Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Off the Cuff Movie Review - Sleeping Beauty

Over the weekend my wife went with friends to see Maleficent. She enjoyed it, but I'll let her write that OTC review. For our Sunday evening movie, she decided it's time to watch again her favorite of the Disney animated films, Sleeping Beauty.
This picture is copyrighted by Disney. Like they'll let you forget that.

The Plot

So just in case someone doesn't know the story-line here, I'll give a brief summary. The Good King and Queen are celebrating the birth of their first and only child, Aurora. They invite everybody in the neighborhood, except for Maleficent, who rules some undefined region known as the Forbidden Mountain. She shows up anyway, and uses this social snub as a reason to be Really Evil, cursing the child to die on her 16th birthday. This probably would mean, in-story, that she would never marry, and therefore, the King's line would come to an end - he's arranged Aurora's marriage to the heir of the kingdom next door, to keep the family line going. This goes beyond pettiness about manners, Maleficent is trying a political power grab.

Among the guests are these three fairies, and one of them offers her blessing to partially counter-act the curse, changing it from death to unending sleep. The fairies, attempting to side-step the curse altogether, take Aurora away and hide her and them in a remote cottage, disguising themselves as mortals to escape Maleficent's notice.

Fast forward fifteen years, 364 days where the plot proper begins. Aurora is All Grown Up but doesn't know who she really is. Prince Philip, traveling to the castle for what he assumes is his wedding to the Princess, meets Aurora in the woods, and with both of them ignorant of the other's identity, they fall in love.
Shortly thereafter, Aurora gets told who she is and that she's got to get to the castle to get married. Philip also heads to the castle, but plans to return to the cottage later to meet up with Aurora. Now, due to the fairie's bumbling, Maleficent finally discovers where Aurora is, and learns of her meeting with Philip. So, in an impressive stroke of villainy, she gets into the castle and puts Aurora under the curse, as promised, and captures Philip, whom she tosses in one of her dungeons.

The fairies help Philip escape, he fights his way to the castle, defeats Maleficent and rescues the Princess with True Love's First Kiss.  Dancing, singing and rejoicing follows.

My Thoughts

Right from the start this film reminds me of the 'cast of thousands' epic films from the 50's, which makes sense, as this one came out in 1959. Like many of those epics, SB is a sort of musical. Princess Aurora and Prince Philip have one on-screen duet, which also serves as their "falling in love" scene. There are a few other song sequences, but all by off-screen singers. The majority of the background music, by the way, if Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty. It only makes sense, and boy, does the music work.

Maleficent, clearly the film's antagonist,  deserves to be credited as one of the best animated Disney villains ever: she is not just self-centered (like Gaston) or greedy (like Edgar the Butler), or of petty cruelty (like Cruella DeVille) she is full-on Evil cuz she likes it that way. Her entrance at the start of the film is impressive and meant to intimidate (it does), her dialogue with the king sounds civilized but keeps that "I could go mad-ape crazy on you any second" vibe that threatens no matter what she's saying. Her plan for prince Philip is just heartbreakingly cruel; she blasts her own minions for being stupid and turns into a DRAGON to stop Philip at the climax.

The fairies, according to my wife, are the actual protagonists of this film. When it comes right to it, Aurora, the title character does pretty much nothing through the whole film.  Philip turns in probably the most old-school heroic performance by a Disney prince ever (who else in the Disney canon can claim the title Dragon Slayer?) but even he is really a secondary character to the fairies, who get far more dialogue and screen time. So I find it very interesting the way Disney portrays the fairies. They are not all-wise all-powerful demigods, it is a real struggle for them to carry on as mortals during their custodianship of Aurora. When one first suggests that they raise the child in secret, another objects that they don't know how to do such things, not without magic. The first responds "If humans can do it, so can we." The fairies are actually inferior to humans - they are limited by their magic.

Relations to other films

Tangled. Oh my goodness, Tangled. Philip's horse, Samson is clearly the inspiration for Maximus the horse, both in personality (Philip talks to him, and Samson responds) and in actually being useful to the plot - he never shies away from carrying Philip to his princess, no matter what crazy stuff Maleficent throws at them. Also in both Tangled and in Sleeping Beauty, the princess doesn't know she's a princess, grows up essentially alone in the forest, with only animal friends and her mother/aunt figures, with none of them being actual relations. Both fall in love with the first guy they meet, which happens on their first 'adult' birthday, and both are just naturally charming to both people and animals. Both princesses are separated from their parents soon after birth, but both are reunited by the film's end, after being rescued by the man they love.
A scene of Aurora singing with the birds in the woods is parodied in the first Shrek film, which also employs the "princess in a tower" trope. 

In Conclusion

The artwork on this film alone makes it worth seeing. This is all traditional cel animation, and it is gorgeous. The music, as I said before, is terrific, particularly the Tchaikovsky ballet. The duet between Aurora and Philip is good and is one of only a few direct man-to-woman love songs in Disney's animated canon. The voice acting is solid and enjoyable all around, and many of the voices are familiar to Disney fans - all they were missing was Phil Harris.

Is this my favorite Disney animated?  No. That would be Robin Hood or Beauty and the Beast. Is it good? Definitely. It has all the right story elements - humor, pathos, excitement, a hero & heroine to cheer for and a villain to cry "fie upon thee". The story may be straightforward and not very complex, it is a much more coherent story than some recent Disney films (yeah, you, Frozen).  Good triumphs, the two lovers get together, the kingdom is secured and a major villain is vanquished.

Best line in the movie: "Father, you're living in the past. This is the fourteenth century!" Yeah, Philip said that.

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