Sleeping Beauty (1959, Clyde Geronimi)

Seven credited writers on Sleeping Beauty and none of them could figure out any dialogue to give the prince. Though, notwithstanding some cute banter between the three fairies, there’s not much good dialogue in Sleeping Beauty anyway. Villain Maleficent doesn’t even get any. Eleanor Audley’s great in the part, but it’s not because of the dialogue, it’s because of the visuals. Sleeping Beauty is all about the visuals, which is why it can usually get away with not having great–or any–dialogue.

The film opens in prologue. There’s a new royal baby and she’s about to be blessed by three fairies–Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy contribute the voices–only then Audley shows up, a magnificent, malevolent “mistress of all evil.” She curses the baby then disappears. It’s up to Luddy to cast a spell to save the baby best as possible (Audley’s too powerful a mistress of all evil to just invalidate the curse).

The story jumps forward sixteen years, to when the curse is supposed to take effect. Mary Costa is voices the grown baby–though, frankly, Costa’s semi-sultry voice is a bit off for a teenage girl. Well, maybe not for Sleeping Beauty since the other part of turning sixteen is her parents to get marry her off to a prince, thereby bringing peace or something.

The only visible clash between Costa’s father (Taylor Holmes) and the prince’s father (Bill Thompson) is Thompson wants Holmes to get drunker than Holmes wants to get. Sleeping Beauty isn’t great on logic. When a movie looks like Sleeping Beauty, it doesn’t need to be great on much else.

The film starts in live action, a dolly into a storybook (Sleeping Beauty), which opens and the illustrations become the animation, the book’s text becomes the narration, and so on. But from the start, the animation is lush and wide. Sleeping Beauty is “Technirama,” a widescreen frame, and Technicolor. Supervising director Geronimi plays a lot with depth, as the fairies are raising Costa in hiding. The great palace is only visible in the background, something Costa has no interest in. Instead, she sings with the adorable forest wildlife and meets a dashing young man.

Sadly, she’s promised to a prince. There’s some drama, but not a lot. A lot of drama would mean less songs and more dialogue. I’m not sure Costa has any dialogue after she gets to the palace to celebrate not having fallen victim to Audley’s curse. Except Audley’s smarter than everyone else, maybe because the fairies are more adorable than they are smart, and the royals are all idiots.

Sorry, back to the visuals. The depth is amazing. The forest goes on and on, filling the frame, with jagged plateaus and endless trees. Geography doesn’t really matter in Sleeping Beauty. There’s apparently only one house in the whole forest, because when Costa’s young man comes calling, he finds the place right away. Too bad she’s off at the castle to meet her prince and Audley’s waiting to capture… someone. It’s never clear. Logic, like I said, isn’t Beauty’s strong point.

The evil stuff is evil, even when it’s amusing–Audley’s got some Gamorrean guards she zaps with force lightning when they’re dumb, which is all of the time. In her first scene to herself, it turns out the only reason Audley’s in such a pickle trying to get her curse to work is because her lackies are all complete idiots. No one’s very smart in Sleeping Beauty, except Audley some of the time and Costa’s young man’s horse more of the time.

But it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful. The character designs are exquisite. When Costa and the prince stop talking, their expressions are still phemonenal. The animation’s not incredibly detailed on the faces–the fairies get expressions, Audley sort of gets them, no one else–but there’s so much visible emotion. The music, which has its ups and downs (just like the songs), gives the film its progression. It all takes place in a day and a half so there needs to be something to soothe the halty plotting. The music, often adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, does the trick. George Bruns handles that adaptation.

There are some okay songs. The one with Costa in the forest with her animal friends and then the young man is great. But because of the way the young couple dance their way through the frame–Sleeping Beauty loves to play with reflections and there’re lakes in the forest. The fairies don’t get songs, they get banter. Luddy gives the best performance, mostly because she’s the only one to get any characterization.

The third act, which is a narrative mess, is also a breathtaking action sequence. Geronimi and editors Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday create this phenomenal sequence. It’s not entirely successful–it’s a little rushed and there’s not really any nailbiting–but it’s breathtaking. Even when Sleeping Beauty is uneven, it’s gorgeous to behold.

It’s a beautiful film. Also one with a lot of problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clyde Geronimi; screenplay by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, and Milt Banta and based on a story by Charles Perrault; edited by Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday; production designers, Ken Anderson and Don DaGradi; released by Buena Vista Film Distribution Co.

Starring Verna Felton (Flora), Barbara Jo Allen (Fauna), Barbara Luddy (Merryweather), Eleanor Audley (Maleficent), Mary Costa (Princess Aurora), Taylor Holmes (King Stefan), Bill Shirley (Prince Phillip), and Bill Thompson (King Hubert).


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