Sweet Sixteens – ain’t they a bitch? Mary Costa, Bill Shirley, Verna Felton and Eleanor Audley lend their voices to the Disney animated classic, Sleeping Beauty.
Cast of Characters:
Princess Aurora/Briar Rose – voiced by Mary Costa
Prince Phillip – voiced by Bill Shirley
Maleficent – voiced by Eleanor Audley
Flora/Queen Leah – voiced by Verna Felton
Merryweather – voiced by Barbara Luddy
Fauna – voiced by Barbara Jo Allen
King Stefan – voiced by Taylor Holmes
King Hubert – voiced by Bill Thompson
Director – Clyde Geronimi, Les Clark, Eric Larson & Wolfgang Reitherman
Screenplay – Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright & Milt Banta
Based on the fairy tales La Belle au bois dormant by Charles Perrault and Little Briar Rose by the Brothers Grimm, and the ballet The Sleeping Beauty by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky
Producer – Walt Disney
Rated G for general audiences
After many childless years, King Stefan (voiced by Taylor Holmes) and Queen Leah (voiced by Verna Felton) welcome the birth of their daughter, Princess Aurora. They proclaim a holiday for their subjects to pay homage to their child. During the holiday, Maleficent (voiced by Eleanor Audley) arrives uninvited. She proclaims a curse on the child that before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Outraged, King Stefan orders all spinning wheels to burned. Also, to protect his daughter, the king and queen decide it’s best that Aurora lives in hiding with the three good fairies – Flora (also voiced by Felton), Merryweather (voiced by Barbara Luddy) and Fauna (voiced by Barbara Jo Allen).
Years later, Princess Aurora (voiced by Mary Costa) – renamed Briar Rose for her protection – has grown into a beautiful young girl. On the day of her sixteenth birthday, the fairies send her out into the woods so that they can plan a surprise birthday for her. There, she meets Prince Phillip (voiced by Bill Shirley) – heir to her father’s neighboring kingdom. Naturally, they’re smitten with each other, but little does Aurora know that Maleficent has been biding her time, waiting to lure the princess into her trap.
By 1959, Disney already had its legacy firmly set in place, beginning in the ’30s with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and continuing on with Pinocchio, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, just to name a few. Returning back to the princess fairy tale format that made Disney the animation giant we know of today, Sleeping Beauty offered the familiar narrative, but a different style of animation that, at the time, hadn’t been seen in any of the prior films.
Some have marked the animation here as a criticism, citing an unpolished look in contrast to the colorful detail and polished texture as seen in Cinderella (the cleanest animation design from Disney’s Golden Age) and Alice in Wonderland. That’s what makes this film unique, though. When you sit back and look at all the Disney animated classics, as far as the animation goes, no two are alike. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may be the fairest of them all, and for the ’30s the animation was groundbreaking, but it still showed a sign of better things to come. Bambi was a more naturalist take on the animation. Cinderella was polished, and Alice in Wonderland showed how detailed and creative the imagination at Disney could go. Here, it may seem at first glance that the technicality of the animation was scaled back, but that was definitely a conscious, intentional decision by Walt Disney. Having already made two fairy tale themed films, Disney wanted Sleeping Beauty to stand out on its own, desiring a more “living illustration” feel for this picture. Inspired by medieval art, the animators avoided the soft, rounder look of the prior films and focused more on stylization. What resulted was a very fitting animated style for the setting of the film, and further proof of Disney’s artistic innovation.
Another milestone featured in this film was the character of Prince Phillip. Up until Sleeping Beauty, the princes shown in Snow White and Cinderella were at most secondary characters. As mentioned in my Snow White review, drawing a straightforward male figure in the form of an animated character back then gave the animation crew fits. Prince Phillip was the first fully developed prince character to be featured in a Disney classic. Phillip has the usual charm as seen in the previous princes, but what sets him apart is that he has humor, limitations and conflicts. He falls in love with Aurora, mistaking her for a peasant, and still wishes to marry her despite his father reminding him it’s against the royal norm (there’s a parallel storyline between Aurora and the good fairies).
Yet, as Phillip reminds his dad – come on. It’s the 14th century. Get with it, old man.
Like the film itself, which stands out amongst the previous fairy tale films, Princess Aurora stands out amongst Snow White and Cinderella. Snow White represented purity that brought the good out of others (e.g., the Huntsman and those cranky dwarfs). Cinderella was hope in spite of the suffering at the hands of her cruel step-family. Aurora is adventurous yet cautious, innocent yet foolish at times, and genuinely empathetic when certain situations are revealed to her (imagine living 16 years, not knowing you’re actually a princess).
SPOILER ALERTS: Of course, two particular standouts to be found in any Disney classic are the villain and the comic relief supporting characters. While there are some comical moments between King Stefan and Hubert (as well as a minstrel who’s able to evoke laughter without uttering a single word), the main driving force of the comic relief are the three fairies (there’s a recurring joke between Merryweather and Flora fighting over what color Aurora’s birthday dress should be). That said, their roles in this film go beyond just the typical comic relief to be found here as they are extremely instrumental in bringing down the villain. Most assume that these Disney films revolving around the “damsel in distress” have the prince saving the day, when that’s never been the case. It wasn’t the prince that defeated the wicked witch in Snow White, the dwarfs did. Prince Charming didn’t rescue Cinderella. The mice Jaq, Gus and Cinderella’s dog Bruno did. It’s always been the comic relief characters that save the day (which is fitting since their relationship with the princess is the most fleshed out). Granted Prince Phillip is instrumental in taking down Maleficent, but even he realizes how in over his head he is, and the way the fairies not only accompany him, but lead the way is rather creative.
I’d be remiss not to mention Maleficent, voiced by the delightfully devious sounding Eleanor Audley (who gave me childhood nightmares for years as the voice of Lady Tremaine, aka the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella). Having easily the most imaginative and iconic look of all the Disney villains doesn’t hurt, but it’s Audley’s sinister voice that brings her terrifying nature to life. Her luring of Aurora is quite haunting and her transformation from fairy to dragon ranks right up there with the Queen’s transformation in Snow White. You might think her motive in cursing a newborn child to death over being snubbed is a bit immature, but if you consider the time period and place of the story, it was quite an insult to not be invited to a prestigious event. Celtic mythology really hammers that point home.
There you go. I change my mind. Aurora had it coming.
Uniquely animated, perfectly voice-cast, and elegantly scored, Sleeping Beauty earns a deserved spot on the Mount Rushmore of Disney’s Golden Age of animated films. It’s slightly bittersweet considering that following this film, save a couple exceptions (One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book), Disney wouldn’t reach animated greatness for another 30 years with The Little Mermaid. Still, that doesn’t take anything away from the exciting blend of fairy tale grandeur, villainous frights and perfectly timed comedy that composes one of Disney’s finer achievements.