Saturday, 16 February 2013

GREAT FILMS: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

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Sleeping Beauty (USA, 1959)
Directed by Clyde Geronomi
Starring Mary Costa, Eleanor Audley, Bill Shirley, Verna Felton

Revisiting films that we loved as a child is not always a good experience. Disney films took up such a large portion of our childhood viewing that the stories and imagery of said films became bound up with our notion of childhood itself. Hence it can be depressing or disconcerting to revisit these films as an adult, either to find that they were never really that good, or that the messages they contained were in hindsight deeply questionable.

But for every time that Disney falls short or gives ample ammunition to cynics like me, we also get films which reaffirm our love for the company and the way in which they tell stories. Sleeping Beauty reaffirms Disney's good record with folk and fairy tales, with a near-perfect adaptation of Charles Perrault's story modelled on Pyotr Tchaikovsky's ballet. The result will send your heart soaring, being gleefully enjoyable, scary and romantic, all in the right places.
That said, there is a certain bitter-sweetness to revisiting Sleeping Beauty. While it is a really great film in its own right, it is also Disney's last truly great film until the renaissance 30 years later. The film stands on a threshold between the golden age, where Walt Disney was personally involved in every film, and the wilderness years era where the company declined into increasingly safe and mediocre fare. There are little hints in Sleeping Beauty of what was to come, including Wolfgang Reitherman's presence as a supervising director.
The one partial weakness of Sleeping Beauty is the quality of its animation. The film still looks stunning, with a wide range of bright, expressive colours, intricate backgrounds and very appealing character designs. But the colours are ever so slightly paler and less fluid than in Snow White, and there is a less of a shimmer to the cinematography than, say, Cinderella. Part of this was a conscious decision by Disney, who wanted to depart from the polished feel of these two films. But there are also short-cuts taken throughout, with the early reliance on narration, the multiple still book shots, and the crowd scenes where hundreds of extras are frozen to the spot.
Considering that the film was the most expensive Disney had ever made, this might send alarm bells ringing. But the good news is that short-cuts aside, all the money on Sleeping Beauty went to the right places, namely the story, music and characters. While the production took eight years in total, the voice acting was recorded in full very early on, and only minor changes were made when the songs were added near the end of animation. As a result we get a fairy tale adaptation which doesn't need to rely on its visuals to weave its magical spell.
First and foremost, Sleeping Beauty is a brilliant example of how to adapt a fairy tale. It is a great deal more faithful to Perrault's version than Cinderella was, playing everything straight and working overtime to sustain the feeling of magic and wonder it generates. Cinderella came a cropper because Disney made changes to the central character, adding a layer of unintentional cruelty to the final outcome. Aurora is far more innocent and genuine, with her reactions to every event that transpires being completely believable and empathetic.
There is a wonderful innocence to the whole production, which roots the fairy tale in its period of origin and allows all the more theatrical and pantomime details to emerge naturalistically. With Cinderella, there was a feeling of Disney taking a 17th-century story and using it to justify a 1950s view of women, with a deliberate emphasis on contentment within domesticity, servitude and pipe dreaming. With Sleeping Beauty, the story is treated and presented as a product of its time; all the different elements make complete sense and none of the plot points or character developments feel like they have been manipulated or tweaked behind the scenes. 
Sleeping Beauty is also an example of the great potential in pantomime. The term is often used as an insult to describe something which is needlessly ridiculous or over-the-top - a criticism that results from the material trying to be something it's not. Like any genre or style, pantomime can be effective when it is openly accepted and put in the hands of people who understand the rules. Like its predecessor commedia dell'arte, it thrives on comic timing, and on this count alone the film is a masterpiece.
The characters in Sleeping Beauty all correspond to the archetypes and character arcs of any modern pantomime. The two lovers (Aurora and Philip) may be the main people that we root for, but they aren't really the agents of the plot: they succeed because they are helped by both the supporting cast of characters and circumstances beyond their control. These supporting characters (mainly the three fairies) do most of the work in combating the villain (Maleficent), having limited powers of their own but relying in ingenuity to protect Briar Rose. There's also a lot of comedy based around confusion, with the arguments between the two kings or the king and Philip resembling the bluster between the king and the duke in Cinderella.
The protagonists in Sleeping Beauty are all thoroughly appealing, whether because they fit archetypes we know and love, or because they are simply well-written. Aurora may be incredibly beautiful but she's still as impulsive and curious as we would expect teenagers to be; her reaction both to seeing Philip and being told she can't see him again are really believable. The fairies are a lot of fun, with the sensitive Fauna busying herself quietly while Flora and Merryweather scrap over anything from the plan to hide Aurora to the colour of her birthday dress.
The film is also beautifully paced, thanks largely to its soundtrack. Setting the story to Tchaikovsky's ballet is a masterstroke because it gives the film a consistent and brilliant rhythm, which in turn keeps the plot moving forward. The score is powerful and evocative enough in its own right, but where songs are added they don't trample on Tchaikovsky so much as reshape it, particularly the recurring theme of 'Once Upon A Dream'. The cast sing beautifully, particularly Mary Costa as Aurora, and the woodland scenes with Rose and the animals rival Snow White for their gleeful charm.
Like all good pantomimes, Sleeping Beauty has the capacity to be dark and creepy when it needs to be. One of the most striking moments in the whole film is the hypnotism of Aurora, in which our heroine is led in a trance away from her guardians, into a dark tower and to touching the fatal spinning wheel. For all the scariness of Snow White, these scenes are every bit as creepy as the Evil Queen's transformation, and the score really drives home just how threatening Maleficent is.
Maleficent is arguably the greatest villain that Disney ever created. Her character design is quite superb, with a sinister blend of black, purple and pale green topped of by the flowing cloak and demonic horns. Not only is her motivation pure spite, but she goes about her evil work in a cruel but enticing way. She charms you with her elegance and quiet delivery, only to terrify you with her outbursts and the immense power she commands. Eleanor Audley's vocal performance is simply perfect, bettering her previous work for the company as Cinderella's Lady Tremaine.
 
Sleeping Beauty is a truly great Disney film which has only grown in stature over time. While its animation isn't as glossy or as polished as Disney's 1940s efforts, it excels itself everywhere else, with enthralling characters, a fantastic villain, great comedy and a beautiful soundtrack. Every emotional development is perfectly judged and complimented by the next, making it Disney's best all-round effort since Snow White. It's just a shame we had to wait another 30 years for them to produce something this good again.

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