One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.
This is Disney By The Numbers.
It’s all been building to this.
I know it hasn’t seemed like it. But From Snow White to Fantasia, through to the bizarre and dull package films and on past the Silver Age beginnings, all our Disney films, in one way or another have been reaching to this film. Everything Walt Disney Animation Studios had learned from its beginnings in 1929 to this point are put into practice and thrown onto the screen in a brilliant display of color, sound, special effects, and characterization. In a lot of ways this is the pinnacle of Walt Disney Animation pre-Renaissance.
But that isn’t just my opinion, I can prove it… numerically.
- Theme 3
- Tightness of Script 2
- Dialogue 2
- Use of Comedy 3
- Use of Drama 3
Snow White was a revolution in animated story telling in that it was the first cartoon to have a story that lasted the length of a feature film. But there’s no denying that for as great as the film may be, you can still see its roots in animated shorts. The same goes for Pinocchio and most of the Golden Age Films. Then the package films fully reverted to that format. But with Cinderella and the advent of the Silver Age, Animated Features with fully defined narratives came into their own. Sleeping Beauty capitalizes on this trend by having the characters not only grapple with a singular villain, but a central problem: how to thwart Maleficent’s prophecy. This narrative spine influences every action of the protagonists from the moment the curse is uttered. No other Disney movie had that singular focus previously and it results in one of the best scripts Disney had yet produced.
On top of that, it manages drama, comedy, and snappy dialogue.
In fact, in terms of comedic back and forth, this might be the best film Disney ever did before the 90s.
- Lyrics 2
- Score 5
- Number of Songs 2
- Notoriety of Songs 1
Now it’s no secret that few of the songs featured in Sleeping Beauty top the lists of best Disney songs. There isn’t a show stopper like ‘Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo’ or ‘Be Our Guest’. It barely has an ‘I Want’ song, like ‘Part Of Your World’ or ‘For The First Time In Forever’. In fact, the only song that really stands out is ‘Once Upon A Dream’, and there’s no question it’s a beautiful song, but it doesn’t really hold a candle to the likes of ‘A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes’ or ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.
Yet, in spite of that, Sleeping Beauty manages bring in yet another element from past Disney films and build on it. Taking a note from Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty‘s score and songs are all derived from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet. Like Fantasia before it, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty recontextualizes the meanings of classical music to create something new. The result is a soundtrack that is elegant, instantly recognizable, and something altogether different from what came before.
- Fluidity of Animation 3
- Use Of Color 3
- House Style 3
- Character Design 3
- Breaks New Ground 3
Pinocchio will always hold the title of the premiere example of Walt Disney Animation, but in a lot of ways, Sleeping Beauty is a close second. Disney movies can have a lot of sameness in their style. the same clean animation, the same character ascetic. That’s what the ‘House Style’ score is for after all. And as you can see, Sleeping Beauty more than maintains that tradition.
But what separates Sleeping Beauty from the others is how it actually breaks with the House Style. In an effort to make this film stand out, Walt Disney, who normally was the stickler for maintaining the House Style, allowed his artists to experiment more. The result is one of Disney’s most beautiful films. The backgrounds are lush, angular, and rich, and the character designs are some of the most iconic. Many designs and backgrounds were inspired by medieval tapestries and Renaissance (actual Renaissance not the Disney one) paintings.
But don’t take my word for it…
Look at it!
Look at it!
It’s important to soak in the grandeur and beauty of this animation because this, as we’ll cover later, is the last time we’ll see animation this good from Walt Disney Studios until 1989.
- Character Interaction 2
- Importance To Overall Plot 3
- Complexity 2
- Pulls At Heartstrings 2
- Overcomes Obstacles 3
I think you can tell from the image, what direction we’re going with the love story here.
That’s right, it’s absolutely not between these two characters.
Look, Aurora and Phillip are… fine. They’re just fine. They’re two good looking people who look good together… and that’s about it.
Before I go too far, let me actually praise what Disney does for the romance in this movie. Because there’s more there than Cinderella had, or even Snow White. In fact, when this film came out in 1959, the idea of Sleeping Beauty and the Prince meeting before their iconic kiss was revolutionary. In all the original stories this film was based on, the Princess pricks her finger then sleeps for 100 years before the Prince or King wanders by and administers the “kiss of life”.
So at the very least, the Disney version gives us something to work with for the two romantic leads.
All of that said, the insta-romance that happens between these two is incredibly dated. A modern audience has a hard time accepting that Aurora and Phillip are completely, irrevocably in love after sharing a single dance. Even if they were betrothed from birth.
So while there’s not absolutely nothing to judge on with Aurora and Phillip, we here at DbtN like to judge these types of things on the strongest possible storylines or qualifiers. And in the case of the Love Story in Sleeping Beauty, when you’re looking for a poignant, meaningful, and long suffering love, it’s not the two hot people you should be looking at. It’s the more familial relationship between Aurora and the three good fairies.
Sure, Aurora and Phillip have swooning, dance scenes together, but the fairies have this.
The Fairies, even more than her parents, spend their time worrying about Aurora, caring for her, crying over years spent raising her, and being utterly heartbroken when Maleficent’s curse strikes her down.
MIllenials nowadays like to praise films like Frozen for highlighting familial love over romantic pairings, but Disney was doing that before most of us were even born. Next time you watch Sleeping Beauty, pay attention to which love story is the most poignant and has the most depth.
I’ll give you a hint, it’s the one that is long-suffering, not the one that starts once upon a dream.
- Sidekick 2
- Charm 1.5
- Goodness 1
- Emotional Transformation 0
- Comedy 0
The Hero category has always been a tough one. Unlike the Love Story section, where we will focus in on what is the strongest love being portrayed on screen, with the Hero Category we must always focus on who the film tells us is the hero. If the movie is called Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, then the movie’s hero is Snow White, even if the Seven Dwarfs are a lot more fun. If the movie is called Peter Pan, then the hero is Peter Pan, even if Peter is a mysoginistic sociopath. And so if the movie is called Sleeping Beauty then the hero of the film is… the Beauty that… Sleeps… or… you know… Aurora.
And… well… she’s fine… she’s just fine.
But of the three original Disney Princesses, well, she’s easily the weakest of the lot.
Snow White was industrious and playful. She was willing to work her way out of a jam. Cinderella was kind, hard working, and an absolute underdog. Aurora is… pretty? She has a good voice?
Aurora simply doesn’t get much development. We know the woodland animals and fairies like her… but that’s a standard princess trait. We know she would rather be with the guy that she likes rather than the prince she’s engaged too.. who is also secretly the guy she likes. And that’s about it.
When people mock the classic Disney Princess who is all sweetness and completely passive, they usually think of Snow White… but the one that they actually mean to take aim at is Aurora.
- Evilness 2.5
- Comedy 0.5
- Sophistication 2.5
- Henchmen 1
- Poses A Threat 2.5
But whatever Aurora lacks… Maleficent more than makes up for. Just like Peter Pan before it, Sleeping Beauty proves that the hero isn’t necessarily as good as her villain.
Maleficent is the very epitome of a Disney Villain. She’s the culmination of every baddie that had appeared in a Disney Film before. She has the cold beauty of Snow White’s Evil Queen, the talent for the dark arts, as well as the screen presence and intimidating demeanor of Lady Tremaine… as well as her voice. And yet she’s so much more than either of them, and they were great villains!
Because Maleficent is not just a jealous queen, or a controlling, abusive stepmother. She’s an all powerful sorceress. When the good fairies talk about her, it’s in hushed tones with a near Voldermort level of fear. She doesn’t just have a crow sidekick, or a couple of catty daughters, she commands an entire army of Orcs like Sauron.
Maleficent is like if Sauron and Voledmort had a daughter and that daughter could turn into Smaug. And if that created a horrible image in your head well…
But we’re still not done discussing what makes Maleficent a cut above the average Disney Villain. Sure, the Evil Queen and Jose Carioca have talent in black magic, and Jafar will wind up being a powerful sorcerer. But Maleficent isn’t just good at using evil powers. She doesn’t just wield black magic… no, she straight up gets her powers from Satan himself.
But the best Disney villains aren’t simply evil. If that was the case, then Frollo from Hunchback Of Notre Dame, or the Horned King from The Black Cauldron would lead the list of Disney Villains. The best Disney villains revel in it. They love being bad simply because they get a kick out of it. Few of them do it better than Maleficent. She curses a baby to die just because she wasn’t invited to a party, she becomes positively gleeful at seeing the misery she’s inflicted.
Often in writing books or advice columns, they’ll tell you that a good villain is one who is relatable, with a complex backstory, and looks like she may be the hero of her own story even if she’s the villain in the eyes of the heroes. Maleficent proves that, that isn’t always true. Sometimes all a villain needs is to be horrible and make it look good. Sometimes a villain doesn’t have to have a realistic motivation or mindset, sometimes they just need to be bad for the sake of being bad.
At one point in the film Fauna the fairy, comments that she just doesn’t think that Maleficent is very happy. And well, look, Fauna is a darling old lady but I don’t know she’s the best judge of character because, well…
- Comedy 2.5
- Inventiveness 2.5
- Clear Help Or Hindrance 2.5
- Strength of Relationship with Main Character 2.5
Sleeping Beauty is quite possibly, the most female empowering film in Disney Canon, and it definitely is among all the films that came before it. That may seem weird considering that Aurora has exactly zero agency and spends a good chunk of the film unconscious. But you’ll notice I used the word “hero” for Aurora as opposed to the word “protagonist” because when you really evaluate the film, she’s not the protagonist.
Every decision made that truly affects the plot is either made by the Three Good Fairies (that’s their official title, or band name, like the Jackson Five) or by Maleficent herself. Aurora, Phillip, the two Kings, all of them are pawns in this fairy grudge match.
Also, as mentioned before, they’re the ones that have the genuine love story going on in their caring for Aurora, including a scene where they reminisce over raising her and the fact that they’re going to lose her, a situation every parent can relate to.
So all the people that really move the plot are women, and on top of that, each of these women exhibit wildly different personalities. Flora, the ‘leader’ is only slightly better at that job than Doc was in Snow White, but she still manages to be plenty fun. Fauna is a bit of ditz and the most traditionally feminine. Then there’s Merryweather, easily the most practical, hot headed, and awesome of the three. In fact, she always seems to be about two seconds away from striking out to go after Maleficent herself, armed only with a sparkly wand and hate.
That also brings up another interesting point. When the Fairies spring Phillip from Maleficent’s dungeon and facilitate his escape, they repeatedly save his life and every time they do their power manifests in something traditionally seen as feminine.
When Maleficent’s… orc army… hurls boulders at him, the Fairies turn them into bubbles. A shower of arrows turn into flowers, and a rainbow protects Phillip from scalding oil.
So yeah, in spite of having possibly the weakest Disney Princess, Sleeping Beauty is chock full of fantastic examples of powerful, admirable women. And this is decades before Disney would be actively trying to include such narratives in their films.
Disney Magic and Legacy
- Theme Park Presence 1
- Timelessness 2
- Impact On Culture 2
- Scope of Audience 2
- Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?) 3
Oh boy! Where to start with this one? Sleeping Beauty is one of Disney’s most enduring features. While Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom is the logo of the company, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle was there in 1955 when Disneyland opened, a full four years before the movie even premiered. Furthermore, you can meet Aurora and Three Good Fairies in the parks, as well as Maleficent herself.
She also participates in the greatest show Disney ever produced, ‘Fantasmic’, where she appears in the flesh to trouble Mickey in both her normal and dragon forms.
And honestly, I could go on and on about how you can find examples of Sleeping Beauty in the Disney Parks. It’s a well represented film.
Maleficent herself has gone on to be considered one of Disney’s greatest villains, frequently topping lists as the best one and making appearances in merchandise and media promoting the Disney Villains line up. And of course there’s the… dubious ‘honor’ of having her own live action films dedicated to her. I won’t go into those because this review is about the 1959 animated film… and those ‘Maleficent’ movies are a master class in missing the freaking point.
Also, even though Aurora is probably the weakest Disney Princess, her image alone is iconic enough that she’s usually front and center in the Disney Princess lineup. She remains a touchstone for what a Disney Princess looks and acts like. Kids today still love dressing up as Aurora, Maleficent, even the Three Good Fairies.
Sleeping Beauty‘s score, animation, and villain all make it completely timeless, someone can enjoy this movie as much today as they did in 1959, unlike something like Peter Pan. This film is the very definition of a classic, even if not all the parts of it work, what does work is amazing.
Grand Total: 83.5
And it’s a good thing to, because this film, for all of its triumphs, quality, and beauty, did not do well on release. This was partially due to its production cost. Walt had intended this to be a new magnum opus akin to Snow White, and because of that, the film wallowed in development for years. That is partially why Sleeping Beauty’s castle was erected at Disneyland years before the movie came out.
Another reason for its under-performance was due to the way tastes had shifted in the late 50s. The Disney House Style, with it’s clean lines, detailed images, and lush backgrounds had fallen out of favor. Instead, audiences preferred a more stylized look exemplified by UPA Animation studio’s Mr. Magoo. I don’t really get it, but at the time, audiences preferred this:
But don’t feel too bad for Sleeping Beauty, it’s more than made its money back as its lifetime gross is estimated to be around six hundred million dollar range while Mr. Magoo teeters blindly towards obscurity.
At the time of release, this loss was devastating to Walt Disney Animation. Because of this change in taste, the cost it took to achieve quality on the level of Sleeping Beauty, and the poor box office results, Disney actually considered shuttering their animation department. But luckily, they were about to be given 101 reasons to keep going.