Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Out of the three films featuring Disney Princesses that came out in the Old Age of Disney, I think Sleeping Beauty is the best one, or at least my personal choice out of the three. Compared to Snow White and Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty has a better-developed story, the romance between the prince and the princess is better developed, and the film also has arguably the most terrifying villainess in not just animation, but in all of film. The strength does not lie with the hero or heroine, but it's not as bad as in Snow White and Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty is still not the best work that Disney has to offer, but it is a great piece of animation nonetheless and it is much more timeless than its predecessors.
This is another movie based on a classic Grimm's fairytale, so chances are everyone has heard of the story of Sleeping Beauty in one way or another and we needn't talk about it as if we don't know what it's about. The film starts out with hoards of peasants flocking to the castle to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a princess. The townsfolk come bearing gifts for the Royal Family and there is joy to be had by all. Three fairies (Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather) come to visit the child as well, and bestow upon her three gifts. The gifts of beauty and song are bestowed upon her when the party is interrupted by an evil witch by the name of Maleficent, who is pissed that she didn't get invited to the party, and treats the snub like an act of war.
Instead of bestowing a gift upon the princess, she bestows a curse. The curse states that Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die on her sixteenth birthday. But the third gift still hasn't been given. Merriweather lightens the curse by having her fall into a deep sleep instead of die when she pricks her finger. As a precaution, the king has all the spinning wheels rounded up and burned. The fairies also have a plan to raise Aurora in the woods as their own without magic so Maleficent cannot track them. They would return Aurora to the kingdom once the sun set on her sixteenth birthday and they could be sure that the curse could not be fulfilled.
The sixteen years pass by and we see that Aurora has blossomed into a lovely young woman living in exile with the fairies under the name Briar Rose. Preparations for Aurora's birthday are underway, and the fairies try to bake her a cake and make her a dress without magic, to comedic failure. To get her out of the house, they send Aurora to pick berries. This is where she meets the fully grown Prince Phillip, the prince whom she is unawaredly betrothed to. Neither knows that they are arranged to be married and they hit it off right away, dancing in the woods together before Aurora runs away when he asks her name. She tells the fairies, and they tell her that she cannot see him (because they do not know that he is Phillip).
Maleficent had retreated into her headquarters in the dark mountain, and her wild boars of evil (at least that's what they look like) had been searching for Aurora for years. However, they had been searching for an infant all that time, not a girl of sixteen as Aurora had become. Frustrated, Maleficent sends out her crow to find Aurora, and the crow is ultimately successful, as Maleficent is waiting for Aurora at the castle when she is brought back to meet her parents. Despite the best efforts of the fairies, Aurora does prick her finger on the spinning wheel and she falls into a deep sleep. This event turns Phillip into a more important character as he is brought in by the fairies to perform the necessary heroics, because the deep sleep can be undone by true love's kiss. The whole of the castle has been put to sleep as well so Aurora's parents won't find out that the curse has been fulfilled, and Phillip falls into the trap of Maleficent.
Once Phillip is kidnapped, Maleficent's plan is revealed, and this is what truly cements her status as a wicked villainess. Maleficent does not plan to kill Phillip, she just plans to keep him until he's old, then let him go and rescue Aurora who has stayed young and pretty over the many years. Turning Phillip into a dirty old man, if that's not evil then I clearly do not know what is. The fairies do free Phillip and he performs the necessary heroics priorly mentioned, including battling Maleficent, who has transformed herself into a vicious fire-breathing dragon in one of the most epic scenes ever put to animation. He does get to the castle and performs the necessary kissing, and he and Aurora live happily ever after.
Aurora's characterization is not nearly as weak as Snow White, but that doesn't mean that she is a fully realized character. She's basically only in the movie to stand there and look pretty without anything to do. But she and Phillip (we'll get to him later) are basically chess pieces for the fairies and Maleficent to move around to their liking. The fathers of Aurora and Phillip serve as comic relief of sorts, and they are effective and amusing in their roles, but that's all that can really be said about them. The fairies are interesting side characters, and they are the more active protagonists. They have more bearing on the plot then the prince or the princess, and it's their idea to hide Aurora from Maleficent in the woods. One of the things I like about the fairies is their interplay with one another, especially Flora and Merriweather bickering about whether the dress should be pink or blue. These are some of the most fun characters Disney has created, and certainly the chessmasters of the whole affair.
Moving on to the hero, Prince Phillip was a boon for Disney Princes. He may look exactly the same as the other two princes before him, but he is progressive in the simple fact that he has a name. The romance between him and Aurora is built up better as well, and them falling in love the moment they meet is partially averted in the fact that they were arranged to be married, so they would end up together whether or not they liked eachother. Phillip is also more active in the story than the other two princes. The one in Snow White shows up at the beginning and the end to perform whatever romantics necessary, and the prince in Cinderella is so uninvolved that he doesn't even go to find the person who fit the shoe. Phillip, on the other hand, is much more of a hero than the heroine, and we genuinely want to see him win. He's also a decent singer, but I only like Bill Shirley's singing voice when it's coming out of Jeremy Brett's mouth (in My Fair Lady).
Now that we're done talking about the good characters, let us get to the villainess, easily the most remembered thing about the movie. Maleficent is a truly excellent villain, and probably the most terrifying villainess of all time. She is a combination of the two most popular types of villains nowadays, being cold and calculating but also packing one hell of a whallop, especially when she transforms into a dragon in the climax. She treats a harmless snub like an act of war, and carries it out just as such. I mentioned her plans with Phillip, and those are truly evil, but brutally murdering an innocent teenaged girl just for being snubbed an invite to a baby shower is also incredibly evil. Her character design is impeccable, with the black/purple/green colour scheme and her long flowing robes. Some may say that she is the best of all the Disney villains. I disagree with that statement, although I will be so bold as to say that she is the greatest villainess ever put to celluloid (no matter animation or live-action).
The artwork is also fantastic. In fact, the artwork in this is some of the best that Disney has ever created in any of their movies, especially their old ones. I loved the surrealistic touches and the animated set pieces in this one, as well as the character design. The consistent dream-like atmosphere works in the film's favour, and the colour scheme is splendid and decadent. The orchestration is also fabulous, but much like Snow White, the songs in Sleeping Beauty are very bland and forgettable. The songs got better in the Renaissance, it seems the music people at Disney were more focused on orchestration than songwriting. The main song "Once Upon A Dream" is forgettable and the rest are so few that they don't leave an impression at all.
All in all, Sleeping Beauty is a classic, and it has aged much better than its princessy predecessors. There are other older Disney movies that are better (like 101 Dalmatians and Peter Pan) but this goes down as a worthy entry into the Disney Animated canon. The film has fine animation, great orchestration, fun side characters, and an unforgettable villainess. I would recommend this movie to anyone who hasn't seen it. I've been watching too many girly movies though, so I need a less feminine Disney movie to continue my marathon. I think I'll go to my favourite hand-drawn animated movie of all time, which you will find out sometime soon. Out of all the Old World Disney movies, Sleeping Beauty is my third favourite, next to Peter Pan and 101 Dalmatians. The whole of the film is on youtube, so I would encourage anyone who hasn't seen it (whether not at all or in a while) to give it another look.