Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Disney's Sleeping Beauty Puts Me to Sleep
(November 16, 2008)

I just watched the new DVD release of Sleeping Beauty. It’s the first time I’ve seen the film in over a decade and maybe two. It has never been one of my favourites, but watching it now I’m struck by how poor the story and characterizations are. If not for the high production values and the presence of artists that I know to be more than capable, I would say that Sleeping Beauty is a poor imitation of a Disney film.

I am not a fan of Eyvind Earle’s artwork. I don’t have any insightful reasons for that; it just leaves me cold. Beyond Earle’s design style, I’m also not one who is impressed by detail. For me, all stories are about people and if the visuals don’t support a worthwhile story and characters, they are wasted. It’s no different than the common refrain that a particular movie isn’t very good, but the special effects are great. If a movie isn’t very good, I don’t care about any of the elements.

The story of Sleeping Beauty is ludicrous. An evil fairy is insulted for not being invited to a party, so she puts a curse on the princess in the cradle. By the sunset of her sixteenth birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. I can’t begin to fathom how absurd this is. If Maleficent is angry enough to kill the child, why not do it on the spot? Why drag out the process for 16 years? And why a spinning wheel? Why not a disease or a fall or choking on food? This may be what the fairy tale original demands, but the Disney studio was never shy about rewriting its source material.

What’s worse is that Maleficent has no motivation to speak of beyond being miffed. Does she have a history with the royal family? Have the three good fairies caused her trouble in the past? Is she unable to have a child of her own? We are told nothing. Furthermore, Maleficent is a dolt. Her henchman search for the princess unsuccessfully for 16 years and she only questions them closely at the end of that time? What’s she been doing all those years? Watching the clock?

The three good fairies are even more empty-headed than Maleficent. They know that the curse will expire at sundown on the princess’s sixteenth birthday. They put away their wands so that their magic will not draw attention to her. Yet with hours to go, they bring out the wands and tip off the bad guys. Their reasons for using magic are also unbelievable. They’ve been living in the woods for 16 years and haven’t figured out how to make clothing or prepare food? Who made the princess’s clothing as she grew? What have they been eating all this time?

This stupidity is compounded by them bringing the princess back to the castle before the sun sets. Instead of leaving her hidden in the woods until the curse expires, they tempt fate by bring her out into the open. Why? The only reason I can think of is because the story artists couldn’t think of anything better. There is no logic to this.

What’s most disappointing is that the good fairies and Maleficent are the most interesting characters in the film. The king and queen have longed to have a child. When they finally do, they are forced to give up all contact with her for 16 years in order to protect her life. In the interim, they have no other children. Imagine the psychological stress these parents would endure and how their loss would colour their entire lives. That’s meaty material, but the film ignores the Queen entirely and the king is barely more fleshed out. When it comes to the climax of the film, the royal family is literally asleep, unable to influence events in any way. When the king and queen are finally reunited with their daughter, the sum total of the emotion displayed is a hug.

The two kings are more poorly developed than the two kings in the Fleischer version of Gulliver’s Travels. It isn’t often you can credit the Fleischers with better character development than Disney, but it is absolutely the case here.

The princess is stuck in the woods for 16 years. Has she had contact with anyone besides the three fairies? Has she ever encountered men? She dreams of romance, so she has to be aware of them. She can see the castle from the woods. Has she never been curious to visit it, just as a tourist? If the princess has any thoughts, the audience is not privy to them. In dramatic terms, she has no motivation; she seeks romance, but only in the most generic way. Unlike later Disney heroines like Ariel, she does nothing to find or sustain her relationship. The prince finds her in the woods and she falls instantly in love. Is it possible to be more passive?

The prince is over-matched by Maleficent if not for the fairies. Every step of the way, they use magic to allow him to escape and battle the dragon. Why don’t they cut out the middle man and just battle Maleficent themselves? What’s worse, they put the inhabitants of the King’s castle to sleep, so why don’t they do the same to the inhabitants of Maleficent’s? That would have saved everyone a lot of effort.

There are many Disney features done while Disney himself was alive that suffer from story structure problems. What was usually present, though, were memorable personalities. Many claim that Sleeping Beauty suffered due to Disney’s interest in Disneyland and the studio’s TV work. That may be so, but the film looks like the studio forgot everything it knew about story and character when it made this film. The fact that nobody could see this or stop it, plus the fact that so much money was spent to finish the film, resulted in major layoffs and marginalized the animation department. While some people celebrate this film, I see it as a self-inflicted wound.