Monday, November 28, 2011

DATE Night: Sleeping Beauty

I have been anticipating our DATE Night with Sleeping Beauty since we kicked the series off back in August. When I re-watched it for the first time as an adult in 2010, I was completely blown away. Whenever people would ask me how the Disney Project was going, I would cite Sleeping Beauty as the biggest surprise for me. As a kid, you just get wrapped up in the fairy tale. You laugh at the humor and get excited by the fighting. As a grown-up, you really appreciate the artistry on display in every aspect of the film. This week was also the first time that I watched it on Blu-ray and it was worth getting a player just to watch this film alone. The transfer literally took my breath away. The audio and visual are so crisp and clear that it almost feels like you are watching it again for the first time. 

The Background:

Busy but effective poster art.
After three unabashed successes, both financially and artistically, in Cinderella, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, and one artistic triumph that has finally been recognized as such in retrospect with Alice in Wonderland, the studio now sits squarely in the thick of its second golden age. Building on lessons learned with these four films, Disney made Sleeping Beauty as an artistically ambitious way to keep moving forward while still telling the kind of story that would resonate with a large audience. The film had been in production since early in the decade and was intended to be the greatest artistic achievement in animated film. Disney invested heavily in the picture, which, at six million dollars, was budgeted for more than twice as much as the last few films that preceded it. It was hand-inked and -painted, released in stereo and 70mm Super Technirama widescreen, and given a huge promotional push.

Surprisingly, the film did not fare so well upon release. Critics seemed unimpressed, finding it heavy-handed and slow. The audiences came, but not enough to recoup the massive cost. It was by no means an embarrassment, but was not the grand slam that the studio was hoping for. After re-releases starting in the seventies and home video are figured in, the movie is the second most profitable film of the year and it is looked on today with respect, if not outright awe, for this incredible work of art. Aurora has entered the ranks of the iconic Disney Princesses. History has most certainly proven the tepid initial response to the movie to be unwarranted. It is now unquestionably considered to be one of the top tier Disney animated classics.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 9: Sleeping Beauty. The film is unspeakably gorgeous. I actually gasped at the beauty a few times. The artwork is stunning beyond words. The styling is impeccable from top to bottom. It's the last of its kind- the last Disney feature to be inked and painted by hand. The prince is dimensional. Aurora is lovely. The fairies are so adorable. Maleficent is the most terrifying Disney villain ever.
February 6, 2010 at 3:09pm ·

The Art:

Most of the art from here on is Eyvind Earle's.
Cuz it's stunning.
10/10. The art in Sleeping Beauty is untouchable. It is probably the richest, most beautifully styled art in any Disney animated film. The look of the film can be attributed to color stylist Eyvind Earle. Earle worked on many of the films that Mary Blair did the styling for, as well as some of the visually arresting Ward Kimball helmed shorts, like "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom". He had a very distinctive style. Very clean lines, angles and shapes. Layering of colors to create depth. Disney saw in him an artist with a singular vision and wanted to give him the kind of control over the look of a film that he regretted never giving to Blair, whose vision always got terribly watered down in the final project. He hoped that the result would be a moving illustration and a masterpiece.

Medieval tapestry at the Cloisters.
Earle married his style with the very flat look of medieval tapestries, like the famous ones of unicorns housed at the Cloisters in New York City. By Walt's command, he had the final say on anything having to do with the look of the film. Some of the artists chaffed at the idea of losing some of their wiggle room, but the result is a movie that looks, more than any other, of one design. From the backgrounds, to the animals, to the curls in Aurora's hair, there is a consistency to the look that has never been achieved so clearly in another animated feature. Earle's vision coupled with the artists' skill (including Earle's own, considering that he painted many of the film's backgrounds himself) make this everything Walt hoped it would be artistically. They created a masterpiece, indeed.

If I pointed out everything that I loved about the artwork, I would literally be describing every frame in detail. I would like to point out a few highlights with the understanding that this list is horribly incomplete. You have to see this film with your own eyes to appreciate the beauty, detail, and craftsmanship. That being said, here are few of my favorite bits and pieces. The way the illustrations in the opening storybook share the look of the film so that it feels like we are actually stepping into a storybook. The trippy gift sequences that are abstract in a lovely way- I still have no idea how they were done. The use of green as the color of evil in fire, eyes, background hue and saturation. All of the fire, lighting, thorns, clouds and other amazing effects animation. The tentacle-like movement at the bottom of Maleficent's dress and the lovely movement in Aurora's clothing and hair. The detailing on walls, stones, tapestries, cups, and everywhere that does not pull focus but deepens the experience. The way the forest parts to reveal the cottage. Aurora and Phillip's dance reflected in the water. The sunset behind the castle. The huge area of black as the fairies take Aurora back to the tower and how it eventually engulfs her as she approaches Maleficent. The jagged and terrifying design of Forbidden Mountain and especially its gargoyles. The Hironymous Bosch inspired look of the celebrating goons. The color shift when the kiss awakens Aurora. And of course that gorgeous dance on the clouds at the end, with Aurora's dress changing from pink to blue. Phew! This whole exercise was like trying to find the prettiest stone in a satchel of gems.

The Story:

9/10. I find the storytelling here to be crisp, clean, muscular and well-paced. The romance, humor, and thrills are perfectly balanced. The complaint that the story drags doesn't hold water for me at all. At an hour and fifteen minutes, it moves at a brisk clip, keeping all of its balls in the air skillfully. It can move from the pageantry of the royal scenes, to the hilarious slapstick quality of the cake and dress making scene (including one of my favorite bits in the make-it-pink-make-it-blue fight), to the battle with the dragon and have them all make sense together and flow from one to the next seamlessly. There are no scenes (besides that ratty "Skumps" bit) that do not keep things moving forward. There is no fancy storytelling technique. It is very straightforward. We open with the classic storybook and a narrator who tells us the tale, though he vanishes part way through to avoid being intrusive. A testament to how well the story is laid out is the scene with the three fairies at Aurora's bed after she has pricked her finger. I dare you not to get at least a bit misty during that moment. Emotional payoffs like that don't happen if you have crafted your story effectively. This aspect of the movie did not rely on being groundbreaking. The art was there for the wow factor. The storytelling here was all about doing what Disney knew how to do well and continuing to hone it. Here they came as close to perfection as any of the early animated features achieved.  

The Characters:

8/10. They did an exceptional job on the characters in this film, starting with Aurora herself. Some people argue that she is by necessity unremarkable, since she is asleep for a third of the film. I beg to differ. Her design is lovely and distinct from the other princesses, with touches of the Eyvind Earle styling. In her limited screen time she is quickly but clearly established. There is no need for a lot of subtext. She grows up isolated, falls in love, is denied her love, is put to sleep and finds her love again. What really sets her apart, though, is Mary Costa's gorgeous vocal performance. Her singing is sublime, her speaking voice is gentle yet sassy, and both retain just the slightest hint of twang ("walk together and talk together"). That voice and some really smart moments in the animation (her arched eyebrow while under Maleficent's spell and walking towards the spindle, betraying a bit of cognizance about the danger despite her trance) fill in the details that the archetypical story leaves out.

Prince Phillip, on the other hand is easily the most dimensional prince Disney had made up until that point. We see that he's going to be different from the moment he makes a stank face at his future bride in her crib at their first meeting. After that we see his playful banter with his horse, Samson, who is also drawn with a lot of personality and humor, his charming way with Aurora, his headstrong attitude with his father ("You're living in the past. This is the fourteenth century!"), and his great bravery fighting Maleficent / the dragon. A case can be made for Phillip being a bit more dimensional than Aurora even, but after their short yet potent courtship, there is no doubt that they are meant for each other and no point to such an argument. The other royals are also distinctive, with the kings and minstrel given their own moments in the forefront (for better or worse).

The three fairies are my favorite characters in the movie. They bring the real heart and humor into the story. From their magical appearance, leaving a trail of sparkles, to the one last make-it-pink-make-it-blue argument, they are charm personified. Two of the voices are provided by Disney vets (Verna Felton from Cinderella, Dumbo, and Alice in Wonderland as Flora and Barbara Luddy, who voiced Lady in Lady and the Tramp as Merryweather) with Barbara Jo Allen as Fauna completing the trio. Each has her own personality (Flora takes charge, Merryweather is feisty, and Fauna is the clueless but kind one) and all of the charming quirks that come with. Merryweather's shuffle of frustration, Fauna perched on the table with wisps of hair falling out of place and Flora's insistence on outfits being pink come to mind. At the core, their goodness and love for Aurora, even sacrificing their powers for 16 years to care for her, shine through and give the story its emotional core.

Last but certainly not least is Maleficent. To my mind, she is the most terrifying Disney villain of them all. She is absolutely and completely evil with no cause whatsoever. She's mean to be mean and vengeful out of spite. Surrounded by her pack of awesomely creeptastic goons, she combines the anger of the Queen of Hearts, the stillness of Lady Tremaine (who, like Maleficent, was also voiced by the brilliant Eleanor Audley), the maniacal nature of Hook, the scary presence of Chernabog and the magical abilities of the Evil Queen. There are moments when she skitters back and forth between these elements in a rapid-fire way that is terribly unsettling. She is just as horrible when she is being exacting and precise as when she's a gigantic, attacking dragon. When she conjures "all the powers of Hell", you know that you are dealing with a singularly horrifying baddie. Whenever I think of who is the best Disney villain, I always answer Maleficent because I literally get chills up my spine every time I watch her. That visceral reaction never goes away. OK. I need to stop talking about her. I'm wigging myself out!

The Music:

9/10. The music here is adapted from the Tchaikovsky ballet by George Bruns, who also co-wrote "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" and "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)" among many other works for Disney. I have never seen or heard the original ballet, but using that music was yet another way that the movie reached back into the past to create something that pushed the art form forward. Each note of underscore feels as though it were specifically created for the film from the ground up. As all great scores do, it highlights important moments, serves as an emotional guide and heightens the sensations built into the story. Think of the processional music giving you a sense of place and time, the twinkling music that plays as the fairies appear, and the tension created during the battle between Maleficent and Phillip.

Additional music and lyrics were provided by Tom Adair, Winston Hibler (of the True-Life Adventures), Ted Sears, Sammy Fain and Jack Lawrence. Almost all of it is pitch perfect. A chorus is utilized as a sort of musical omniscient narrator, introducing the love theme, "One Upon a Dream", foreshadowing important events and ideas ("for true love conquers all"), singing a lullaby as the fairies induce sleep from the kingdom, adding magic to the gifts bestowed on Aurora, as well as providing musical layers. That stunningly gorgeous love theme also serves to move the plot forward by establishing a connection between the romantic leads. "I Wonder" is Aurora's "I Want" song, establishing her as a young woman in search of love and her identity.

The only misstep, in my opinion is "Skumps". It's halting, sing-songy melody is off-puttingly shoehorned into the scene between the two kings. It feels like the song could be removed entirely without any real effect on the story. The bright spot of it is the introduction of the amusingly drunken minstrel, but that's not enough to keep me from wanting to press the skip button on the remote. That odd duck aside, the music is incredible. If the artwork roots you firmly in a wondrous time and place, the music provides the blossoms. It cements the film as in incredibly immersive experience. I look forward to one day going to the ballet and listening to the music in its original form, but I doubt that it will ever be able to move me as much as it does in its Disney incarnation.

The Gay Scale:

8/10. There are a few essential elements in Sleeping Beauty that keep it gay. First off, any time you have a princess film, you have a gay film. Gay boys are perpetually drawn to princess characters from a young age. We aspire to be like them. As I've grown older, I've been fascinated by the way that their narratives can be interpreted to speak to a queer audience. In Aurora's case, you have a young woman who has been sheltered from the world to protect her. After years of ignorance, she falls in love with someone and is promptly told that she cannot love him because she has grown old enough to take her proper place in society and marry the person she is intended for. Most young gay people similarly feel socially isolated from their peers and feel thwarted when they fall in love with someone of the same sex only to realize that their love does not fit into the life that has been laid out for them. What I think is so lovely in this specific case is that Aurora ultimately finds out that the man she loves is the person she is destined to be with after all.

Next, we have a completely dreamy prince. Phillip is terribly handsome, sings beautifully and is swoon-worthy. We also have a set of fairy guardians, who are like a trio of dotty but lovable Aunties, and who help the prince by turning boulders into bubbles, arrows into flowers and cauldrons of scalding who-knows-what into a rainbow. And of course we have a larger than life, diva-like villain who is both beautiful and evil. She's a Dynasty-worthy, cold-hearted, glamorous antagonist. Plus she makes a great drag character. All of these characters populate a world that is bright, bold and beautiful. It's the kind of fantasy world that makes you want to escape into it. It is all underscored by music based on the work of a classical queer icon- Tchaikovsky. There may be precious little camp, but when emotions are so expansive and everything is so pleasing to the eye there is no need for it. 

The Bottom Line:

9/10. I adore every frame of this movie. With every inch of my being. All of the things that I treasure most about Disney animated films are here in spades. The artwork is beyond incredible, the story is emotional and exciting, the music transports you. Strangely, I don't remember seeing this film too much when I was young. I chalk it up to a combination of having a memory like a sieve and possibly being so terrified by Maleficent that I blocked it out to avoid the high cost of therapy. Coming back to Disney within the last several years, this film has quickly risen to become one of my top five favorite animated classics. It makes sense when you consider the sophistication of its construction. Though there may be a few films that I would rank above Sleeping Beauty (my number one is yet to come), nothing will ever be able to touch the craftsmanship and skill that is apparent watching this movie. There is no other film before or after that looks and feels like this one. But it's Aurora's many little fans, dressed in their pink medieval-style gowns, who assure me that the film is not too highfalutin' to speak to children. The movie will remain essential viewing for generations of children to come. Just like me, they will turn to it when they want to feel like getting lost in a fairy tale world where good triumphs over evil and despite seemingly insurmountable hardship, there is always a happy ending.

The Miscellanea:

Aurora and I beveling like princesses.
Quick anecdote for you. One of my favorite character greeting experiences was with a lovely Aurora in the Magic Kingdom. I was there with my family and we waited in the queue to meet the princesses. Belle, Cinderella and Aurora were there and we all took turns posing with them. My sister, Kelly, was being princessy and I was standing tall, arm crooked, being a model prince. Finally, Mama, who was snapping photos, looked at Aurora and I and said, "Do what she's doing!" Aurora looked a bit perplexed and said, "No, no. Princes should stand like this." Mama laughed and said, "No, no. Really. It's OK. I want a shot of the two of you being princesses together." It was like a lightbulb went off in Aurora's head. No stranger to gays was she, which isn't surprising considering she was a Disney cast member. A huge grin crept onto her face and she said, "Oooooh. Of course! Well then, if you're going to be a proper princess, then you will have to bevel. You do know how to bevel, right?" She proceeded to teach me how to bevel like a princess and gave us a priceless princess moment. It was fully awesome.

Here is some footage of Helene Stanley, who was the live model for Aurora as well as Cinderella and Anita in 101 Dalmatians, twirling about while animator Marc Davis sketches.

Mary Costa, the voice of Aurora, went on to have an enviable career in opera. You can obviously hear the technique in her work on Sleeping Beauty, but it's pretty remarkable how different she sounds in hardcore operatic mode. Here is a clip of her singing an aria from Faust on TV in 1962.

Program given to early visitors to
the walkthrough. 
Don't forget that the original Disney Park castle is Sleeping Beauty's. The park was built in 1955, as production on the film was well underway, and the castle was part of the promotional push for the film that would be released four years later. One of my favorite little gems in Disneyland is the Sleeping Beauty Castle walkthrough. There is extensive coverage of the new version in the Blu-ray special features, which reveals that the latest remodel makes it essentially the same as it was when it was first installed in the castle in 1957. It is gorgeous, incorporating a lot of Eyvind Earle styling, immersive atmospherics, and imaginative visuals. Don't skip it. I have never seen a line for it and it's terribly charming. Disneyland is Tom's home park and he had been going for years and years but didn't even know it was there until we went together for the first time a year ago and it was near the top of my list of things to see. He was as enchanted by it as I was. (PS My favorite touch is the very final make-it-pink-make-it-blue moment as you exit.)

I got curious as to what the previous incarnation of the walkthrough, which lasted from 1977 until it was closed in 2001, looked like. I knew it featured more dimensional characters but little else. I scrounged up a pretty clear video of what the attraction looked like in the eighties and nineties. Me no likey. It looks like a cheesy window display. Personally, I'm glad that it went the way of hair bands and neon scrunchies. The version that is now inside the castle lives up to the exterior's magical promise.

I heart bossa nova. I heart Sleeping Beauty. Therefore, I heart this awesome cover of "Once Upon a Dream" from the Japanese Bossa Disney Nova album. This recording is by Wanda Sa and Joao Donato. Pull out the tiki torches and enjoy!

Amateur covers tend to get on my nerves. It mostly seems to be over-eager pre-teens searching for their identities or over-eager twenty- or thirty-somethings drenched in flop-sweat and desperate to be discovered. It makes me uncomfortable to watch either way. However this version of "Once Upon a Dream" played on solo acoustic guitar is absolutely lovely. Kudos.

As a rule, I don't enjoy putting up videos that I full-on think are bad. It feels mean-spirited. But this version of "Once Upon a Dream" is so completely wackadoo (and is produced in a way that makes it seem like this young lady has her eyes set on the Big Time) that I felt like I had no choice. (I especially love the dude with the broom walking between the camera and the young lady at the top of the video and the exceptionally bad syncing.) All I know is that there is a lot of awkward posing going on, her fluttery vibrato runs rampant and I'm pretty sure she says "...the gleam in your eyes is so familiar and gleam." Otherwise, I am perplexed. If you understand, please explain. Please and thank you.

Rory is amazing. I don't know this lil' southern girl but she's rad beyond compare. Rory sings "Once Upon a Dream" and wipes the floor with that last chick. I still clap at the end of this video every time I watch it.

Sleeping Beauty came out just after the Mickey Mouse Club had ended it's phenomenal run in the late 50's. One of the Mouseketeers, Darlene Gillespie, was being groomed for a kind of stardom that she unfortunately could never seem to attain. As the lovely blonde who was a triple-threat singer, actor and dancer, she watched the lovely in a real-girl kind of way Annette Funicello's star rise as she struggled to establish herself post MMC. Her life took a rather tragic turn later, marked by several run-ins with the law. Before things went south, Disney tried to give her career a boost by featuring her on albums of sings from Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty. Here are a few tracks from the Sleeping Beauty album. Her voice is quite lovely and very strong and the arrangements are lush. It makes me sad to hear a young girl with such promise knowing that her story doesn't end in a happily ever after. First off is "Once Upon a Dream" and after that is "I Wonder".

This next track is also from the Sleeping Beauty album that featured Darlene. It is the "Sleeping Beauty Song" and was credited only to a Disney Trio. It features more gorgeous orchestrations and exceptional harmony and really spotlights this song in a way that does't necessarily happen in the film.

Here we have an episode of Disneyland that aired in 1959- "The Peter Tchaikovsky Story". It was a dramatized biography of the composer broadcast to help promote Sleeping Beauty. The chunk that I've watched looks quite good. It once again makes me wish that Disney would open up its vaults and release some of this classic material. Grant Williams, who plays Tchaikovsky as a man, was matinee-idol dreamy and, considering the fact that the real Tchaikovsky was a gay man, there is certainly a queer interest factor in the episode. It is also included in the Platinum Edition reissue of the film from a few years back.

In looking for Disney's Sleeping Beauty related nuggets, I came across this clip rightcha here. (Embedding wasn't allowed, so I'm afraid you're going to have to click on the link. Sorry bout it.) It is of a Canadian singer named Gisele MacKenzie performing a song called "Spinning" from a television live-action adaptation of Sleeping Beauty. It's quite a fun little number (if a bit too schmaltzy for my tastes), but it really makes me appreciate the sophistication of Disney's adaptation even more. It elevated the tale to something more appropriately elegant than musical comedy.

Sleeping Beauty marks the end of an artistic era. Never again will Disney invest the kind of resources into an animated film. In many ways, this film is the pinnacle of hand-crafted, traditional animation. Starting with the next film, 101 Dalmatians, more and more technological innovations will allow animation to be done more quickly and more economically and forever change the look of animation, for better or for worse. Things will never be the same. So how bout next week for our DATE Night we'll do a complete one-eighty and take a jaunt to London and spend some time with another set of canine companions? What do you think of Sleeping Beauty? Did it take your breath away or is it just another princess film to you? Is it the pinnacle of the animated feature or are you ready for them to take on a new look? Would you rather make it pink or make it blue?

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