Length: 75 min.
Age: 4 and up. Commonsense Media sez: iffy for ages 4/5
Scary Factor: no real danger until the climax, when Maleficent turns into a dragon to battle the prince (scene is relatively brief)
Intense Scenes: far more suspense and chills than outright scares – Maleficent is wonderfully threatening; scene in which Aurora pricks her finger on the spindle is eerie and enthralling.
Bad Behaviour: Boozing – the two kings drink endless toasts to each other and a minstrel gets quietly sloshed under the table.
Language: “fools! idiots! imbeciles!” barked by Maleficent at her underlings; she also mentions the powers of “hell”
Interests: fairy tales, princesses, knights, castles, dragons, magic, fairies
Next: Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Thumbelina
At the Princess Aurora’s christening the evil witch Maleficent, insulted at not having been invited, casts a horrible spell: on her sixteenth birthday Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and die. One of the trio of well-meaning fairies manages to soften the spell a bit, Aurora will not die but fall into a deep sleep until awakened by “true love’s first kiss”. To protect the child, the fairies take her deep into the forest to raise her incognito. On the fateful birthday Aurora, aka Briar Rose, meets and falls in love with a young man, not realizing it is Prince Philip, to whom she has been betrothed since her ill-fated christening.
Returning to the castle Maleficent draws Aurora to a tower where she does prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep. The distraught fairies extend the slumber to the entire kingdom. Philip is captured by Maleficent but the fairies help him escape. He makes his way to the castle. Again with the help of the fairies, he battles with Maleficent, transformed into an enormous dragon, but defeats her and kisses Aurora. The entire kingdom awakes and rejoices.
This film benefits from being a pretty straightforward treatment of the classic fairy tale – with the addition of adorable fairies and woodland creatures. The love story is also more fully elaborated. Here Aurora and Philip are allowed to meet and fall in love before she falls asleep, and the duration of her sleep is reduced from the storybook 100 years to, it seems, about one day.
There is great suspense and dread every time Maleficent appears, though there is little actual violence depicted. She is deliciously frightening. Her demon henchmen dance around a fire at one point, but they are designed to be rather buffoonish. Maleficent zaps them when she gets angry but they don’t appear to be hurt.
When Philip is captured he is tied up and handled fairly roughly, but it occurs mostly in shadow and he sustains no injuries.
The most scary scene is the battle with the dragon, who is truly magnificent. The fairies are on hand at every turn, however, so there is some comfort throughout. The dragon breathes fire and snaps at Philip, who nearly falls off a cliff, but finally flings his sword into the belly of the beast, causing it to fall to its death.
Most noteworthy in this film is the gorgeous art direction, inspired by medieval art but taken in a more stylized and modern direction. (See sample background below.) The animation, too, is really state-of-the-art: painstakingly rendered, fluid and lovely. In this it was the last of its kind. This kind of animation is fantastically expensive to produce and Sleeping Beauty was not enough of a box office success to justify further films to be made at this high standard. Cheaper methods like xerography were resorted to in order to keep costs down. (See One Hundred and One Dalmatians review for more on this.)
Another strength of this film is the music, adapted from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty. The score is hauntingly eerie, and lends much grace and charm to the film. Sleeping Beauty and composer George Bruns received an Academy Award nomination for Best Music in 1960 but lost to Porgy and Bess. The classical music allows the film to remain more timeless than other animated movies cursed with immediately dated pop songs on their soundtrack. My favourite scene, in which Aurora is drawn to the spinning wheel, would not be nearly as enthralling without the suspenseful music.
While true that Aurora/Briar Rose has to be the most passive of all Disney princesses, she is still quite likeable and lovely. As an adult she is only onscreen for 18 of the film’s 75 minutes. The three fairies receive much more screen time and thus become the main characters, lending much humour and personality to this old-fashioned tale. And Prince Philip is thankfully more nuanced and engaging than the stiff princes of Snow White and Cinderella.
In conclusion: one of the classic princess stories, gorgeously presented, and with only a modicum of scariness.