Tales of Yore is a series of articles about fairy tale adaptations. Adaptations can be direct or loose, and these reviews attempt to consider the films in the context of the stories upon which they are based.
This summer, I’ll be doing research on two things I really like: fairy tales and the 1950s/60s TV series The Twilight Zone, the latter being this column’s namesake. As such, I figured I’ll take a peek at some fairy tale movies, as it’s all I’ll be reading about for a while. Let’s start with…
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Plot Summary: A newborn princess is blessed by two of three good fairies with the gifts of beauty and song, while an evil witch curses her to die by pricking her finger on her sixteenth birthday. The third fairy makes it so that, instead of dying, the titular beauty merely falls into a deep sleep. When that fateful day arrives, princess Aurora meets the handsome Prince Phillip, who fights to save her from her sleepy fate.
So, before I start diving into this movie, I’m going to dive briefly into the history of this classic story. The movie is based on the tale popularized by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, who wrote or recorded the older versions of stories we all know and love, largely because of Disney (see: Snow White, Cinderella, and more). In both versions, the prince falls in love with Sleeping Beauty upon seeing her lifeless body, which is pretty odd. In another version, the prince rapes her in her slumber, and she is awoken by a baby sucking out the flax stuck in her finger.
So yeah, that’s pretty weird. Understandably, Disney cut those bits out, but what remains? Well, to be honest, this representation isn’t much better than the Perrault and Grimm versions, although it’s definitely above the rapey ones. Here, Prince Phillip does fall for Aurora before she falls asleep, although even then it’s only initially for her voice, and then her beauty. Both of these were gifted to her by the fairies and neither seems to reveal her actual character. Overall, the prince is still the classic, shallow male of fairy tales pursuing the passive, agent-less heroine. Aurora seems to have no personality or subjectivity in her own story, and that complaint is common amongst fairy tales.
Still, criticizing a Disney movie, in particular a fairy tale adaptation, for problematic depictions of gender is akin to criticizing a mindless action movie for simplistic villains, right? It’s just something that’ll be there. The only issue is that these movies are shown to children and pervade our culture. If the female character always needs to be saved, has almost no personality of her own other than things gifted to her for being a princess, and doesn’t talk much, what are people taking away from this? These stories are common, in particular for the Disney canon, and it’s important to recognize some of the problems in these stories despite how much we may enjoy them.
Despite the unsurprising issues of a Disney movie made in the fifties based on stories over a century older, there are other important things to note about Sleeping Beauty. Namely, this movie is gorgeous. It could have had absolutely no plot and I still would have been hooked, because every image is like a beautiful painting. Over fifty years later, it hasn’t aged in terms of visuals. The detail that went into each shot is incredible, and the result is a timeless film.
And, as much as the story has aged a bit more than the animation, it’s still rather engaging. I mean, who can resist three goofy fairies trying to make a dress and bake a cake? Okay, maybe that’s not as exciting as it sounded in my head. How about a dude with a sword fighting a giant dragon that shoots green flames? Yeah, that’s more like it.
I would like to dive more into the more interesting bits of this movie, but there is so much literature written on fairy tales in relation to gender, class, whatever, that I’ll leave it at this: Sleeping Beauty is a beautiful movie with an acceptably interesting plot that, like most Disney fairy tales, begins to crumble when you consider some of the underlying messages, be they intentional or accidental. I recommend anyone who watched it when they were younger to give it another viewing and see how their views of the characters have changed. One of the hardest things to do is look at something you love and consider its problematic aspects, but Sleeping Beauty is a good movie to try that with.