Released in 1959 this was the film the Disney studio hoped would be another runaway blockbuster for them. Instead, while it was successful, the costs of making it were so high that the animation process would have to be totally revamped for the next feature.
While their other feature films during the fifties had been well-received and done okay financially speaking they hadn’t been smash hits and so Disney was going back to their roots in terms of their most successful films at that time Snow White and Cinderella for inspiration, much of the story was even set back 1952 near Cinderella's release. Opening with a storybook, a beautiful princess and a handsome prince, falling in love at first sight, fighting the wicked queen, kissing the girl from a magic slumber, it’s all here. True love is even the curse-breaker just as it was in Snow White.
Despite the Disney formula I have to say that this is an absolutely beautiful film; concentrating on bringing out the angled vertical style work of the late concept artist Mary Blair; under the masterful eyes of Eyvind Earle. Although it matches the usual princess style it looks like nothing that has come out of the Disney canon before or since. The backgrounds have never been more detailed, the colour contrasts so strong, and the effects so good. The only one that even looks off to my eyes now is the fire in Maleficent’s castle after she has captured Prince Phillip.
Maleficent is wonderful as the villain in her looks, and actions, and is voiced by the always awesome Eleanor Audley; who also voiced lady Tremaine to make even more connections to previous princess films. Unlike Doctor Facilier her reasons for villainy are entirely personal and petty. Everything she does in the movie is because she didn’t get invited to a baby shower! She is also a very nice contrast to the Three Good fairies who have different personalities to each other, but are well rounded characters and they play off each other nicely. Although with all the pink and blue arguing going on between Flora and Merryweather I would have loved to have seen Fauna turn Aurora’s dress green right before the movie ended, but you can’t have everything.
This film actually provides an even better example of what I mean when I talk about Disney drawing in both ends of an audience. During the scene of the kings Stefan and Hubert talking about the future of their children the jester is stealing the wine and generally making a goofball of himself. As a kid I always assumed, because the drink is pink and bubbly, that they were drinking cream soda and the actions of the jester was just the way the character was. The idea that he was drunk never occurred to me until I was older and the scene becomes that much more enjoyable as a result. The conversation between the kings is more interesting too. As a kid their actions are funny, but parents connect with the conversation they're having about their children going off and having their own lives away from them. In these ways the film grows with you unlike many other kid and family movies that reach a certain age expiry date when you’re embarrassed to admit you ever watched it.
The music is a very different choice in going for the classic style not unlike Fantasia instead of the usual Broadway musical style. We only have two songs with actual lyrics and that works well with the ballet style that Tchaikovsky originally composed it for. The movements of many of the characters, done especially well with the fairies cleaning the house and Aurora in the woods, are even true ballet moves and hand positions.
So, so far the film has wonderful visuals, great music, and good characters, but the story overall is rather rickety. The first thing that jumped out at me as an issue was the timeline. Maleficent makes her threat when Aurora is a baby and everybody acts like all this bad stuff is happening now; except it’s not happening now it’s going to happen sixteen years from now. What’s the point of burning all the spinning wheels now? People are just going to make more of them, and they have to otherwise no one’s going to be wearing any clothes! The Good Fairies don’t have to take Aurora into hiding as a baby, why not take her when she’s five or fifteen? And why would you bring her out of hiding on her sixteenth birthday? You’d think this would be the most important day to keep her locked in the cellar and do nothing until the sun sets. Also how do the fairies not know how to cook and clean without their wands after sixteen years of doing it? Has Aurora never had a birthday cake before this one? Have they never made new clothes before, ever?
And now we get to the other problem of this film which might be obvious considering I haven’t talked about the leading man and lady yet and this is supposed to be a romance film after all, so why not? Well the answer is…our romantic couple is really boring! Phillip has no life outside of being the love interest and Aurora has no life outside of showing off the gifts the fairies gave to her, that is, beauty and song. In The Princess and the Frog Naveen was a fun loving guy who needed to channel his energy into something constructive. Tiana was a hard working chef and a closet romantic. Outside of liking Aurora what do we know about Phillip? That he likes to ride in the woods and that his horse has more character than he does. Oh, and that he can’t fight his own battles, but has to have the three fairies, in miniature form no less, do it for him. Also the romance actually causes the entire crisis of the movie. If Aurora had never met Phillip or if Phillip had told Aurora his name Aurora wouldn’t have been disappointed thus the fairies would not have left her alone and none of this would have happened!
To sum it all up what I think we have here is a film with a lot of style and not very high on substance. As I think my earlier reviews are making evident it is that substance is the most important aspect of a film for me. When the story is good I’ll give the film a lot of slack. When the story is weak and/or the characters are poorly realized I start nitpicking. While the film is beautiful and well acted, and the secondary characters are great, our main couple is made of cardboard; thus the battle of good versus evil doesn’t pack as big a punch, the story doesn’t hold up well to re-watching, and much of the film falls flat as a result. In terms of watching it from an artistic standpoint it’s great for looking at animating certain movements and putting it all to music. It’s also great for looking at the medieval style of painting put in a modern work, and for certain effects and directing moves. In terms of truly engaging story entertainment though I’m going to look elsewhere in the Disney canon for that.