Monthly Archives: February 2009

February 22, 2009

Disney Canon #16: Sleeping Beauty (1959)


BETH The colors! It’s like they discovered fuchsia for the first time. I found it delightful, and I thought they were being very daring.

BROOM Did this movie invent that green and purple were the colors of evil? Was this the first place those colors were used for that purpose? Because that really stuck around. It’s so effective.

ADAM This movie was almost exclusively attractive visually.

BROOM That’s right. And it’s almost enough.

BETH Almost.

ADAM They totally abandoned lushness and went for “zap! pow!” flatness and quasi-abstraction. And it was great, visually.

BETH Even though she was kind of ugly.

ADAM And it was like they abandoned their commitment to doing real people. All the people were sort of like Hanna-Barbera. He had a sort of Prince Valiant look to him.

BROOM Well, I think this came before the Hanna-Barbera cartoons that you’re thinking of. And the designs of the people were certainly flat, but the animation of them was pretty strong throughout. It felt like attention had been given.

ADAM Have we seen swashbuckling like that before? Well, I guess in Peter Pan.

BROOM That was sort of comical swashbuckling, not sincere swashbuckling like this at the end, which was a little confused. So what is the problem with this movie? What’s lacking?

BETH The problem is that you can’t relate to anything for a really long time.

ADAM And nobody’s motivations make any sense.

BROOM Yeah. The script just doesn’t work. They obviously have a problem, because the story is just “A curse was placed on her, and on her sixteenth birthday, despite their efforts, the curse came to pass, but then the prince came and saved her.” They decided to put the longest delay in between the morning of her sixteenth birthday and the evening, and they made it be about the dress, and the cake… just artificial delays, because the story doesn’t have anything to offer.

BETH And it’s artificial suspense anyway because we don’t know her or care about her.

BROOM She is not the protagonist of the movie. It’s really all about Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.

ADAM Yeah. I expect the princess to be a cipher, but here, even the prince was a cipher.

BROOM You mean the other way around?

ADAM No. I don’t mean personality-wise; I mean that I expect at least the prince to have some… “will to being” – some… what’s the word I’m looking for? it’s a word that starts with “A.” Not “action,” but…

BROOM I don’t know. It was striking, especially after you pointed it out, that all his heroism at the end basically consists of looking on while the little fairies do fairy stuff around him.

ADAM I pointed out during the screening that he’s thoroughly emasculated, because they turn the arrows into flowers, and guard him with a rainbow.

BROOM Even the climactic moment when he stabs the dragon, even that is done for him by the fairy. I know, she doesn’t exactly throw it.

BETH She blesses the sword.

BROOM Yeah, the second before he throws it.

ADAM Maleficent is sort of the hero of this movie. She’s the only person with any force of personality.

BROOM She’s the only character that you look forward to her being onscreen again. Everyone else just comes and goes, but you wait for the scenes with her, because you know they’re going to be fun. That’s a brilliant costume she’s got. Is there any historical precedent for wearing horns like that? Weren’t there those medieval headdresses that had round turret things? I know that’s not really what she was wearing, but maybe it’s a jumping-off point.

ADAM She is truly frightening. She’s much more frightening than anything we’ve seen. Except maybe the hag, way back in Snow White.

BETH She also says outright that she is evil.

BROOM She calls on “the forces of hell.” Strong stuff! Her little posse of demons was straight out of “Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia. I felt like her type and level of scariness was comparable to that. That, I think, is still scarier overall. But the nightmare scene when Maleficent manages to get Sleeping Beauty to a spinning wheel is still awfully strong.

ADAM It’s awful. When her face falls blank. I don’t think that’s what happens in the Charles Perrault story. I think she somehow convinces her to try her hand at spinning. That’s not as effective as the zombie bride approach.

BROOM Which emphasizes the arbitrariness of the curse being based around a spinning wheel. This movie has no spinning; it has nothing to do with spinning wheels. She’s just walking through these abandoned hallways in this abandoned tower, looking for the room that is the absolute center of evil, where she’s going to touch this totally arbitrary talisman. That’s a scary setup. And the music in that sequence, which I guess is from Tchaikovsky, is really effective.

ADAM It’s notably not over-the-top, “eeeevil!” music, because it’s by Tchaikovsky.

BROOM There’s something classical about the way that it’s scary, which I found very gratifying there. Whereas I didn’t think that the Tchaikovsky worked in a lot of the other places, especially comic scenes. A lighthearted passage by Tchaikovsky doesn’t really match up properly with ineptly baking a cake. The level of stupidity just isn’t low enough.

ADAM I think this is the most arbitrarily fairy-tale-like of all the movies. It’s the one where people’s motivations matter the least and the abstract arc of the fairy tale is the most important, and I think that makes sense to pair with Tchaikovsky, a sort of abstract, classical soundtrack that comes from above.

BROOM It all came from above. The design came from above, too. It’s all stylized. Every layer of the movie is artificial. But I think that works just fine for kids. I don’t think a kid would have a problem with this movie the way we did. Except for maybe the “Skumps” scene.

BETH Then why did we both dislike it as kids?

BROOM I didn’t say I disliked it.

ADAM Well, why did you dislike it?

BETH I think it was because I didn’t know who anyone was, except for the evil person, and I wasn’t into evil as a kid. Right before we started, you did say that you didn’t like it.

BROOM Maybe I didn’t. I do remember that when I was a kid, I felt like it was my personal observation that this one looked flat and not as lush as the other movies. And that wasn’t as satisfying. I don’t think the idea of a facade of stylized lacquered figures was of any interest to me as a kid.

ADAM When the thorns come up, and they’re like “THORNS!” “THORNS!” – it’s awesome.

BROOM Almost every background is beautiful and striking.

BETH I thought maybe they were utilizing color so boldly because they knew that kids wouldn’t be into the story, and they were trying to get them involved aesthetically.

BROOM My understanding was that they threw everything they had at this and wanted it to be their biggest, boldest, greatest…

ADAM …extravaganziest…

BROOM …Cinemascope spectacular. [ed.: not Cinemascope, “Technirama”]

BETH Which it certainly was. It was just amazing, visually.

BROOM It was just the story, the timing. A real misjudgment to make the “Skumps” scene be all about how they’re getting drunk, and that the jester, or the troubadour or whatever, gets drunk. That’s not good comedy for kids!

ADAM I don’t think the queen says a single word in the entire movie.

BETH At the end I think she says something.

BROOM Like, “oh, darling.” Did Philip’s mother die between the opening scene and the present day? At the beginning, his father and mother walk him up to the cradle, and then later his mother’s not around.

ADAM Interesting.

BROOM And is Philip going to look like his dad when he grows up?

ADAM Aurora had a sort of hard-bitten look, I thought, when she was a lass, that was not pretty. She could not have melted butter with that face.

BETH No. The gift of beauty did not take.

BROOM Well, obviously, she was beautiful by a different standard. She was a different type of beauty from what we’ve seen before, for a different era, intentionally.

ADAM She was a quivering blonde the way Renee Zellweger is.

BETH It wasn’t even 50s-ish.

BROOM You didn’t think she looked exactly like the cartoon woman in an advertisement, saying, “Look at my new stove”?

BETH No. I thought she had more of an 80s teenager in a Ferrari kind of look.

BROOM She had kind of a wry, spoiled look.

BETH Yeah.

BROOM But that was the whole attitude of the movie. It was like, “if you’ve got a kidney-shaped table in your house, this is the fairy tale for you.”

BETH I guess.

ADAM It was hard for me to concentrate every time the three fairies said, “Rose,” because it sounded just like Blanche, Dorothy, and Sophia calling for Rose.

BROOM It seemed cheap that all three of the fairies were just variations on the fairy godmother from Cinderella, with the same features. All three of them were basically the same as each other.

ADAM Maybe they felt badly for only giving the fairy godmother two minutes of screen time in Cinderella.

BETH I felt like Aurora’s costume was like a rip-off of Cinderella’s peasant costume.

ADAM She was the worst, most featureless princess.

BROOM I’m surprised at you guys. If I had to live with one of the princesses, I wouldn’t necessarily pick her, but I can recognize that she had beauty of a sort.

ADAM I didn’t say she was the ugliest of the princesses; she’s just the most generic, there’s nothing about her that is memorable.

BETH I could draw her, right now, but only because we just watched it. No-one ever wants to be her.

ADAM She’s like the David Souter of Disney princesses.

BETH She did look pretty when she was asleep.

BROOM In the fake drawing? I thought she looked way better in real life. I was surprised when she woke up and you said, “now she’s not pretty anymore.”

BETH She looked like Gwen Stefani. She’s so angular.

BROOM A lot of people seem to think Gwen Stefani is hot. I personally think Sleeping Beauty looked better than Gwen Stefani.

BETH Okay!

BROOM I’m just saying, she was a certain type that some people are into. I thought it was interesting that she didn’t have any real character, yet they imbued her face with an implied attitude.

BETH It was just, like, “sporty girl.”

BROOM Yes, that’s right. She was sort of Sporty Spice.

ADAM Yeah: “the Spice you don’t care about.”

BROOM There’s one that we care about? Which one? “Baby Spice?”

ADAM Which is the black Spice?

BETH Scary Spice.

BROOM A bit of racism embedded there. Just this side of “Jungle Spice.” But anyway, Sleeping Beauty didn’t have any actual attitude, it was just a look. Which ties into what I’ve wanted to say, to go a little deeper here, I felt like the surfaces and the background and the color scheme – everything that made this movie stylized – were all somehow philosophically of a piece with her superficial veneer of having an attitude, even though there was nothing there. The style suggested worldliness. There was nothing worldly about her or anyone else in the movie, and yet she had it in her eyes. It seemed like the movie was made for a public that wanted to be…

BETH Sophisticated?

BROOM Yes, exactly.

BETH I see what you’re saying, and I agree with you. If she had looked like Snow White, it wouldn’t have meshed with the rest of the visuals. She would have been out of place. Even Cinderella would have; anything prior.

ADAM Was Cinderella a redhead? I have so much trouble remembering.

BETH She was like a strawberry blonde.

ADAM Sleeping Beauty is ironically the most generic-looking of the princesses, but nobody cares about her. Did you even know her name? “Aurora?”

BETH I tried to memorize it but I still keep forgetting it.

BROOM Nobody would have thought to name a princess “Aurora” prior to 1959. That was probably a very stylish name for them to give her.

ADAM “Princess Jennifer.”

BROOM You know the character in Shrek is “Princess Fiona,” and that seems like either a joke or a reflection of 2001, when Shrek came out. And I don’t think it was a joke, I think they just thought it would be a nice name for a princess. At no time earlier would they have named the princess “Aurora.”

BETH and ADAM: Right. [ed. We sure are wrong about this! It comes straight from Tchaikovsky, who derived it from Perrault]

ADAM It sounds like the name of a modern vacuum cleaner. It’s of a piece, era-wise.

BROOM So that’s the larger thing I wanted to find a way of saying. Even if her face hadn’t looked the way it did, something about the design in general… Even the little bad guys, the little trolls, had a certain…

ADAM Dean Martin at the Copacabana?

BROOM No – they were designed as disposable beings for us to laugh at. Their pig-noses and overbites were less fond; they were animated with less sympathy. There’s something warmly human in the earlier movies, in Snow White, where every flower deserves to be given a blush of beauty, where here the attitude was different: “if we’re going to a place of evil, let’s just make it as vile and nasty as possible.” There was a sleazy material quality to it. I can’t think of better adjectives. But everything in the movie had a harder spirit.

ADAM I did want to say that I thought the evil queen’s plot was brilliant. She’s going to keep the prince in prison until he’s an old man, and then let him rescue her when he’s gray-bearded and weak. It’s fabulous.

BROOM Is she still going to be sixteen when he rescues her, or is she going to be one hundred in her bed, too?

ADAM I think she’ll be sixteen.

BROOM Either way, it’s pathetic.

ADAM He truly is emasculated. She’s going to wait until he’s impotent and cannot consummate true love’s first kiss.

BROOM And then she says something sarcastic like “True love conquers all! Ha ha ha ha…” and the unspoken correction is “Really, it’s death that conquers all. You will age and die.”

ADAM Sucks. Enchanted is actually most directly based on Sleeping Beauty, if you’re curious. Down to the chitter-chattering with the animals. I know that Cinderella does that too, but she doesn’t talk with cardinals, say.

BROOM This was the most mockery-worthy animal friendship scene thus far.

ADAM I think you guys would enjoy Enchanted, having now seen all these. Or maybe wait until the end of this run. You’ll like it. I mean, it’s stupid. It’s Amy Adams playing Sleeping Beauty and Susan Sarandon playing Maleficent. Who, incidentally, I only recognized from Annie Hall, not from having seen this movie as a kid.

BROOM Where he says that he had a crush on her instead of on the princess.

ADAM Right.

BROOM So let me just restate: they kind of look the same. She has a big chin to show that she’s evil – and horns, and makeup – but, otherwise they have very similar features.

ADAM She’s not unsexy.

BETH No, she’d be a sexy, hot, evil woman.

ADAM You don’t see many Maleficent costumes, but she has a sort of dominatrix quality.

BROOM I think part of the reason people wouldn’t go to a party as Maleficent with cleavage showing is because…

BETH No-one would know it was Maleficent?

BROOM I think if you have the horns, you’re set. No, because of what I was saying before, because her castle isn’t somehow a kinky fantasy. There’s nothing appealing about it.

ADAM That’s true, she lives among, like, rotting bones.

BETH Yeah, it really is like hell.

BROOM I like that you see her sitting on her throne, and all that’s going on is the demons dancing an endless devil dance around a fire, constantly.

ADAM The witch’s sabbath dance. It’s got to be lonely to be Maleficent, because your only companions are a crow and those moronic demons.

BROOM It’s funny when Fauna – or whoever – says, “I don’t think she’s very happy.” Funny because the movie doesn’t let itself go that deep with anything else. Are those the first truly moronic henchmen we’ve seen? Because that’s going to be another trope for the ages.

ADAM Actually, you know where I learned the word “henchmen” was in playing the computer game version of The Black Cauldron, so I assume there are more henchmen coming. What’s the next one?

BROOM 101 Dalmatians.

ADAM Okay. That’s sort of an “after the sack of Rome but before the Dark Ages” kind of movie.

BROOM This was the sack of Rome.

ADAM This was the day before the sack of Rome.

BROOM This was their biggest-budget movie, and I think it did not do as well as they’d wanted. And they couldn’t budget as much as they did for this ever again. In the next one I believe they start using a process where they somehow print the pencil drawings directly onto the cel, which is much less labor-intensive and cheaper, and you can see all the pencil-y lines. This is the last one done the old way.

ADAM And when did Mary Blair die?

BROOM I don’t think she died until much later, but she left Disney and had a sad life, according to that book I have. But these designs were all by Eyvind Earle.

ADAM It didn’t look exactly like Mary Blair, but sort of like a fantasia on Mary Blair. Small F.

BROOM Well, speaking of the big-F Fantasia, I was glad to see that when they pulled out all the stops, even in 1959, that still meant certain kinds of abstraction that I really didn’t think were ever going to come back. When they give her the gifts, for example, it spins up into an effect, up in dreamland.

ADAM You liked that the last shot is them dancing on a cloud?

BROOM I mean, god knows what Bosley’s going to think of the sentimental stuff, but I have a nostalgic attachment to those remnants of what they’d been doing 30 years earlier.

ADAM When is the last bejeweled storybook?

BROOM I don’t know. We hadn’t seen a live-action book in a long time. I think that may have been it.

ADAM Mulan opens with a fortune cookie.

BROOM That may be true, unfortunately.

[We read the New York Times review]

ADAM That’s basically right.

BROOM Well, it wasn’t right when he said she looked like Snow White.

BETH I think he meant her costume. Her costume does look like Snow White’s.

BROOM It looks like Cinderella’s.

ADAM Does Snow White wear the thing with the arm puffs when she’s a peasant, or when she’s a princess?

BROOM Uh… all the time.

BETH I think when she’s a peasant.

ADAM Snow White looks to me like Betty Boop. Not like Lana Turner.

BROOM Snow White seems like she’s somewhere between the ages of 13 and 25. And Sleeping Beauty seemed like she was somewhere between the ages of 20 and 40.

BETH No, no, no. I would say 18 and 28.

ADAM Who would play the live-action Sleeping Beauty? Amy Adams was their answer, but who would be like the original?

BROOM Amy Adams is actually sweeter than Sleeping Beauty.

ADAM Speaking of Lana Turner, I would have her be played by…

BROOM … Lauren Bacall?

ADAM No. Who was the woman in L.A. Confidential?

BETH Kim Basinger?

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM That doesn’t make any sense.

BETH Keira Knightley has an angular face, but she’s not right. She could play the witch, maybe.

BROOM They’d be played by the same person. That’d be the Freudian version. Prince Philip’s mother disappears and then reappears in the form of these two women, the good and evil in womankind.

ADAM I meant to say earlier that Prince Philip even to me is not attractive. He’s just a Ken doll. Not even. He’s utterly a cipher. I’ll have to wait for the fox Robin Hood comes along.

BROOM So back to the issue of these movies teaching kids how to be people: would you show this movie to kids today? Do you think it teaches anything about how to be people? Do we endorse what it teaches?

ADAM There’s no one in this movie whom I would want my child to emulate in any sense.

BROOM But I don’t think it invites that. Who would anyone want to be like?

ADAM Do you want your kids to hear that the three gifts bestowed upon a princess are beauty, song, and resistance to death?

BETH Sleep, essentially.

BROOM In terms of the storytelling and texture – you said at the end, “this is like a video game.” It had a more materialistic attitude toward even the elements of fairy tale stories. That’s what I’ve been saying here.

ADAM Their love is manifest in a cake and a dress, and the main drama is the color of the dress?

BROOM More than that, that there are no emotions in this movie.

ADAM Even her parents have essentially no feelings whatever about Aurora.

BROOM The fetishization – the surface refinement – of these symbols like “the evil castle” or “the beautiful forest” has been brought to this even wilder extreme of comic book intensity. You know, when you watch He-Man and every single shot is ridiculous…

ADAM “By the power of Greyskull!…”

BROOM Exactly. Is the problem with invoking “the power of Greyskull” that it’s not a compelling concept, or that it’s so over-the-top – that the gap between my real life and that operatic level of craziness is so great? I felt like this movie went straight for something more inflated and dubious than before. Like at the end, when the evil queen shouts “you’ll have to deal with me and all the powers of hell!” and then transforms into a mile-high dragon

ADAM Doesn’t that happen in something else?

BROOM A lot of things. It happens at the end of The Little Mermaid, which seems sort of like a reference to this. The sea-witch turns into a giant version of herself.

ADAM No, that’s not it. Haven’t we seen this already, where the villain turns into something and then is slain in that form?

BROOM I think of that as essentially “the Sleeping Beauty thing.” And that she’s this woman who thinks she’s hot stuff but is completely isolated, this lonely vamp, and then the true form of this character is revealed as a fire-breathing dragon – that seemed a little misogynistic to me. It’s one thing for the villain to be a woman, and it’s another thing for her to say “let me show you what I really am: HHHHHH!!” [breathing fire]

BETH That’s surprising. I really wasn’t feeling it that way.

ADAM Actually, she could be played by Sigourney Weaver.

BETH Perfect!

BROOM Because she’s tall?

BETH Because Sigourney Weaver does evil very well!

ADAM She’s commanding.

BROOM Don’t you think Sigourney Weaver should be playing Michelle Obama?

BETH No. She’s way too old.

BROOM Every time I see Michelle Obama, that’s what I think.

BETH That’s weird.

BROOM You don’t think she looks like Sigourney Weaver?


BROOM Well, she does. They both have underbites and are really tall.

BETH No, they have very different vibes. They emanate different sensibilities.

BROOM You think Sigourney Weaver is like a dragon and Michelle Obama is not.

BETH Yeah, a little.

BROOM Well, I don’t think of any woman as being like a green, fire-breathing dragon.

BETH No one’s like a dragon! But Sigourney Weaver is more like a dragon.

ADAM Maybe the princess should be played by Reese Witherspoon.

BETH Yes! I like this casting.

BROOM I don’t know. There was, as Beth said, something 80s-y about her. I’m trying to think who the person would be.

BETH The girl who was in Sixteen Candles

ADAM Molly Ringwald?

BETH No, no, the blonde one.

BROOM You know who could play her? Daphne from Scooby-Doo.

ADAM Yeah, actually. I had a big crush on Daphne on Scooby-Doo.

BETH Who doesn’t?

BROOM You sure it wasn’t a sublimated crush on Fred?

ADAM No, I didn’t have a crush on Fred.

BROOM He could have played Philip. Who played Daphne in the movie?

ADAM Sarah Michelle Gellar.

BROOM Oh, well, that doesn’t work at all.

ADAM Fred was played by Freddie Prinze, Jr.

BROOM Right. I don’t remember who played Velma.

BETH Not America Ferrera.

BROOM Velma should have her own show now. A live-action show all about Velma grown up.

BETH Called “Velma”?

BROOM Yeah. She’d live in an apartment. It’d be about her crazy neighbor.

ADAM Is it animated?

BROOM It could go either way.

ADAM Is she a lesbian?

BROOM No, she’s not. I don’t think she was. She’s just sad. She doesn’t have a boyfriend.

BETH I really think she was a lesbian.

ADAM When you transcribe this, you can probably leave off this whole thing about Scooby-Doo casting.

BROOM I don’t know; it’s sort of entertaining. My sister might like it, if she gets this far.