Disney's adaptation of a classic fairy tale opens with the birth of a princess, her immediate betrothal to a child prince, and the visit of three fairy godmothers and a malign witch. A fast forward finds Princess Aurora being raised in the forest by the three fairies, unaware of her royal parents or the witch's curse. While her godmothers clumsily prepare for her return to her parents' palace on her 16th birthday, the princess wanders and meets a mysterious traveler. When her real parents tell her she is about to be wed to a man she has never met, she runs away, straight into the witch's curse.
“Sleeping Beauty” represents a transitional period in Disney animation, and this is reflected by a rather high percentage of artistic misses. The strikingly stylized animation looks a decade ahead of the film's 1957 release date, and it is very debatable whether this is a good thing. The fairy godmothers are entirely too cute, though slapstick sequences of their efforts to “help” the princess are reasonably amusing, and it is almost refreshing to see one of them break character to get back at Maleficent's obnoxious familiar. It does not help that the script takes the drastic liberty of compressing a century of failed adventurers in the story into one whirlwind rescue. The film's best moments are its dark ones, as Maleficent's appearance, her castle, the materialization of a fateful spinning wheel and her final transformation offer a gothic spectacle comparable to the final sequence of Fantasia. What is perhaps of even greater interest is an unintentional commentary on the changes that were occurring in American society just in the epic six years that Disney took to make it: Its matter-of-fact portrayal of an arranged marriage between teenagers could have been shredded as chauvinistic in ca. 1960, never mind today. Yet, the film does capture something of the tension between feminism and traditionalism that would soon erupt into open conflict, and that in turn offers a more timeless (if not entirely coherent) lesson on the turmoil of youth, choices and fate.
David N. Brown