her cloak. Every aspect of Maleficent, from the strips at the end of her cloak to her fingers to her horned head, curves into a sharp point. At once sharply defined and mysteriously amorphous and shifting, Maleficent would make for the greatest villain if she never said a word.
But, of course, she does, and Eleanor Audley's slithering cackle adds dimensions of menace to a character already troubling in her cold intellect. The torture she lays upon the peaceful kingdom is ingenious in its psychological warfare: snubbed by the royals, Maleficent appears at Aurora's birth to lay a curse upon the child that she will die on her 16th birthday by touching the spindle of a spinning wheel, sending the king into a frenzy that leads him to burn every spinning wheel in the kingdom. Near the end, when she captures the brave Prince Phillip, she plans to hold the prince for 100 years while Aurora lies in ageless sleep waiting for his kiss. Trusting that the will to see his love again will keep the prince alive, the sorceress will release him as a decrepit man to revive Aurora, only for her to reject the wrinkled old creature that would stand before her.
Maleficent is so captivating a villain, and the fairies so amusing a comic and emotional foil, that Sleeping Beauty overcomes perhaps the least interesting main characters to grace a great Disney film. Aurora is the most useless of all Disney princesses, an almost impressive achievement considering the long line of submissive housewives-in-training to grace the studio's features. When she is not trapped in a sleep waiting for her prince to save her, Aurora dances with woodland creatures and sings beautiful songs to herself that always attract her true love. You know, that old chestnut. Phillip, too, is little more than a generic knight in shining armor, arranged to marry Aurora anyway but committed to save the woman who wooed him with her song. I like that the movie introduces the idea that arranged marriages are outdated even for the 14th century and gives Aurora the freedom to love someone else, but for the man she falls for to be her betrothed seems too easy a way out.
But the greatest pull of the film lies in its art direction. Eyvind Earle came on board as the film's chief color stylist and background designer, but with Walt out in Anaheim playing in his new sandbox as Disneyland got off the ground, Earle began exerting more an more control. By the time the film finished production, he'd become an auterial presence on the film, painting most of the backgrounds himself, in such detail that cels that would normally take a day to animate took at least a week.
Earle is also the man responsible for Sleeping Beauty's color palette, easily the wildest and boldest to grace a Disney animated feature. Storybook backgrounds rub up against the bright neon of Maleficent's green flames and the striking red, blue and green of the fairies that always look distinctive even when placed near other objects of similar colors. At times, the animation of Sleeping Beauty, without ever resorting to distortion or sudden shifts, borders on the surreal. Look at the mastery evident in the scene where Aurora, returned to the castle and mourning the seeming loss of her true love to marry another man. The scene pans over to the fireplace in the room, as flickering flames dies into smoke, which curls into Maleficent's scepter before she suddenly appears in silhouette holding it. Then, she dissolves into an orb of green energy that hypnotizes Aurora into following her through a portal away from the fairies. The entire process plays out in about a minute, but the subtlety of the swirling movement, despite its speed, proves that as peeved as the other animators must have been that Earle took over, his demanding nature paid off.
Sleeping Beauty contains my favorite villain, who manages to go from sinister to even more so when she turns into a dragon, as well as my favorite supporting character, Merryweather. Compared the more maternal characteristics of older female characters in Disney movies, Merryweather is a fantastic spitfire, unwilling to take anything lying down even if the other fairies must restrain her from mouthing off to Maleficent and subsequently dying every five minutes. She and Maleficent would be worth the movie alone, but Earle's art direction permanently enshrines Sleeping Beauty in the upper echelon of Disney features.
All of the Disney movies have some lesson to impart, and this one is no different. With snatches of screen time, Maleficent proves her intelligence and craftiness through her sadistic plotting. But when the fairies think of how to counter the sorceress' curse on Aurora, Flora realizes that the only course of action is to hide the baby away and not attract attention by giving up magic. Maleficent can anticipate any magic the fairies would use, but she cannot fathom sacrificing power for another person. The inability for villains to understand love is not a new concept, and it would be used in future children's tales, but the brevity afforded to this moment of insight due to the short running length of the film somehow takes on a slight poetry to it stressing itself more than necessary, and it's a bright spot in a narrative that takes a back seat to the visuals. But hey, when the visuals look this good, not much else matters anyway.