Film of the book: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959)

This iconic Disney classic is based on Charles Perrault’s story (itself based on earlier sources and which was followed by a Brothers Grimm version). With jewel-bright colours and a look which imitates medieval manuscripts but which is also somehow modern, the film is really beautiful. The music is wonderful, I love the voice acting, there is humour and a suitable level of scariness.

The film makes some major changes to the story. The princess grows up incognito with the three aunts she doesn’t know are fairies, rather than staying in the palace, where it is thought sufficient only to remove all the spinning wheels. The prince (named Philip in the film, after the Duke of Edinburgh, who had recently been titled Prince) meets the princess while she is masquerading as a peasant and they fall in love without knowing they’re already betrothed. In the original story, however, a prince only enters the scene 100 years in the future. A king’s son, rather than true love, will wake the princess (no kiss required apparently). He hears about the enchanted castle, has no problem getting inside and she instantly falls in love with him as soon as she’s awake. Even that would be far-fetched for a Disney fairytale, so it made sense to increase the romance storyline.

What is most noticeable, however, is the promotion of the ‘old fairy’ who bestows a horrible curse on the baby princess and then vanishes from the plot forever, to the brilliant villain Maleficent. She’s elegant, spooky and a fearsome foe. She’ll do anything to make sure that the enchantment is never broken, except for killing the prince (she enjoys the thought of setting him free when he’s a very old man, not exactly a suitor for a 16-year-old girl). Having read a synopsis of Tchaikovsky’s ballet (which also influenced the film), I see that the character of Carabosse (i.e. Maleficent) had more of a role, trying to foil the prince and the good fairies.

Although this film would seem to be the traditional kind of tale with a beautiful passive princess (the fairies did not think to bestow intelligence on her) rescued by a prince, the real heroes are the good fairies – three here, seven in the book. They free Philip from the dungeon, provide him with a sword and shield, use magic to deflect the bad guys’ weapons (such as turning falling rocks into bubbles, or arrows into flowers) and even assist him to defeat Maleficent as a dragon. This scene has echoes of George and the Dragon, including imagery of crosses.

Wisely, the film ends at the marriage of Aurora and Philip as they dance into the clouds, the fairies still fighting over whether her dress should be pink or blue. The rest of the original tale is weird, involving cannibalism and ogres. It’s like two different stories shoved together, which perhaps they were.

In summary, it’s worth reading the original (which can be found on the Project Gutenberg website) for a more authentic experience but the film greatly improves upon it, resulting in one of the best Disney films ever.

Low-resolution image taken from Wikipedia.

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2 thoughts on “Film of the book: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959)”

    1. Agreed! ‘Treasure’ is the word. It’s probably my favourite Disney, along with Fantasia which was also innovative in its style. I used to enjoy watching Lady and the Tramp but for some reason it’s never been a favourite. Thanks for reading!

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