This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.
Sleeping Beauty was the last Disney fairy tale made under the personal direction of Walt Disney, and the last the studios would produce for thirty years. This one I’m watching on DVD, the platinum edition no less, which means it comes with an underwhelming music video for ‘Once Upon a Dream’. To be fair, no one can make me like that song.
The fairy tale: My Fairy Tale Tuesday review can be read here. There are older versions of the story in which the prince’s encounter with Sleeping Beauty takes place on considerably less courteous terms (which makes you think about why those encircling thorns were so necessary) but the one I discuss follows the more popular pattern of love at first sight – it doesn’t even take a kiss to wake her. It then continues after the wedding with vicious family politics. I like it more than I probably should.
The film: The story opens, as have all Disney fairy tales to date, with a storybook sequence introducing us to the action. King Stefan and his queen (who, I notice, never gets a name) have long been childless and when they finally get the baby of their dreams, they proclaim a holiday throughout the kingdom so that everyone can ‘pay homage’ to the newborn princess Aurora. So, not an actual holiday, then.
The christening ceremony kicks off with a celebratory procession and King Hubert (yeah, the king next door gets a name) shows up with his small son Philip to seal a betrothal between the children. The royals certainly waste no time in cementing their alliances. Such mundane visitors are eclipsed, however, by the arrival of ‘the three good fairies’ – the phrasing of it makes me wonder, are they the only fairies in the kingdom or are the rest on rocky terms with the monarchy? Where are all the bad fairies?
Flora, Fauna and Merryweather appear as diminutive middle-aged ladies who just happen to have magic wands and wings, and are a lot more taken with Aurora than Philip was. Flora’s christening gift to the little princess is beauty, which…is nice, but not the most useful application of magic ever. Did she not consider giving Aurora wicked maths skills for rehauling the kingdom’s taxation system, or a photographic memory for learning speeches? Fauna’s offering of song is a bit more constructive. Merryweather goes last and we never get to see what she had planned – which is a terrible shame as I think it would have been awesome – because at this moment the christening gets crashed by Maleficent.
She holds to the Disney trend of stylish female supervillains with excellent cheekbones and tyranny issues. Having very deliberately not been invited, she stretches out the awkward moment for as long as possible while the royals watch her like hypnotised mice and the good fairies scramble to shield the cradle. All to no avail: she bestows her ‘gift’ on the baby regardless, vowing that on the day she turns sixteen Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. With that, Maleficent disappears in a pillar of green flame.
Is she a bad fairy or a sorceress? Either way, I bet if she was buttered up correctly she’d give fantastic gifts, like razor sarcasm or a flawless right hook.
Sadly, that’s not what happened. Once spoken, the curse cannot be undone, but it can be softened. Merryweather changes the magic so that Aurora’s injury will cause an enchanted sleep, not death, and she will awaken at the touch of love’s first kiss. That is of course not much reassurance for King Stefan, who orders every spinning wheel in the kingdom to be burned (goodbye, cloth industry!). The fairies, who are also dissatisfied with the outcome, gather in private for tea and plotting. Fauna is concerned about Maleficent’s mental health and Merryweather is almost incoherent with rage, which leaves Flora to make an actual plan. It is, can I say, a really bad plan: disguise themselves as peasants, give up magic and raise Aurora under a different identity.
Everyone agrees to the plan. I suppose the alternative is doom by spinning wheel, but talk about emotional devastation for the king and queen.
What’s amazing is, the plan works. In a menacing castle at the top of a menacing mountain, Maleficent is literally thundering at her army of low-grade minions, and for good reason. Sixteen years to the day after the fairies slipped away from the castle with the baby princess, they are still looking for Aurora in cradles. “They’re hopeless,” Maleficent sighs, “a disgrace to the forces of evil.” She’s talking to her pet raven, the only intelligent company in the place and from the look of it, the same bird who lived with Snow White’s stepmother. Clearly it has a taste for wickedness. Maleficent sends her bird to hunt down Aurora, before the curse can fail.
Meanwhile, a girl known as Briar Rose is about to turn sixteen. Her three guardians intend to throw a surprise party and bundle her off into the woods to pick berries so they can get on with preparations. Given their total lack of subtlety, it’s a miracle they’ve managed to keep anything secret so long. Also astonishing is how they’ve lived without magic, as they certainly haven’t learned how to cook or make clothes. Merryweather is taking the ban hardest; she imagines they can make an exception for the party, but Flora’s having none of that. This is their last chance to do things the human way. Fauna is having a go at baking, while Flora makes a new dress for Aurora by hand. Merryweather gets roped into modelling. Fortunately for Flora, she’s too upset about the prospect of Briar Rose returning to her birth parents to make a real effort at mutiny.
Briar Rose, entirely unaware, is wandering through the seemingly berryless woods, unleashing her spectacular singing voice. The Disney bluebirds recognise a kindred spirit and soon whip up a suitable audience of woodland creatures, including a starstruck owl and some mildly bewildered rabbits. Also overhearing her, a horseman in red tries to rein in and just gets unimpressed side-eye from his horse Samson. Only when the word ‘carrots’ is uttered does Samson kick into gear, bounding off in Briar Rose’s general direction and in his enthusiastic rush, accidentally tossing the prince into a river. for of course, the man in red is none other than Prince Philip.
It’s a good thing Aurora has acquired friends among the local wildlife, because she’s led an intensely cloistered life and is still being treated as a little girl by her doting guardians. Even in her dreams of love, she’s never got as far as the kiss. The owl, deeply moved by her story, spies Philip’s cloak and hat drying out on a branch and convinces his friends to steal them; with the rabbits hopping around in the boots and the owl under the hat, they return to Aurora as a makeshift prince. She laughs, playing along, but during the dance the woodland prince is replaced by a real one who seizes her from behind like that’s romantic and not what a really scary stranger would do. He insists they’ve met before, ‘once upon a dream’.
I genuinely hate that song. This scene is at least half the reason why.
Briar Rose has probably never met a boy her own age before. She’s lonely enough to tumble headfirst into mutual infatuation but is also confused, backing off when he goes in for a kiss and babbling ‘never!’ when he asks to see her again. He suggests tomorrow as an alternative. She changes that to tonight, and gives him her address. Honey, no, dreams are not reliable! Do not give out personal information to people you may or may not have encountered in a dream!
Back at the cottage, the dress Flora made is rags held together by ribbon, the cake is falling to bits, and Merryweather is climbing the walls. The others cave, admitting the only way to salvage the mess is with magic. Drawing all the curtains and stopping up the cracks, they get to work with their wands. Fauna chats cheerfully with cake ingredients, showing them the recipe; Flora whips up a dress in her favourite shade, pink, and Merryweather gets stuck cleaning the room because the elder two don’t take her seriously. She takes her revenge by changing the dress to blue whenever Flora turns her back.
This escalates into a colour duel, sparks flying up the unguarded chimney like a whacking great beacon shrieking MAGIC! It does not take a Sherlock raven to notice. Also, the dress turns out a disastrous splotchy mix of both colours. As Briar Rose returns, Merryweather quickly magics it to straight blue. Not that she really needed to bother – the girl is giving off a lovestruck vibe that can be seen in the dark and when they realise she’s met a boy the fairies act like someone’s died. In a manner of speaking, she has. Briar Rose learns her true identity, and at the same time, that she’s betrothed to a man she’s never met. She runs upstairs to cry. No cake is eaten.
Her parents, on the other hand, are preparing for a celebration sixteen years in the making. King Stefan’s banquet hall is set up for a huge feast and he’s trying to discuss his parental anxieties with his friend King Hubert. Unfortunately, Hubert is an insensitive lout who’d rather get them both drunk on endless toasts to the future. He cares less about Aurora’s return than the ensuing marriage – he’s already had a house designed and built for the newlyweds – and the grandchildren he hopes to have. Realising his daughter’s life is being planned out before he’s even met her, Stefan tries to object and his intoxicated friend takes immediate offence. It goes a lot less diplomatic from there. “Unreasonable, pompous, blustering old windbag!” Stefan shouts, accurately. Hubert attacks him with a fish. They both realise how ridiculous they’re being and drink some more. They are terrible role models.
Aurora may not be around to defend her rights, but Philip is. Riding home with his head in the clouds, he tells his horrified father he’s met the girl of his dreams, he doesn’t know her name and by the way, she’s a peasant. Guess which of these facts upsets Hubert most. Philip takes absolutely none of his father’s rage seriously, drifting off to dream some more before his rendezvous. Hubert doesn’t know how to break it to Stefan. Are they married now? WHERE IS THE QUEEN?
The day is almost over. Swathed in a cloak and her own misery, Aurora is ushered into her parents’ castle through a side entrance and led up a back stairway to a pretty cage of a bedroom, where she can prepare for the big meeting. When the fairies place a tiara upon her head, she bursts into tears. They have nothing comforting to say, so give her the only thing they can, which is space. Not necessarily a wise decision. The fire gutters out, the smoke turning into a green orb. The princess rises like a waxen doll to follow it.
Outside, Merryweather is fermenting rebellion against outdated marriage practices and Fauna, never one for confrontation, is dithering anxiously. Flora, the manager, is the first to realise they’ve lost Aurora. They break into her room, where a doorway has opened in the fireplace. With the fairies following as fast as they can, their cries unheard, Aurora climbs into a tower room where a spinning wheel waits with more menace than any inanimate object should possess. Aurora’s face has frozen in a skeptical eyebrow arch and she draws back a little from the sharp needle, trying to reassert control, but at Maleficent’s order she reaches out. A touch is all it takes. She collapses. The sorceress disappears, triumphant at last.
As the fairies mourn their lost girl, fireworks burst across the sky. The whole kingdom is waiting. How can they possibly go into the hall where Stefan and his queen are straining for the first glimpse of their long-lost daughter, and tell them it’s all been for nothing? Flora, for one, cannot. She enchants the whole palace to sleep while they decide how to save Aurora. Hubert, ever oblivious, is trying to tell Stefan about Philip’s crush while they both fall asleep and Flora, overhearing, works out the Shakespearean misunderstanding that’s taken place. The fairies hasten back to the cottage to intercept the prince, but once again they are too late. Maleficent’s knock-off orcs, incompetent at all other things, can at least kidnap a prince when he’s more or less giftwrapped for them.
What’s a trio of fairy godmothers to do? They haven’t the power to take on Maleficent directly, but by miniaturising themselves they sneak into her fortress undetected, flitting from one terrifying architectural outcrop to another until they reach the main hall. The minions are dancing fiendishly (probably the only dance they know, let’s be honest) while Maleficent looks indulgently on, petting her raven. She decides to have some entertainment of her own, going down to the dungeons to visit the chained prince. A hundred years will pass, she promises, before she’ll let him go – by the time he can pursue Aurora he’ll be a doddering old man, lucky to make it past the gates. Having left him suitably defeated, Maleficent sweeps out. “For the first time in sixteen years,” she tells her raven, “I shall sleep well.”
As soon as she’s gone the fairies are in there, busting Philip’s manacles and giving him weapons – a Shield of Virtue and a Sword of Truth. They are running through the fortress when the raven spots them and sounds the alarm. The minions attempt to pin them with boulders; the fairies transform these into soap bubbles, and the arrows that follow into flowers. Who says pretty magic can’t win a war?
Merryweather, who’s taken a passionate dislike to the raven, turns it into a statue. Maleficent is devastated and retaliates by conjuring a labyrinth of thorns around Stefan’s castle. Seeing Philip stubbornly hacking his way through, she then uses her final magic wildcard: transforming herself into a gorgeous purple and black dragon, accessorised with livid green flame. Philip scrambles a retreat, losing his shield in the rush. He’s soon backed up on the edge of a cliff. In their panic, the good fairies ditch pretty for some old fashioned fury. They enspell his sword so that when it is thrown, it embeds itself in Maleficent’s heart. She tumbles off the cliff, leaving behind only a stain of black and purple with a sword stabbed through the dirt.
Unimpeded, Philip hurries through the castle to Aurora’s chamber. The music swells. I’d buy the romantic moment more if she didn’t look so green and zombie-ish. Philip, nothing daunted (he’s a man in love, you know) leans in for the kiss and Aurora wakes with a smile. Arm in arm with her handsome prince, she descends to greet her parents with remarkable poise. Hubert watches on bewilderedly while his son and future daughter-in-law dance off into the clouds.
I think the clouds are allegorical but it’s hard to be sure.
Watching proudly from above, Flora suddenly notices that Aurora’s dress is blue and flicks her wand irritably, changing it to pink. Merryweather makes it blue again. The battle continues as Aurora dances on, oblivious, into her happy ending.
Merryweather totally wins, though.
Spot the Difference: The first two fairy tales Disney adapted stuck very close to the original plots, merely emphasising suitably cartoonish elements, but this one veers noticeably into new ground. The biggest difference is obviously, no hundred years of sleep – Aurora barely has time to take a nap before Philip comes to get her, and she met him first, so there’s plausibly implied consent to the kiss. Given that the film ends just before the marriage, there’s obviously no cannibalistic mother-in-law either – no mother-in-law at all from the look of things, and the queen’s role is depressingly slight.
On the upside, the fairy godmothers are much more proactive (though sadly they have no dragon chariots. You let me down, Disney). Raising a princess as a commoner is a familiar fairy tale trope but new to this particular story, and while Aurora may be stripped of agency in many ways, you can see she has a life of her own. Used to running wild in the forest, comfortable with the friendly muddle of her home and guardians, she’s a much-loved, well-adjusted girl. If you’re going to adapt a fairy tale, that’s a good place to start.