Sorry this is much later than normal. Finals loom…
A film’s aesthetic can have remarkable power. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford has very little in the way of events over the course of its two and a half hours, but is transformed into something utterly hypnotic and unforgettable by Roger Deakins’ astonishing visuals. Shane Carruth’s sci-fi Primer may have had one of the most intelligent scripts I’ve ever heard, with genuine insight to add to the compendium of time-travel knowledge, but it was just so ugly I didn’t pay attention long enough to find out. Animation is no different, and poor character or landscape animation can often remove you totally from a film – try watching some of the earliest CG animated films today and it’s so blocky and ugly you wonder that they ever managed something as beautifully animated as Wall E or Kung Fu Panda 2 (no, really, it’s stunning). Equally, amazing visuals can make you forgive less than stellar storytelling.
Sleeping Beauty is a film that seriously challenges the relationship between visuals and story, because it is the most stunningly animated of their films so far, yet it is full of moments of such hackneyed and cloying storytelling that it could induce nausea. It’s so breathtakingly beautiful that you want to love it, but then you quickly lose patience with how simpering and unengaging Aurora is. You don’t know whether to gasp at the widescreen magnificence or yawn at the blandness of the carboard cut-out Prince Charming. Sleeping Beauty made me question how much weak storytelling and how many dull moments I was prepared to forgive simply because it’s just so wonderfully animated. So I’ll look at these two seemingly different aspects of the film to try and work out whether I actually liked Sleeping Beauty or not. Because right now I’m confused and in two minds.
The problem, once more, lies with the Disney heroine. Whatever happened to the inquisitive, adventurous Alice, and why are we treated to a pound-store Cinderella instead? Aurora (fifteen years old; singing voice of a someone in their forties) is even less of a character than any previous princesses. It is not an exaggeration to say she only plays a role for one scene in the entire film, when she goes wandering in the woods looking for flowers or carrots or something, meets a Prince and dances with him. During this one sequences she manages to commune with the local animals – a must for any self-respecting heroine. In the rest of the film she is so inert that she is literally asleep for the majority of it. Obviously that’s the major plot device of the film, but it does make Aurora Disney’s weakest princess, given how she is largely absent.
Thankfully, the supporting characters are far better. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, her three fairy protectors, are essentially the main characters and they are far more fun to watch than Aurora. They also show remarkable courage and compassion in the face of danger, proving, once again, that Disney’s leads are often the least interesting aspect of their films. The real show stealer, however, is Maleficent. Rocking up uninvited to the party, she curses a baby princess just because she’s a badass. Oh, and she’s the Mistress of All Evil. There’s no real insecurity or jealousy here, she’s just evil and there’s nothing you can do about it. Also, like all the best villains, she can turn herself into a dragon at will and teleport around the place in bursts of green flames. Against a villain this evil, and with the offensively dull Aurora out of the way, the final, dragon-slaying act becomes thrilling and fraught with genuine peril. The film really picks up in the end, and slightly redeems the overly familiar and somewhat boring first two thirds.
Yet even in its dullest moments, Sleeping Beauty is always impressive thanks to the astonishing animation. Lady and the Tramp was impressive, but it is with their second film in widescreen that Disney really began to realise the potential of the new format. Using the entire width of the frame, the animators cram each cel with detail and allow for visual variation within each different shot. So one half of a frame could be a landscape of woods with busy undergrowth and tall, dark trees, whilst the other half could be plains stretching out into the distance with a castle on the horizon. Layered lighting means that there is a depth and richness to the look of the film, as well.
It’s also noticeably different from the other two princess films so far. Where Snow White and Cinderella opted for soft edges and a springtime palette of pastels and hazy lighting, Sleeping Beauty is animated with thick, clear lines and bold colours. The result is something that feels like medieval illustration as opposed to the nineteenth century aesthetic of the earlier Princess films. It’s like a tapestry recounting a magnificent pageant that feels very European and historical. It’s not as overtly fantastical as the glowing magic of Cinderella, and the hellish green glare of the finale feels like it could be from a fresco in a particularly solemn church. In some ways it is more restrained than its predecessors, but it’s also unashamedly royal, rich and fairy-taleish. It’s difficult to describe, so the simplest way of saying it is that it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. So much so that I found myself totally forgetting how irksome some of the elements of the film are. I found myself totally falling for it.
Clearly, then, I was being far too negative at the beginning of the review. Sleeping Beauty is, in actuality, a brilliant film, as charming and as magical as you could hope for from a Disney film. It’s perhaps just that I’m getting Princess fatigue, and one scene of cutesy animals who follow round an impossibly slim teenage girl begins to look just like the next one. Yet Sleeping Beauty is so visually distinct from its predecessors that it does manage to make a unique mark in the Disney canon, even if it impresses visually far more than it does in the story department.