Revisiting Disney: Sleeping Beauty

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The next installment of Revisiting Disney is here! Sleeping Beauty was not one of the movies in our family’s VHS cabinet while I was growing up, but one of my roommates in grad school insisted that Phillip was her favorite prince because – as she put it – he actually does stuff and stands up to his father for the girl he loves. Aurora, in contrast, has the fewest lines out of any Disney princess – unsurprising since she is asleep for half the film! This means there is not much development of the title character, however this is still a rich film – beautifully animated and enhanced by the quirky quips of the three fairies.

In her screen time, Aurora is able to check most of the “Disney princess character trait” boxes. Namely, she is described as beautiful, she can sing (lucky, as this is a musical!) and she has the ability to make friends with all the cute woodland animals. In addition, she’s a bit of a head-in-the-clouds dreamer; seemingly scatterbrained at times and easily occupied by wishing for a dream man. When sent out to pick berries by the three good fairies who raised her, she instead daydreams of a man “tall and handsome and so romantic.”

I wonder if I keep singing, will my song go winging and bring back someone to sing to me?” she wonders. She gets so tied up in singing and dancing with the forest birds that she does not notice when an unknown man comes up behind her and puts his arms around her. Knowing that the fairies have told her not to talk to strangers, she’s worried for a minute, but all it takes is a pick up line about meeting her once upon a dream, and she’s content to keep dancing and singing with him. It was, after all, exactly what she had wished for. Despite this, when he asks her name, she runs away, saying she must go. “But when will I see you again?” he calls. “Oh never, never!” she responds. “Never?” “Well, maybe someday.” “When, tomorrow?” he asks hopefully. “Oh no, this evening!” she insists. Even as she flees, she tells him to find her at the cottage in the glen. She eagerly tells the fairies about meeting a man in the woods; however when they inform her she is actually a princess and already betrothed she bursts into tears, inconsolable for the rest of the evening. After this, she does not have any more lines throughout the rest of the film.

The man in the woods is, of course, Prince Phillip. Out of all the princess movies so far, Phillip is the only prince who is clearly characterized at all. We immediately see that he is 1) daring – galloping about on his horse, and 2) lighthearted/mischievous as he playfully bribes his horse to follow the enchanting sound of singing in the woods… but doesn’t lose too much of his cool when he’s knocked off that horse by a branch and lands splash! in a puddle. We also find out he is just as prone to romanticism as Aurora, and tells his father with conviction that he has met the girl he is going to marry – even though he still does not know her name. His daring does help him out during the climax of the film, when he must escape Maleficent’s castle and face a giant dragon.

More than the titular character or her love interest, it is really the fairies who are the primary protagonists. Not only do they have the lion’s share of the dialogue, but also of the plot action: it is they who take charge of mitigating the effects of Maleficent’s curse, protecting and raising Aurora, and rescuing Phillip from the dungeon of Maleficent then providing him with the means to defeat her. They also interact with one another throughout the film even though other characters’ interactions are limited. This is, in my mind, a good thing – especially in light of the lack of positive inter-female relationships up till now. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather bicker and tease each other, but never actually stop supporting one another. They help each other through the trials of baking a cake or saving the day from a rampaging sorceress (both very complicated things, you know.) Even more, they offer a united front even when they disagree and they stick together through thick and thin. So far, it’s the most uplifting and supportive mutual relationship shown in the Disney princess films.

Disney says Aurora reminds young girls to “always keep dreaming.” More strongly to me, she reinforces the rapid-forming and often unwise romantic attachment that is common to many teenagers. Young boys and girls alike have fallen prey to hormone-fueled love, just like Aurora and Phillip – and even the wisest of them often have to live through the trials and mistakes of first love before avoiding them in the future. Some might argue that Sleeping Beauty, therefore teaches a poor lesson on love and healthy relationships to impressionable youth, but perhaps it’s only showing what is already natural for excitable teens. Aurora and Phil aren’t the only ones jumping the gun; Phillip’s father, Hubert, starts planning for an instantaneous marriage and immediate preparations for grandchildren before Phillip has even had a chance for introductions to his betrothed. (He’s remarkably like Cinderella’s father-in-law, in that respect, and even has the temper to match!) Perhaps Aurora’s father provides enough of a sensible foil for Hubert to gently remind viewers of the foolishness of marrying with Vegas-like rapidity.

Although previous films have shown dark magic (Snow White’s step-mother) and helpful magic (Cinderella’s fairy godmother) this is the first film to show both working against each other. Like the queen in Snow White, Maleficent is a quick-tempered and jealous woman, tall with arching eyebrows and dark purple eye-shadow (if not for the horns and slightly green skin, Maleficent could also be considered beautiful.) They are powerful women, but prideful and overconfident; both make simple mistakes or trust in the wrong henchmen, leading to their ultimate failure. All the good fairies are older, squat, somewhat forgetful women. They are portrayed as charmingly foolish rather than powerful: misplacing wands, bickering with each other, and stumbling over simple tasks in a humerus manner. The good fairies are distinctly non-threatening. One of them even says at the start of the film that their magic can *only * be used for good things which bring happiness into the world. It seems a not-so-subtle message of the times that powerful women are not to be trusted; the only ones who may exert influence (via magic or via plot action) are the ones who do so not for themselves, but for others.

The good fairies’ prohibition against “bad” magic prevents them from opposing Maleficent except via helping Phillip by turning arrows into flowers, falling rocks into bubbles, and so on. Even Philip’s weapons are identified as “good” by their signifiers as the “Shield of Virtue” and the “Sword of Truth” (although I’m not sure what is truthful or virtuous about either one.) Despite this ban, one of the fairies does turn Maleficent’s raven to stone and they also help guide Phillip’s fatal throw of the sword into Maleficent at the very end. There’s no obvious reason for how their magic works differently, or for how the rules of magic allow for turning a raven into stone while (presumably) turning Aurora’s owl companion to stone would have been frowned upon. In direct opposition to the good fairies, Maleficent is presumably only able to do hurtful things with her magic and is pure evil. “Well, she can’t be all bad,” says Fauna. “Oh, yes she can!” replies Flora.

In fairy-tales, it is very common for all characters to be divided evenly between good and evil, light and dark, without any bleeding of colors between the two. Perhaps the biggest disservice this trend has done is to convince many people – young and old alike – that there is indeed such a thing as pure evil… unredeemable persons, necessary to be eradicated. A recent article in Scientific American stated that researchers across several studies have found that an increased belief in pure evil predicts stronger support for harsher punishments for crimes, decreased support for criminal rehabilitation, increased favor of the death penalty, the perceived need for military aggression, as well as support for torture. From my point of view, it seems increased belief in evil is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy; even though in fairy tales killing all the bad guys is all that is necessary to bring about peace, in the real world no one is fully good or fully evil and violence will only beget fear, anger, and more violence.

The fairy tale has, of course, been “cleaned up” for children’s eyes – instead of Sleeping Beauty awaking to a suckling child after being raped in her sleep, it is instead the magic of true love which ends her slumber. Especially in light of recent certain former college-swimmers, I find myself wishing that Disney came down a little harder on the “it’s not okay to impose on a sleeping person.”

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This movie was far more enjoyable to watch than Cinderella was. I enjoyed the banter between the fairies, I liked the bold colors of the animation, and it was refreshing to have a character for young boys to identify with who was actually… characterized. However, I think I might find myself quietly hoping that young girls watching identify more with a group of sassy women than they do with a princess who is unquestionably accepting of being kissed into consciousness by a stranger she met in the woods. Like the good fairies, we all have to stick up for each other and for “love, kindness, and the joy of helping others.”

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