It’s fairy tale month. And since I just honoured Maleficent as the best of the female Disney villains last Halloween, I think it is time to talk about a movie which might be my favourite in the whole Disney canon, and the fairy tale it is based on. So this month I will discuss the female heroines of Sleeping Beauty in detail and then honour a second adaptation I consider very well done.
From a feminist perspective, Sleeping Beauty is a nightmare. There is this girl, cursed from birth to punish her parents, who is put to sleep for hundred years only to be awakened by the kiss of some strange prince. And that is just the Grimm version. The Perrault one throws in a pregnancy while being asleep, attempted cannibalism of her children…all the bad stuff which can happen to a girl in a fairy tale happen to Sleeping Beauty.
But then, while the Disney movie claims to be based on the Perrault version, it is actually mostly based on the Sleeping Beauty ballet, which is in turn based on the Perrault version but is actually much closer to the Grimm version. And if you look at the Grimm version, I am sometimes not sure if one should read the fairy tale as an example of a girl getting victimized, or as a warning, a story against the kind of attitude displayed in the story. I have read some interpretations of it which go the usual “it is all about sex” route, which is way too popular when it comes to fairy tale symbolic. I prefer to see it as a story about parents who wilfully decide to keep their daughter in the dark. If Sleeping Beauty had known about the curse, if she had known how a spindle looked like, she would have never gone near one. But even more, by keeping Sleeping Beauty unaware, the kingdom ends up in a hundred year long era of stagnation.Which makes the story mostly a cautionary tale for parents in my eyes.
Aurora is often considered the weakest of the Disney princesses. And I can see why. She doesn’t fight, she has barely any screen-time and not much of an agenda. Point is, though: Aurora is not the protagonist of the movie. She is the title character, and in most cases the title character is also the protagonist, but that is not a prerequisite. Aurora is not the heroine of the story, she is the McGuffin. Every single character in the movie wants either to destroy or to protect her.
And yet, I like her. While she doesn’t really have that much screen-time, the time she has is enough for me to get a sense for her character. She is a little bit of a loner (because she grew up in isolation), and a dreamer. She can get lost in a fantasy easily. But she is not stupid. She knows exactly that her “aunts” are up to something when they send her out to pick berries. She is also responsible enough to invite the “stranger in the woods” to her own cottage for the second meeting, and never makes a secret of her intending to pursue a relationship with him. I also think that it is quite cute how she changes her answer to Phillip from “never” to “maybe someday” to “no, not tomorrow, this evening”. All in all, it is easy to relate to Aurora.
I think the big weakness of the movie is that it never allows Aurora to voice her reasons to go back in the castle, despite her obvious unhappiness with the situation. I always choose to believe that it is her sense of responsibility which compels her, but it could be simple obedience just as well. But most accusations which are levelled against her are simply ridiculous. Damsel in distress? Not really. Yes, she has to get rescued, but it is hardly her fault that she is put under a spell (one from which she nearly breaks loose in the last minute). To me a Damsel in Distress is someone who constantly ends up in danger due to her own actions and who is shown as being incompetent in taking care of herself. Aurora ends up in danger because of the action of others, and she is put into a situation in which nobody would be able to rescue themselves.
The strength of the movie is how certain aspects of the original tale are subverted. For example, in the source text, the princess gets rescued because she is so beautiful that a passing prince can’t resist her. It would be a lie to claim that the most memorable character trait of Aurora is not, well, her beauty. She is often considered the most beautiful of the Disney Princesses for a reason. From her graceful movement to the golden hair, everything about her was designed to underline the gift she was given. On top of this, she is quite regal looking in her blue dress, every inch a queen (The White’s list has a very detailed and interesting post about how Sleeping Beauty established the meaning of the colour blue in Disney Princess movies). But if you look closer, beauty barely plays a role in the story. It is not really beauty which rescues Aurora, it is love. Mainly the love of the fairies, who do everything to protect her, and who would have loved her regardless of what she looks like. And Prince Phillip?
Let’s examine the first meeting of the main couple. Aurora is the first Disney Princess who is dreaming of meeting a prince. And until Anna turned up, she also was the only one, because not even the classic princesses had prince charming on the top of their wish list. Snow White wasn’t singing about princes until she actually meet one, Cinderella is not singing about finding love at all, and for both of them meeting their respective princes is not just about a romantic notion, it is about a chance to escape an abusive environment. Unlike those two, Aurora (or Briar Rose) had a happy, if a little bit lonely childhood.
There are two aspects though which one shouldn’t overlook concerning Aurora’s dreams of meeting a prince. One, she and Phillip meet each other in disguise, so to speak. When they fall in love, they fall in love with the persons they are underneath their titles. And two, her dreams to meet a prince becomes a nightmare for her very fast. One moment she is happily in love, the next moment she is told that she is already promised to a real prince. And while the cynical, adult audience most likely realized who Phillip was the moment he entered the screen, fact is that the movie doesn’t official reveal his true identity until he speaks with his father. Aurora will eventually get her happily ever after, but does the movie really portray being a princess as something that desirable? Fact is that at the beginning of the movie, Aurora thinks that she has all freedom in the world and is ready to break free from her overprotective “aunts”. The moment she learns who she truly is, though, she is loosing that freedom.
In the great scheme of things, the movie portrays being a princess more as a burden than blessing. The one thing Aurora really wanted for herself, and that is living happily with a man she loves, is something she could have gotten as peasant girl, too. Being a princess brings her a lack of choices and an enemy set on destroying her life. I don’t think that a crown and a nice dress really made up for it. So while Aurora might not be the most layered or most interesting of the princesses Disney created, I don’t agree that she sends a bad message.
Adapting Sleeping Beauty and creating her as lead is more or less impossible. You can’t really make her the sole main character, because she has to be asleep for the actual climax of the movie. So no matter how good the character itself is, she will nevertheless get pushed aside eventually. Disney’s version naturally has exactly the same problem. I still consider Sleeping Beauty one of the most perhaps not the most feminist movie in the Disney canon. Because while Aurora is the title character, the true main characters of this movies are the three fairies. They get the most screen time, and they are the ones which make the important decisions in the movie. Which is why I will discuss them next Saturday.
Quote: “The symbol of thy royalty. A crown to wear in grace and beauty; as is thy right, and royal duty.”
Sleeping Beauty is one of the big Disney Classics. But even between them, I consider the movie as something special. For one, it was the last hand-inked animated movie Disney ever made. Two, it has a very unique style, one which influences the whole fantasy genre to this day. And three, this is the movie in which Disney managed what he was set out to do since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, creating a movie which looks like a moving painting. The artistic quality of the movie is above everything Disney ever created, especially in the detailed backgrounds.
The pacing is a little bit off. But I think there is more than enough good in the movie to make up for its weaknesses. The villain, naturally, but it also has one of the if not the best climax Disney ever created, and a truly amazing score (well, no wonder, it is based on the work of one of the best composers of all time, and as I recently pointed out, George Bruns best work). All in all, it is a little bit like Fantasia in the way every second of the movie is paired with classical music. There isn’t one silent moment in the whole movie. And the fact that Aurora moves like a dancer underlines its connection to the ballet it is based on.
While I consider most movies in the Disney canon worth a watch, this is an absolute must-watch. It is a truly unique movie, and there never has been nor will there ever be one truly similar to it. It’s a masterpiece in every sense of the word.