Sleeping Beauty, from 1959, was the final fairy tale produced by Walt Disney himself and remains one of his studio’s most under-cherished works. Suffused with celestial metaphors and flights of visual fancy informed by pre-Renaissance art, the film’s economical story is played for cosmic pathos and staged as pagan ritual. Stylist Eyvind Earle and background artist Frank Armitage were more or less allowed autonomy over the production and their freedom is felt in the limber, giddy stylings of the film, a far superior work than its earlier kissing cousin Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Through the startlingly jagged animation and moving cutouts of the film, Earle and Armitage’s crew of animators and painters evoke an expressionistic netherworld influenced by numerous Gothic, Persian and Medieval sources. The familiar story concerns a 16-year-old beauty, Princess Aurora, who dies when she pricks her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel and is subsequently revived by the Prince Charming she was destined to marry. In her attack against Aurora, the ferocious Maleficent (Eleanor Audley) appears to take on the fairy-tale cliché itself. After the story’s three fairy godmothers bestow their cosmic gifts on the baby Aurora, Maleficent curses the child with death because she wasn’t invited to her über-Christening. Her bitchery is of the highest order, seductive and titanic, and she is almost postmodern for her time. (Dreamworks’s awful Shrek basically recycles the film’s close-to-meta premise, but to annoying effect.) Just as the film’s gorgeous backdrops suggest characters trapped in suspended animation, the many colorful balls of light that frequently circle their heads hauntingly convey the filmmakers’ idea of fate and love locked in a cosmic struggle.
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