The Mouse House Movie Club #3: Sleeping Beauty

sleeping-beauty-disneyscreencaps-com-6103Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, pick a Disney short, and watch both together in one superb evening of Disneyfied goodness. I then write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.

Short Film: For Whom the Bulls Toil, in which Goofy goes bullfighting. That’s bad. Against a backdrop of Eyvind Earle art. That’s good. Sadly the frogurt is cursed.
Feature Presentation: Sleeping Beauty, in which our hero just wants to have a decent night’s sleep.

For Whom the Bulls Toil
The fates have been unusually kind on this one. When picking out the short films, I bring up a list, scroll manically, and then stop, picking whichever entry the mouse is closest to. Amazingly considering this Mouse House Movie Club is about Eyvind Earle’s crowning achievement, I managed to pick out a short he’d worked on in the years prior to Sleeping Beauty. Creepy….

Anyway, For Whom the Bulls Toil is a decent short wrapped up in an amusing pun. Goofy travels to Mexico and gets wrapped up in bull-fighting shenanigans. Because… of course he does. It’s fun, but it’s unremarkable really. Certainly not up there with Goofy’s best shorts, and memorable mostly for the Earle art. Which is, of course, beautiful.

Sleeping Beauty
I’ll be totally honest from the get-go here: Sleeping Beauty is my favourite Disney film – indeed, one of my favourite films fullstop- so you’re not going to get a particularly impartial piece of writing here. I love Sleeping Beauty. Actually, scratch that, I more than love it. I adore it. It’s a towering cinematic achievement and one of the many times that Disney has transcended the cinematic form to become a great piece of art, thanks largely to the talent of Eyvind Earle, who I’ll touch upon in further detail shortly.

But, in the interest of achieving some small level of balance, I’ll address some of my issues with the film first, as – hey – I’m just that kinda fair-minded guy.

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Skumps! Skumps! Skuuuuumps!!
Despite its brilliance, Sleeping Beauty has one fairly obvious, and pretty large, problem at its heart: its storytelling. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, appalling. Now, when I say this, I don’t mean the story, which is great. Good and evil, an innocent princess and an evil villain, some daffy fairies and a kingdom under threat. It’s what great fairy tales are made of, and purely as a story, it’s a great backbone for the film.

But the way it’s told leaves a lot to be desired, which is strange for a Golden Age Disney film. Walt was so dedicated to good storytelling that he’d scrap entire sequences if they weren’t working, no matter how much time, effort, and money had already gone into producing them. So it’s strange seeing here that a scene as pointless as the Skumps song between Kings Stefan and Hubert should make the cut. It’s not a terrible scene by any means, and the lute player who’s getting drunker than the two kings adds a lot of comedy. It just doesn’t add anything.

Other scenes are curious too. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather’s struggles to bake a cake and make a dress for Aurora to celebrate her 16th birthday are very funny and beautifully animated (have you ever seen a better looking and funnier cake?Seriously, Sleeping Beauty‘s animation is so damn good that even the food is inherently funny!) but the scene doesn’t make sense. In their 16 years out in the forest, have the fairies never learned to cook or sew? Surely these are critical survival skills considering the position they’re in? Surely they’d have to learn them to get through one year, never mind 16?

Of course, this isn’t a particularly big problem, but it undermines the reality of the situation, and rather undercuts the sacrifice the fairies make in living in solitude without their magic. In earlier films, such issues would have been ironed out. In Sleeping Beauty, they tend to remain.

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I know you…
Storytelling issues also exist in the famous ‘Once Upon A Dream’ sequence, which frankly is far too long. But this is where I draw the line on criticisms, because I really don’t care. Yes, this sequence is too long for its own good, but it’s an overlong period of what is pretty much the most staggering, lyrical film-making Disney has ever produced.

Walt was undoubtedly stung by the failure of his still-ahead-of-its-time masterpiece Fantastia, and to some degree tried to remake the idea in some of the films after its release. The wartime anthology pictures were often powered by music (especially the wonderful Make Mine Music), and you can see a certain Fantasia-esque marrying of sound and visuals in some moments from Cinderella and Lady and the Tramp. Both films are love stories that play like dreams, and both rely on their music to push that forward.

Sleeping Beauty is Walt’s most obvious attempt to re-do Fantasia, not least because the score is mostly Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet. So what we get is pure cinema: sound and image marrying up beautifully. The sequence where the fairies put the kingdom to sleep is one particularly wonderful example, and another is the moment where they give their gifts to Aurora upon her birth (both could have sat very comfortably in Fantasia). But, of course, it’s the Once Upon A Dream scene that’s the centre of the picture and its lyrical beauty.

It is, quite simply, masterful animation: a scene about a young girl’s desire to meet someone and fall in love that kinda feels like how it feels to fall in love. There’s nothing else in the world here. The kingdom – indeed, civilisation itself – is far away in the background, and there’s nothing more than Aurora, her animal friends, and the object of her affection, the Prince, to occupy the space. As I’ve mentioned, the scene in the context of the film as a whole feels off as it slows the pace and is far too long, but as the film’s big moment, maybe it needs the space to breathe. Certainly if it didn’t linger on, it would feel quite so dream-like, quite so beautiful.

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She filled their lives with sunshine…
And the film needs that sense of beauty because Sleeping Beauty is Disney’s most epic film in terms of how it deals with good and evil. Here, those concepts are strict black and whites – there are no nuances, no shades of grey. Aurora and her kingdom represent everything that’s good, while the fantastically wicked Maleficent is everything that’s bad. The only hint of any ambiguity in Maleficent is Merryweather’s sad realisation that she must be unhappy, and that that might be the cause of her evil. As it’s played as a joke, however, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

If Aurora fills people’s lives with sunshine, Maleficent fills them with darkness (quite literally at the end). Designed and animated by the brilliant Marc Davis, she’s a formidable figure who dominates the screen whenever she’s on it, and comes to act as an all-consuming figure of evil. She literally destroys everything good in the film, even going so far as to wreck the Christening of a helpless innocent child. And whenever she’s on screen, the visuals shift dramatically, changing from the warm, earthy, natural tones of Aurora’s world to the dark blacks, greens, and purples of Maleficent’s terrifying lair.

Even when the film becomes more explicit in the finale (during which there’s much talk of evil dying and good enduring as Phillip attempts to destroy Maleficent), the battle between these opposing forces is still conveyed through mostly visual means. Phillip’s last gasp swinging as the Maleficent-Dragon corners him is beautifully realised, while the forest of thorns Maleficent creates around the kingdom stands as a beautiful symbol for the powerful corruption of evil. All these things make the film a fairy tale that communicates the binary aspect of good and bad better than any other in Disney – perhaps even cinematic – history.

(I would write about Maleficent and how it wonderful explodes the binary to act as a compelling companion piece to Sleeping Beauty, but you should just read the Sisters Switch article instead).

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Eyvind Earle everyone!
I’ve already written about Marc Davis and the spectacular contribution he made to this film by creating Maleficent. Well, the second animator hero of Sleeping Beauty is Eyvind Earle. When Walt embarked upon Sleeping Beauty, he knew he wanted (and needed) something different. With three fairy tales already in the can, this one needed to change things up: to communicate something different, and most importantly, to look different. So, he brought in Earle to do just that. And boy, did he ever.

Earle’s style is a significant departure from classic Disney. While those early films had striven for realism, Earle was a stylist. While those early films often favoured curvy lines and softness, Earle was all about harsh lines and angularity. There was a clash between the classic style and the modernism Earle was aiming to bring in, but the movie resolves it beautifully. By and large, the character design is classic Disney – all soft and cuddly. But Earle’s backgrounds are anything but. The two come together to form something that feels genuinely new, and genuinely otherworldly.

Throw in the fact that Earle drew directly on medieval art for his inspiration and Sleeping Beauty feels like more than a simple film. It’s an historical artefact, an animated tapestry that hums with life and feels genuinely, brilliantly tangible.

And good endure…
So yes, there you have it. I like Sleeping Beauty. It movies good. Real good.

Next time, I’ll be enjoying the sci-fi futurism of Meet the Robinsons, one of the great overlooked modern Disney films. This will be preceded by the short The Little Matchstick Girl. Bring your hankies folks.