When I was a child, this was one of my favourite films. It left me convinced that when I grew up, I was going to dance around a forest and meet my one true love. Didn’t happen exactly like that, but still, a girl can dream!
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Disney’s version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was released in 1959. Of all the versions of the story I looked at in my previous post, this one mostly follows the Grimm Brothers ‘Little Briar-Rose.’ There is no second half involving cannibalism, which is probably a good thing since this film is aimed at children. Although, the addition of a vicious dragon which breathes green fire is very welcome (love me some dragons!)
The girl in this version is a princess, and her name is ‘Aurora,’ reminiscent of the name ‘Dawn’ which Perrault gives to the princess’s daughter in his story. Aurora is also given the alias ‘Briar-Rose;’ which is a nice nod to the Grimm story.
However, Aurora is betrothed to Prince Phillip, differing to all of the previous versions I have looked at. This adds a new dimension to the story, as both sets of parents try to control their childrens’ fates. Despite this, the pair meet and fall in love on their own terms, and their relationship is consensual. So when Aurora falls asleep it’s not just any old prince she wakes up to, it is indeed her one true love. And she’s not raped and doesn’t have any children whilst unconscious, either. Compared with her predecessors she gets off pretty lightly, and gets the boyfriend she wants out of it, too!
But Aurora doesn’t really do much.
She doesn’t fight for herself or have any adventures (unlike more recent Disney princesses such as Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida). Then again, her life goal to find love doesn’t really require anything like that. However, she is defiant in small ways, and she is not domestic and dull, either.
Aurora befriends animals in the forest, and tells them how she has defied her fairy guardians (more on those later) by meeting someone in her dreams. Aurora wants to be treated like an adult, although when she first meets Prince Phillip she is hesitant and awkward, showing that perhaps she is not yet ready for the relationship she craves — a feeling which the sleeping beauties of old can also relate to.
Aurora leads an almost solitary life in the forest, with only the fairies for company. They keep her hidden in an attempt to protect her from the curse. Taking this into account, I can slightly forgive her for having no other ambitions than to find a lover. Only slightly though — I’m sure there are other things she could find to aspire to! I mean, look at Rapunzel in Disney’s Tangled. She’s stuck in a tower all her life, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to see the ‘floating lights’ or taking on the world with a frying pan. Even in the old versions of the story she gives the witch a run for her money.
When the fairies reveal to Aurora that she is a princess and must return to the castle, she bursts into tears. She does this again when they arrive and she is presented with a tiara. It is shortly after this that she pricks her finger and invokes the sleep. Instead of the sleep being a metaphor for preparing for sexual awakening, as Bruno Bettelheim interpreted the older versions, I see it more as Aurora coming to terms with her new life. Everything she has known until this point — living in the forest as a peasant girl, dancing with her animal friends, and the prospect of love with Prince Phillip (whom she does not know the identity of at this point) — has been taken from her, which creates an emotional situation she cannot deal with. Pricking her finger is an act of defiance; a way of escaping her new royal title and a distraction from her current crisis. Sleeping provides her with time to come to terms with her new situation.
The finger pricking scene is very creepy, not in the least due to the music. It is taken from the score of the 1890 Sleeping Beauty ballet written by Tchaikovsky. However, in the ballet it is used for a comic scene which is a sort of mash-up with ‘Puss in Boots’ featuring dancers dressed as cats. I have to say, I love this! It’s fascinating how the music creates a completely different mood in each scene:
Now, about the aforementioned fairy guardians. There are only three of them, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, and before their first appearance they are introduced as ‘the three good fairies.’ That’s it. Just ‘good fairies,’ that’s all we’re given. That’s their only motive for giving Aurora the gifts of song and beauty, and for hiding her in the forest and caring for her. Same as the only motive the bad fairy, Maleficent, is given is that she is ‘evil.’ Simple as that. Makes perfect sense for her to curse the princess to prick her finger and die on her sixteenth birthday, because y’know, she’s evil. She even states that she’s not offended by her lack of an invite to the christening, so she’s not even slighted. Just evil.
Ah, Maleficent. She was always my favourite character as a child. I always went for the controversial villains (and still do!) There’s just something about her; the way she speaks, her posture, and her cunning nature. And she turns into a freaking dragon at the end. She certainly deserves her ‘Mistress of all Evil’ title, although it’s never explained what made her so. That’s part of why I find her such an intriguing character.
The most interesting thing about Maleficent and the fairies is that between them, they control all of the other characters. None of them have a say in their fate. Aurora is cursed to die, then sleep and only be awoken by true love’s kiss, and because of this, the king and queen are forced to give her up to the fairies. The residents of the castle are put to sleep against their will once the curse takes effect. Prince Phillip is another victim; he is taken prisoner by Maleficent, then released by the fairies’ magic, then given a magical sword and shield and sent off to use them to fight a magical thorn bush and dragon. And when all that’s over, he has to go and kiss Aurora to break the spell she is under. It feels like all of the characters are just pawns in the battle between good and evil fairies, and that this battle is what the story is really about.
As in the Grimm version, a forest of thorns grows around the castle. Only this time it isn’t to protect Aurora, but rather to ensure that she is not saved. But of course, it fails. Prince Phillip chops his way through, showing that he is willing to fight for his love. When he kisses Aurora, she awakens and they go and meet her parents and then dance together.
Aurora gets everything she wants quite by chance, without having to do anything apart from get a bit upset and be cursed. She is an extremely passive heroine, but not out of choice. She has no option but to follow the path magically set out for her, because she cannot do or see anything different. And okay yes, there are millions of other things out there to aspire to apart from finding love and settling down, but if Aurora is happy with doing that then fair enough. I can’t get annoyed at her too much, because her life in the forest is not bad so she doesn’t need to plot an escape from it. If she wasn’t so restricted, then perhaps she would want more out of life.
Overall, this is a pretty film that embodies everything associated with fairy tales. It’s got the magic, mysterious villain, enchanted forest, castle, love story, and happy ending. And a dragon (did I mention the dragon?!) It does a wonderful job of fleshing out the original story, but still isn’t quite all there. There are lots of unanswered questions (such as why Maleficent decides to curse Aurora in the first place) and room for plenty more plot points to be explored. Also, Aurora is still too meek. If anything, she is meeker than those who came before her. I must say, I am very interested to see if this changes in the new film, Maleficent, and what reasons are given for Maleficent’s actions.
Finally, researching this post led me to discover that Charles Perrault has a page on IMDB. I found this hilarious, and I’m not even sure why. Clearly all this fairy tale stuff is going to my head…