Saturday, January 5, 2013

Stubs - Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty (1959) Starring the voices of: Mary Costa, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, Barbara Luddy, Bill Shirley, Taylor Holmes, Bill Thompson Directed by Clyde Geronimi (Supervising Director), Les Clark, Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman. Produced by Walt Disney. Screenplay by Erdman Penner (adaptation) with additional story by Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hilber, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, Milt Banta. Based on La Belle au bois Dormant by Charles Perrault. Run Time: 75 minutes. U.S. Color, Animated, Romance, Drama

One of the true classics of the Walt Disney studios, back when Disney was king of animation and animation meant hand drawn. The old saying is they don’t make films like this anymore and honestly, they don’t. This was in the days before computers and Pixar, back when one second of screen time would take at least three days to draw.

Sleeping Beauty tells the story of Princess Aurora (Mary Costa), who is born to King Stefan (Taylor Holmes) and Queen Leah (Verna Felton). As part of a plan to reunite their two kingdoms, King Stefan arranges baby Aurora’s marriage to the son of King Hubert (Bill Thompson), Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley). Obviously, the marriage is several years away, but the die’s been cast.

While the kingdom is lavishing gifts on the baby Princess, one person is not invited to the festivities, Maleficent (Eleanor Audley). While the fairies: Flora (Verna Felton), Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen) and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy) are casting spells of beauty and voice to the baby, Maleficent interrupts. Upset by her slight, she casts a more ominous spell on the baby. While she’ll still be beautiful and all, she will, before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. But Merryweather has not cast her spell and while she is not strong enough to override Maleficent’s curse, she can tone it down. Instead of death, Aurora will fall into a deep sleep that can only be broken by a kiss from her true love.

But as a precaution, King Stefan orders that all the spinning wheels in the kingdom be burned and the three fairies take the baby to raise. They live for sixteen years without wings or magic and call the girl Briar Rose, all as a way of not drawing attention to themselves. But Maleficent isn’t easily out foxed. She has sent her Goons (voiced by Candy Candido, Pinto Coving and Blll Amsbery) to find her. But they are stupidly looking for a sixteen year-old baby, rather than a teenager. Frustrated, Maleficent sends her Raven to find the girl.

It is the Princess’ sixteenth birthday, and the fairies send Briar Rose to pick berries so they can properly prepare a cake and gown to surprise her. But they’re no good without their magic, which they resort to using to finish the cake and the gown. But they fight over the color of the gown, and the fighting attracts Maleficent’s Raven.

Meanwhile, out picking berries, Briar Rose’s singing has drawn the attention of Prince Phillip as he has been riding through the woods on his horse Sampson. The two fall instantly in love, but Briar Rose returns home without learning his name.

When Briar Rose comes home, she tells the fairies that she’s in love. But they stop her and tell her the whole story. She is already betrothed to Prince Phillip and she is herself a Princess and that, since it’s her sixteenth birthday, they will be taking her back to her parents. This is a lot of absorb all at once and the Princess is upset. But the Raven has heard enough and flies back to tell Maleficent.

Back at the castle, Kings Stefan and Hubert prematurely celebrate the weddings of their children and the uniting of their kingdoms. It is not quite sunset, but they think nothing can go wrong now.

Prince Phillip arrives and breaks the news to his father that he’s in love and plans to marry the peasant girl he’d met in the forest. This naturally upsets the father, but the son is prepared to give up the throne for true love and rides away.

The fairies lead the heartbroken Princess back to her rightful place and leave her alone, which turns out to be a big mistake. Maleficent appears and puts the Princess under a trance, leading her up to a room with a Spinning Wheel. While the fairies race to prevent it, they are too late and the Princess pricks her finger and falls into a deep sleep.

Rather than fess up that they failed in their mission, the fairies decide to put the entire kingdom to sleep until the Princess’s true love comes and kisses her. But before Hubert falls asleep, the fairies overhear him telling Stefan that his son had fallen in love with a peasant girl whom he plans to marry. They figure out that the Prince is the same man that Aurora had told them about.

Meanwhile, the Prince has ridden to the peasant girl’s house and is ambushed by Maleficent and her goons, who take him prisoner in order to prevent him from breaking the spell. When the fairies return to their cottage, they find the Prince’s hunting cap and decide that Maleficent has taken him prisoner and go to free him. They arm him with the Shield of Virtue and the Sword of Truth to use against Maleficent.

But she is not to be easily outdone. She surrounds King Stefan’s castle with a forest of thorns, and when that doesn’t stop Phillip, she turns into a gigantic dragon. In the climactic fight, Maleficent manages to strip him of the Shield of Virtue, but he throws the Sword of Truth and it is true. Striking her in the heart, the dragon and Maleficent are destroyed, turning to ash.

Phillip continues up to the highest room in the highest tower where Aurora lies asleep. His kiss breaks the spell and the entire kingdom wakes up. Phillip and Aurora then live happily ever after.

And while the story is important, it is the animation that is really the reason to see this film. The colors used are vibrant in only a way Technicolor can do. There are stories, told better by others, about the production of this film. One of the sequences, Sequence 8, the one where the Prince and Princess meet in the forest, is notorious for its cost and overruns, but Walt knew what he wanted and even though it came close to bankrupting the studio, the result is one of the best in the film.

But of note, for many, are the backgrounds designed and drawn by Eyvind Earle. While he had been doing backgrounds for Disney, including The Lady and The Tramp, the backgrounds for Sleeping Beauty took them even further. The landscapes he would become famous for as a painter have their beginnings in these expressionistic backgrounds. Even if you’ve seen the film so many times that you know all the words of dialogue, Earle’s work is worth a view on its own.

My only complaint about the movie is that the songs and their arrangements seem a bit stogy and dated. And while music always plays an important role in Walt Disney’s films, they are sometimes the only indicator of the age of the film.

Voice actors in Disney films at this time usually got less attention than the animators. But an animated character is a combination of the artist(s)’ pen and ink and the voice acting that brings it to life. Perhaps the best known of the ones in this film is Maleficent, who was voiced by Eleanor Audley, an actress that had been on radio in the 1940’s and 50’s. She had previously voiced Lady Tremaine, the evil stepmother in Disney’s Cinderella. (1950). She also provided voices that are still being used in the Haunted Mansions at Disneyland and Disney World. Audley also had a long career on television, appearing on shows such as I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies.

One of the classics of Disney animation, Sleeping Beauty is a great film. And while animation is often thought of as being geared towards children, this is a film that can be enjoyed by viewers at any age.

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