Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the sixteenth film in the animated canon, completes Walt’s Golden Trio with Princess Aurora and her musical tale, based on both the fairy tales and Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet. The film, though not a success in its time, is a gorgeous work of animated art, featuring highly detailed paintings as background and meticulously rotoscoped characters.
Just in case you haven’t seen it, the film follows the story of Princess Aurora, cursed as a baby by the wicked Maleficent and taken away to live in a cottage in the woods with three kind fairies. The film, now hailed as classic of the Disney canon, took nearly the entire decade of the 1950s to create: story work began in 1951, soon after the success of Cinderella, and voice recordings began the following year. Animation, however, took from 1953 through 1958, in part due to the detailed background paintings used in most scenes; production fostered many complaints against the medieval and supposedly “cold” style Disney preferred for the film. Ultimately, that style was maintained but softened just a few months before Sleeping Beauty was released in January 1959.
In addition to lovely animation, the film brought a beloved soundtrack, courtesy of George Bruns and Tchaikovsky, including the well-known “Once Upon a Dream.” The song, easily memorized and fun to sing, served as a lovely duet for the romantic couple and provided a few of Prince Philip’s only lines; to be fair, his other lines included proper gems like “No carrots,” and “Now Father, you’re living in the past. It’s the fourteenth century!”
Although this entire article could focus on the glorious animation or the beloved soundtrack – adapted from Tchaikovsky’s ballet – I would like to take a moment to talk about a character we all know and love. Yes, I am referring to the Mistress of All Evil. Sleeping Beauty brought to the Disney canon the most powerful and wicked villain yet: Maleficent, voiced by Eleanor Audley (also Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine), is heralded as the leading Disney villain by most fans and her vile image is well earned, requiring little to motivate her pure evil.
Not only does Maleficent curse a baby, who did nothing except be born to parents who don’t invite evil people to parties, but her entire plot gives a sense of foreboding paralleled only by Snow White’s evil queen. Although her henchman are clichéd clumsy oafs, perhaps serving as an attempt to keep the sorceress from being too scary, her actions are entirely evil and are seemingly born from simple spite, with no real reason in mind. Even after Aurora is asleep, Maleficent takes the time to capture the prince, planning to hold him for a hundred years, at least. Honestly, Maleficent is probably the most efficient Disney villain, taking the time to think through loose ends and own a raven who acts as a terrific alarm system.
Perhaps most significantly, a point that provides the foundation for Maleficent’s standing in the villain community, she is evil for the sake of being evil, which makes her all the more terrifying. Her live-action remake/prequel/backstory, which I will reference only a moment, gave her reasons aplenty to act as she did or to be considered evil; this attempt, thankfully, has largely been dismissed in favor of her prevailing character, with all her included “powers of Hell!”
Indeed, Maleficent serves as the perfect villain for this more austere animated feature from Disney; while colorful and artistically sound, the overall tone was sharp, angular, a feeling reflected in the character animation style and the background paintings. Sleeping Beauty serves as one of my favorite Disney princess movies, precisely because it took a significant turn from the rounder tones that Disney Princesses are known for, and the film started a new age of animated films for the canon as it was followed by One Hundred and One Dalmatians, a film known for its unique animation style. While many fans regard this particular age of animation as the Dark Ages or simply not on par with a specific Disney standard, Sleeping Beauty began a series of animated films that were darker, sharper, and generally more intense, giving fans a welcome balance against soft and light films.