Registering the Registry 2019: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Cognress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Sticking with Disney for the week, we’re looking at the crown jewel of their Silver Age, the out-of-control money sink that simultaneously brought the studio’s artistic ambitions to unmatched heights and cost most of the animation staff their jobs by way of setting too lofty a financial hurdle. It’s 1959’s fairy tale to end fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty!

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‘Fore we begin properly and get on with the gushing I’d like to scratch an annoying itch, because spoilers: Sleeping Beauty is one of my favorite Disney pictures and plain straight animated features period, has been ever since I did my big “watch all the Disney movies I missed as a kid which included like, everything not called Aladdin or The Lion King” in college, and the rest of this post will read as pretty chummy otherwise. In thirty-one years of operation, the National Film Registry has inducted a total of ten feature-length animated movies into its ranks, and the only reason they’re not Walt Disney Productions joints to the last is the inclusion of Toy Story, a Pixar film. Grant you, I’d not question a one of the choices thus far as great filmmaking or important cultural artifacts or worthy inclusions, excepting MAYBE Dumbo, which I don’t hold in quite so high esteem as others. I click my teeth at this fact more due to the lack of any other studio or creator’s animated feature to date: the Looney Tunes, Avery at MGM, and UPA’s output are well-represented in shorts, but even allowing for the ten-year requirement before induction, there’s to date zero acknowledgement of your Bakshis, your Bluths, your Williams’. If we must make a fuss about how these independent agents didn’t crack the mainstream in the way Disney did, surely by 2020 someone must’ve made at least a halfway convincing argument for something from Dreamworks or WB’s brief 90s period, yes? And yes, I am specifically thinking of The Iron Giant with the last example, he deserves it, goddammit. Especially in view of the last four years including a fresh Disney film for preservation each go-around, I’d hope at SOME point there’s at least one non-Disney feature enshrined and effectively canonized as an important American film. Their dominance over the field of animation has finally lifted some from the American mainstream, so why not? Even take the South Park movie by this point…

(If The Book of Life doesn’t get in on its first go in 2024, we riot.)

Thank you for your patience. Whinge though I will about the lack of non-Disney animated features in the Registry, you won’t find me complaining about Sleeping Beauty‘s inclusion. Put into production in late 1950 alongside most of the studio’s other animated projects from the decade made possible by Cinderella‘s smash success, Walt Disney’s third fairy tale bore the brunt of as many bumpy roads and creative clashes as you can imagine on its way to the silver screen: a fully voiced and storyboarded version from Wilfred Jackson rejected before animation could begin because Walt felt it too similar to their previous princess works, the appointment of Eyvind Earle to practically all-powerful lead designer on the film’s styles in an attempt to prevent the animators from flattening out a talented artist’s unique vision as often happened to Mary Blaire, rebellion against this appointment by animators used to controlling their own project, a mid-production choice to film on horizontally-oriented 70mm film which resulted in the use of bulky, difficult to manage sheets of paper for animation, an agonized process of determining just HOW to score the stupid thing even after they chose Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Through it all, Walt, the man determined to see his latest film capture Gothic tapestries brought to life with finer detail than ever before, was off galivanting around Disneyland and overseeing the company’s newly formed television branch, leaving a crew of hundreds used to his guiding presence to scramble for alternate rudders. All these false starts and stops, these conflicts amongst numerous perfectionist voices, these agonizingly slow techniques that meant days-long development on backgrounds other films finished in a day and more erasures and redoes on individual character frames to eliminate any and all imperfections, they all contributed to balloon the budget past 6 million dollars, a truly ludicrous amount for the studio in those days. Even with the full force of the Disney empire at its late 50s strongest behind the film, Sleeping Beauty‘s smash success at the box office simply couldn’t hope to recoup production costs, and a combination of massive layoffs and cheaper animation techniques at the once-mighty House of Mouse followed.

It stands as another example of how Walt Disney, for all the power his studio wields over the entertainment industry in the present, for all he was one of the best in the business at putting his finger on the public’s pulse and pushing his staff to innovate over settling at every turn, was not a sensible businessman in the slightest. Man damn near crumbled his whole company for the sake of capturing the magic of Sleeping Beauty in a manner wholly different than the modes of Snow White or Cinderella, or anything else on the market. As with those ventures, or Fantasia, or Disneyland itself, we’d today call him a mad fool who chased impossible dreams at the expense of good sense if he’d failed. Instead, he and everyone under him pulled a hat trick, and delivered one of the most beautiful animated experiences ever put to screen, so… who’s to say capitalism doesn’t occasionally reward innovation?

(The uncountable number of workers he laid off after the early 40s’ union strikes, his paranoia about communism later in the decade, and this film’s inevitable box office failure, that’s who.)

*Cough*

Let’s start on Earle’s backgrounds, shall we? The forests of the second act stand out on every watch, achingly detailed wonders of wood and verdancy in which you can trace every gnarl, spot every leafy rib, gaze far into the distance to find fresh detail in the structures furthest from the camera, and yet still register it all as intended, as a perfectly horizontal plane across which the characters effortlessly glide in light dance and tinkling song. I hardly need praise their geometric, straight-lined design, drawn from the Cloisters’ late Middle Ages Unicorn tapestries alongside bits and bobs of Germanic, Italian, and Persian influences to draw the forest’s every detail in sharper relief and provide the prince and princess the ideal pastoral ballroom for their first dance. If you ever watch the film, you understand the sensation of looking on these environs. It’s enough to make one simultaneously inspired at the ability of the human hand to capture so much life in a still two-dimensional image, half-angry at the skill and cooperation necessary to make it happen alongside its uncommonality when they make it look so damnably EASY, and lost in a kind of spiritual revelry, transported to a place that never was and yet feels so convincingly real despite its flagrant unreality. These shapes are impossible, these perspectives found only in the artistic realm, these vistas too clear and open to accurately replicate what the human eye would find if stood amongst the vegetation and trained towards the middle distance; and still for all it reads as painted background, it’s so painstakingly rendered at the direction of so clear and commanding a voice, you almost feel as if you could fall through and simply BE there with a lean just a bit further out your seat. Everyone loves the “Once Upon a Dream” forest. I’d feel no exaggeration if I said a plurality of reasons why people love Sleeping Beauty lie in repose amongst the grass and shrubbery of this conjured wood.

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Screencaps hardly do these backgrounds justice, but you get the idea.

And it is only the location of about half the film’s middle stretch! Sleeping Beauty boasts yet further backgrounds before, during, and after its most famed and acclaimed sequence, and they’re all worthy of revelry in their own way! Within and around King Stefan’s castle, a principle of rendering objects and persons further from the camera in simplified styles reigns supreme, allowing us to find influences of the decade’s pop art and particularly UPA intermingled with knights and peasants and royalty all given their own flourishes. This is not to discount what we find at close range, of course, for while I don’t think any of the stonework or decorations about the place match a single tree in the forest for loveliness, they do provide a level of detailed finery and jewels and silks and metals unmatched in any animated film for a long, long time, Disney or otherwise. I’m particularly keen on the little chapel the fairies use to plot against Maleficent, and the strange, twisting hidden hallways the evil fairy guides Aurora down on her way to the spindle, enhanced as both are by tiny flickering and all-encompassing otherworldly lights respectively. Out in the forest, the woodcutter’s cottage the fairies and Briar Rose call home is perhaps the plainest of all environs in the film, but it offers a cozy, earthen place of rest for the eyes from the dazzling visuals without compromising its own full furnishings, and makes an excellent backdrop with color-coded magic starts flying about and lighting the place up with twinkling sparks. We needn’t even wait for the shift to Maleficent’s Forbidden Mountain to praise her influence on the film, for the sequence of the fairies putting the whole kingdom to sleep casts the friendly setting in the deep blacks and greens and violets of the antagonist, and makes ready for the move to her castle, where we find a world so completely drained of all but the dullest browns and grays unless she’s in the room, in which case the imposing masonry is cast in all the shades of evil. It’s an ideal location for Prince Phillip’s red and white flight with the glowing fairy dots at his side, and it’s all so readily crumbled by its mistress’ wrath, both literally as she rages against those who would oppose her, and figuratively as she steps into the fray herself and renders the backdrop an almost minimalist field of fiery, poisonous green with heavy black accents. And man, the pink and blue skies Aurora and Phillip dance amongst in the final shot…

It almost seems a shame to mar such beatific landscapes with animated characters. What hope has crude motion against steady perfection? Fortunately, with Earle having heavily redesigned the animated elements from the Disney house style to fit with his firm, straightened style, they play as compliments to their world rather than intrusions. Maleficent makes the obvious highlight, a void on the screen whenever she appears, sharpened pale features leering out from above a body that’s more flowing cloak than woman and below the devil’s horns. She commands the screen with Eleanor Audley’s hard, cold voice alone, and furthermore has some smooth, sweeping movements at her disposal as well – too malevolent to be called graceful, too calculated to bear the name inhuman, too boiled in a barely hidden anger at all the world to go by effortlessly proud. The world cracks at her displeasure, dances at her fingertips, moves according to her power and presence, just as space folds her into the image of her staff before she vanishes into nothing or becomes a literal firewheel across the night sky. And the dragon. The dragon. Barely present for hardly a minute, it looms large over the film, a final impossible task for the prince to overcome, an extension and expansion of Maleficent’s design principles from merely feeling as if her wicked form could overtake your screen as a slender, gliding presence upon it, to actually doing so as this great creature, sleek yet hulking, wild yet intelligent, evil yet oh so completely compelling as it drives Phillip up a cliff and right to the precipice. There’s ample good reason she’s one of the studio’s best loved villains: everything about her practically demands the praise.

If any film were to present merely one stunning piece of character animation like Maleficent, it’d deserve the title masterpiece. Sleeping Beauty delivers for character on all fronts, and it’s a pleasure to watch start to end as a result. As with her dancing glade, we only really see Aurora/Briar Rose in the middle passage, yet she’s as natural a pretty young thing who ever skipped through the forest in plain, unassuming clothes exuding innocence all the way. With Mary Costa’s incredibly lovely voice coming out her mouth, she’s enchanting to find darting from tree to tree, and comes equipped with a personality best suited to her surroundings. Not the cleverness or determination of her predecessor Cinderella, unfortunately, but a gentle-faced, earnest dreamer who embodies the concept better than pretty much any Disney dreamer after her, so earnest is her communication of what she’s dreamt, so slight her disappointment, so great her delight when her animal friends conjure a prince from discarded clothes, then doubled when the actual prince appears in her arms. Speaking of Phillip, while he’s definitely not much as a fleshed-out person, he’s incredibly personable and charming when riding through the forest, drying himself out after a fall in the lake, falling instantly in love with Aurora at first sight, wildly telling his father of the girl he met out of some half-forgotten dream. They are, the pair of them, two kids with their heads in the clouds who somehow found exactly what they wanted up there with naught save good hearts and intentions in hand, and when they dance a courtly dance before a reflecting pool, it’s hard to deny them their happiness despite the common complaint of too little development. It’s a fairy tale after all, a fairy tale on film with the collective imagination’s totaled picture of idyllic forests and wholesome lovers captured in straight lines that move like people can only wish they could, delivering the simplest, dreamiest fantasy it can manage. Let them love, let them fumble, let them have their golden first moment together – if the film hasn’t this, why does it exist at all?

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Well, I can’t imagine what they’d be if they didn’t have this prince or princess to aide or that wondrous evil woman to oppose, but it WOULD still have the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. We all know they’re effectively the main characters by this point, yeah? The presentation only moves fully beyond the storybook when they arrive to give their gift, it remains with them and develops their dynamics as they plot against Maleficent, they open, provide break from, and close the forest segment with their household gift-prepping antics durned magical mischief, it’s their mistake that alerts Maleficent to Aurora’s location, their grief we feel when the girl falls to the curse, their rise to action which ultimately opposes Maleficent, empowers Phillip, and provides every defense, offense, and decisive strike against the evil fairy, up to and including enchanting the sword of truth to fly in an arc ending square in the dragon’s heart. They’re also the characters whose designs and movements are most inflected by the typical Disney roundness, and just as it doesn’t compromise their designs to the point of making them look unnatural in any environment as the only three to appear in each setting (they’re even in the forest, and I want to punch something for how great they look hurrying through it beneath cloaks like the pilgrims from Fantasia‘s “Ave Maria” segment), it also takes them beyond the realm of flawless ideals I’ve spoken of and into the realm of relatability. My personal favorite of the bunch is easily Merryweather, being all squat and easily frustrated and prone to sullenly sinking into herself; if anyone can find me a better reaction gif than this, I’ll promptly eat all the hats I own. They’re all good in their own ways, though, with Flora’s firm leadership amongst the group often overtaken by too bossy and straightforward an attitude for her own good, and Fauna’s peacebrokering finding her equally a calming presence and inclined to staring off into space. As a comedic group, the trio following their individual uninformed predilections and messing up Aurora’s dress and cake with blithe confidence in their abilities is matched only by the subsequent magic duel between Flora and Merryweather over the color of Aurora’s dress as Faunta happily bussies herself with the dancing ingredients. As dramatic actors, they get the tragedy of Aurora’s loss across with aplomb, and prove themselves more than adequate action figures when they sneak about Maleficent’s castle, dodging all those wonderfully squat and gonkish goons, and subsequently fight magic with magic as Maleficent turns up the heat – though as you might expect, I’m most fond of Merryweather chasing down Diablo and turning him to stone, a fun continuation of her ruefully contemplating using some magic for mean purposes to make herself happy.

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Barbara Jo Allen, Verna Felton, and Barbara Luddy in Sleeping Beauty (1959)
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(And really, if you needed any further reason to sing the film’s virtues, the fairies functioning as main characters faced against Maleficent and working to protect Aurora while displaying a variety of strengths and weaknesses that texture rather than lessen, AND being so active in the finale one might say Prince Phillip is a tool for their will whose main function is following his sappy heart at the finish after all the cool action’s passed – it all makes for a pretty dang strong feminist text to pour over, don’t it?)

There’s just too, too, far too much of immense quality to properly praise in Sleeping Beauty. The comedic “Skumps” scene between the two kings with the drunken jester. Audley’s mad laughter when she discovers her minions have been searching for a baby for sixteen years. The way they repurpose a silly cat-and-mouse musical piece from the ballet as the eerie guiding presence before Aurora when she’s in Maleficent’s power. The whole, “Father, you’re living in the past! This is the fourteenth century!” line from Phillip. How the late second act is structured so we know there’s no real potential for heartbreak given the dramatic irony of Aurora and Phillip not knowing they’re already betrothed, which enables us to have some of our better comedy scenes, without invalidating Aurora’s perspective and so presenting her as a melancholic figure worth our sympathies during this stretch. The smooth shift from deepest night to rosy, radiant morning when Philip touches his lips to Aurora’s in the finale. In every corner I find moments and characters and bits to adore, and at the center of it all the “Once Upon a Dream” dance, which I cannot and will not ever adulate to the degree it deserves. This watch makes my fourth or fifth viewing of Sleeping Beauty, and its equally as graceful and enchanting a picture as my first time six years ago on every go. If there’s one thing, even one tiny, little thing I find minimally bothersome, it’s the use of shifting eye designs on the fairies during emotional moments. They’re not ruinous and it only really bugs me when they go all glassy in addition to the sudden colored irises to indicate crying, but I can’t say the effect ever looked as good as the standard eyes in any of their movies, and I won’t ever say I’m sorry they eventually stopped sometime in the 70s. Otherwise? Raw magic spun into celluloid, every step of the way.

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Mary Costa in Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Sleeping Beauty (1959)

There is, I admit, something a little uncomfortable in heaping praise upon praise upon praise onto so beloved a film with so little negative to say about it or its production. Disney was mad to push so hard and misguided to do so without providing the same oversight he afforded past productions, but the results are undeniable. The fact so many who worked to bring it to life couldn’t enjoy its success after losing their jobs to the financial failure in whose name they sacrificed so much, bit it seems almost quaint to put a sixty-year old business decision on blast when the modern company mistreats and underpays and exploits a workforce many hundreds of times larger on a daily basis. Other films in our series to this point haven’t received such lavish tongue-bathing, yet there’s hundreds chances more for something this worthy of praise to come across our screens, and besides, have you been looking at the images peppered throughout this article? If you’ve not seen the film, either look up clips or imagine those images in motion. Artistic triumph deserves celebration just as it deserves preservation, and even if I’ll have some stern words for the Library of Congress if, come December, they toss The Little Mermaid or Peter Pan amongst their number before giving anyone else a look, I really, truly cannot say something that gave the world those painted woods earnt anything less than the tone I adopt above. Sleeping Beauty‘s great, and you oughta find yourself a way of watching that doesn’t give money to modern Disney. Second-hand stores, bookshops, eBay or other online auctioneers, third-party online stores, just like… anything other than fresh or through Disney+.

(Cause, y’know, they made Maleficent, which treats everything good and pure and praiseworthy about the original as a problem in need of “fixing,” and in doing so creates a substantially lesser work, which I’m pretty sure invalidates any and all argument they deserve to still make money off’ve this one. I’m only very slightly joking here. It’s a sin what they did to the fairies.)

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Well! Wasn’t this a time and a half? Hope y’all have fun down in the comments! As to next week, we move a decade into the future to 1969, for a discussion about Gunvor Nelson’s experimental short-form examination of her daughter, with the titular My Name is Oona. Amazon Prime has it on tap if you can tango with a free Fandor trial. See ya then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, and rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter.