on May 26, 2002
"Sleeping Beauty" has always been something of an anomaly in the Disney canon. There isn't another movie like it, animated or otherwise, and its tendency to go overlooked renders the distinction all the more tragic. With all due respect to "Pinocchio," "Bambi, "Fantasia," "Cinderella" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," they're just not "Sleeping Beauty."
Walt Disney made his sixteenth animated feature (and there is no more appropriate number for this particular fairy tale) at a volatile stage in his studio career, and the final product reflects many experimental but surprisingly harmonious influences. The entrancing score was taken from an original ballet by Tchaikovsky, and the animation, clearly derived from medieval imagery, has both an astonishing purity and a curious quaintness. It doesn't leap off the screen the same way "Snow White" does, and the human characters, many of whom are intentionally comic as opposed to heroic figures, don't have nearly as much fullness or dimension.
"Sleeping Beauty," based on a story by Charles Perrault, transforms that vice into a virtue. What to make, after all, of a fairy tale whose heroine spends most of the movie out of commission? Well, if you're Walt Disney, you relegate the near-perfunctory love story to the backburner while the Good Fairies and Maleficent calmly steal the picture. A risky solution, but in this case, the best one. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, who were inspired by real-life old ladies at the supermarket (Merryweather, in particular, is so cute you wish you could keep her on your bookshelf), have an intoxicating fussiness, and their conversation sparkles with the sort of pleasant banter you can enjoy as a child and enjoy even more as an adult. As for Maleficent (magnificently voiced by Eileen Audley), running neck-and-neck with "The Little Mermaid's" Ursula for the title of all-time greatest Disney villain, she's a wickedly charismatic presence, as chillingly beautiful as she is demonic.
Scene for scene, "Sleeping Beauty" has more imaginative visual curlicues and hidden-gem sequences than nearly any other Disney movie. To watch the film a second, third or fiftieth time is to be in a state of constant anticipation of the next glorious set-piece, whether it's the harrowing extended climax -- a truly thrilling clash between good and evil, and a considerably more violent spectacle than we're accustomed to in movies like this -- or a moment as simple and luminous as the Fairies disappearing into a jewelry case.
The animators have employed a higher degree of stylization and more surreal touches than usual (watch the early scenes in which the Fairies bestow their individual gifts upon the princess), complemented in full by Tchaikovsky's marvelous music. I can't remember when I've seen such an impressive confluence of sound and image, such a seamless match-up between the nuances of melody and rhythm and the accompanying shifts in color and movement. The score is unapologetically devoid of Broadway-style numbers and tongue-in-cheek lyrics (there is one musical sequence featuring the requisite "cute" rabbits, robins, squirrel and owl, none of whom, thankfully, burst into song), lending the film a timeless classicism that today's animation, steeped in pop-culture references and misguided attempts at Gen-Y appeal, can only dream of.
I watched "Sleeping Beauty" recently for the first time in nearly a decade, and the experience was like reuniting with a very old, very eccentric friend. I could analyze it to death (I probably already have), but fairy tales, especially Disney fairy tales, aren't made to withstand academic scrutiny. They're made to be remembered, not as a homogeneous mishmash of stale happy endings, but as individual vintages, each with its own vivid flavors and memories. "Sleeping Beauty" -- to quote a lesser classic, the fairest of them all -- is a film to savor and cherish.