Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Clyde Geronimi | 1hr 15min

There is a slightly larger suspension of disbelief that Disney’s traditional animations asks of its audiences compared to many other films, as they often make leaps of narrative logic to draw from familiar archetypes, but few have managed to do so with the grace of Sleeping Beauty. As Disney’s second animation to be shot in a widescreen format following Lady and the Tramp, there is something distinct about the way director Clyde Geronimi uses the full scope of his frame to draw out this rich world of forests and castles. In the layers of depth in these images, where foregrounded trees form gorgeous frames around our characters, he effectively creates the textured look of Renaissance tapestries drawn on canvas, like artistic tributes to the history of human storytelling.

The branches of trees are almost always foregrounded in forest scenes to create frames around Aurora and Phillip.

As was the tradition of these early Disney fairy tales, we are led in with the opening of storybook and a chorus of heavenly voices, acting like a backup to our primary narrator. Orchestrations run through almost every second of Sleeping Beauty, like a suite of program music complete with leitmotifs, and rhythmically tying in with the animation in remarkable synchronicity. Musical accents land on lightning strikes, and as thorny trees magically sprout from the earth, cymbals accompany each once, these instruments telling their own story parallel to the visual one. All throughout, ‘Once Upon a Dream’ is the musical lynchpin upon which many of these melodies revolve around, becoming the basis of the love theme that binds Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip together in all sorts of variations.

The notion of sleeping goes far beyond the obvious plot point in this film. It is infused within these lyrics, underscoring such dreamy images of the two lovers dancing by a pond that mirrors their reflections directly beneath them. It is also within this whimsical context that we accept perhaps the most remarkable coincidence of the narrative, in which this betrothed couple meet by chance and fall in love. In true fairy tale fashion, there is no great tension in this love story, but we instead find the real threat lurking in darker places.

The reflections of Aurora and Phillip in the water as they dance to ‘Once Upon a Dream’, creating a delicate image of that subconscious state where the song suggests they have met before.

It is there that a black and purple robed figure marked by demonic horns enters – Maleficent, the evil fairy who directly antagonises the three good ones. There is a reason that she has taken on such significant stature among all Disney villains, and much of it is her daunting yet simple character design, with that pointed, pale face and a magical green aura that seems to infest the world like a sickness. As she rises in power and lures Aurora in a hypnotic trance towards her fate, it lights the masses of dark, negative space that surrounds her with a mystical faint glow.

This entire sequence is one of the film’s visual highlights – dark corridors and rooms lit with faint, green glows, as Aurora is led hypnotically to her doom. Even her skin here is made to look like Maleficent’s sickly green complexion.

As the good fairies begin putting the kingdom to sleep in response, the green light fades to a stunning blue day-for-night wash, overtaking the film like a cold, sleepy dream until both spells are lifted. Such striking displays of colours were not exactly anything new for Disney in 1959, and yet there is a level of attention to detail in Sleeping Beauty lets it stand out far above other animations of the era. That it took six years to make is impressive on its own, but the results of such intense artistic labour also speaks for itself in the film’s stirringly picturesque quality.

A huge number of stunning wide shots and landscapes making full use of the animation’s unusual widescreen format, layering the compositions with architecture and bodies. A very real influence from Renaissance art in the intricate staging.
A strong composition towards the end of the film, whereby Maleficent’s unnatural green fire is consumed by the bright, orange hues of Prince Phillip.

Sleeping Beauty is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

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