Friday, 26 September 2014

Disney Sleeping Beauty Review

Walt Disney took a gamble when putting together Sleeping Beauty, not only did he decide to shoot the film using a new widescreen 70mm format but he also chose to heavily stylise the film as if it were a ‘moving tapestry’. The long development times these decisions brought made the film the most expensive to date for Disney, which led to it being a commercial failure when originally released. The film also got mixed critical reception, with negative reviews criticising the story for a lack of character development. I decided to review Sleeping Beauty as, incredibly enough, it is one of the few animated Disney films I had never watched before, somehow missing it as a child.
Sleeping Beauty is a film led almost entirely by its visual design. That being said, where films such as Sucker Punch have beautiful design but very little else, Sleeping Beauty succeeds as a film. To be clear, this is not due to the story being a good compliment to the visuals as much as it is to the fact that Sleeping Beauty is such a visually beautiful film it distracts you from a lot of the conversely bland story content.
Stripping the visuals the story is very simplistic and aside from one MAJOR exception, the characters are bland and uninspired. Princess Aurora in particular has almost no character, her only traits being the gifts of beauty and song she was given as a baby. Prince Phillip isn’t a lot better, with his horse given more personality than him. We are only given the slightest pretence that Aurora and Phillip are in some way destined to be together, this is expected to be enough reason for us to believe that they want an immediate marriage to each other, despite having only spent 10 minutes together. This is the Disney trope of marrying someone you’ve just met at almost its very worst.
The major exception I mentioned earlier is the character of Maleficent, a villain who, with about 5 combined minutes of screen time, became Disney’s undisputed best villain. Eleanor Audley’s performance breaths fire into what could have been a throw away threat, giving multiple shades of black to a character that could have been easily one note. Vocal talent in the recording studio is coupled with the animation team’s sinister designs to create a distinctly unique character, one that for once, truly deserved a spin off.

The films Walt Disney personally produced are all beautiful, so for one to break away from the pack it has to be truly stunning. Every element of the design and animation of Sleeping Beauty is rich with the effort and skill used to create it. Nobody making the film could be charged with not doing their best on the project. If you compare Sleeping Beauty with a post Walt Disney, Disney studios film such as The Aristocats you can see the personal care and determination Walt Disney brought to the world of animation.
The film has a very clear design aesthetic throughout. Backgrounds are both visually complicated and muted, while characters are minimalist and vibrant. This makes the characters clearly pop, as if from a story book. This primary use of colour from the character is used on any element that is intended to draw focus, as with the green flames near the conclusion. Visual symbolism is rife throughout the film adding additional depth that is lacking from the majority of films, animated on not, produced even today.
The animation is still very impressive, particularly in the magical effects and movement of fabrics, they look almost digitally calculated. A lot of animated realism comes from the fact that Walt Disney chose to shoot the entire film live action as reference for the animators. When some films use rotoscoping for animation the characters look strange and it creates an unsettling effect. For Sleeping Beauty it is clear that this was used primarily as reference rather than as a tracing base, the characters move as animated humans would, not as humans actually do. You only need to see the ‘Once Upon a Dream” sequence to see how successful this is.

The story side of Sleeping Beauty has definite issues, the characters are mostly pop-up book in depth and the films relatively short running time makes the story pacing a bit rushed. That being said this is an outstandingly impressive Disney film and well deserving of the Disney classic branding. The animation and soundtrack is almost 60 years old but they would still impress on a film released today. I’d take ‘Once Upon a Dream’ over ‘Let it go’ any day.

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