Ranking the Disney Canon – 7: Sleeping Beauty


“In ageless sleep, she finds repose. The years roll by, but a hundred years to a steadfast heart, are but a day. And now, the gates of a dungeon part, and our prince is free to go his way. Off he rides, on his noble steed, a valiant figure, straight and tall! To wake his love with “loves’ first kiss”! And prove that “true love” conquers all!” – Maleficent

Sleeping Beauty has one of the most interesting, if not the most interesting, production history of any Disney Animated feature. The film started active production in 1951, and wouldn’t be released until 1959, by far the longest time production time of any of Disney Animated Feature. (Films like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland had their productions begin in the early 1940s, but in terms of active production on the film, they wouldn’t actually begin until after World War II.) The lengthy production schedule was mostly due to the intensive and detailed animation process. Walt wanted the film to have a distinct, stylistic look that differed from his other Fairy Tale Stories such as Snow White and Cinderella. In order to do this, he decided upon a style that looked like the style of Medieval Art. Sleeping Beauty would be the final film of Walt Disney’s to use the traditional process of Ink and Paint Cells, as xerography would be introduced with the next feature, One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Sleeping Beauty tells the story of the traditional tale of the fairy tale. Princess Aurora (her name is not Sleeping Beauty, people) has just been born, and the kingdom is in celebration. As the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, bestow Aurora with the gifts of Song and Beauty, the wicked fairy Maleficent appears, being a little upset that she wasn’t invited to the party. She curses Aurora, telling the royal court that before her 16th Birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The good fairies make it so that her will not die, but just fall into a deep sleep, to be awoken by love’s true kiss.The good fairies come up with the plan to hide Aurora as a peasant woman until she is 16. The day before her 16th Birthday, however, she unknowingly meets her future husband, Prince Phillip, and tricked by Maleficent to prick the spindle. The Good Fairies and Phillip must defeat Maleficent and save the kingdom.


Sleeping Beauty is an extremely stylish film, as you might have gathered from the introduction, and it is also is one of the most different films in the Disney Canon in terms of its tone. Both of these differences, together, are among what make Sleeping Beauty one of the most beautiful films in the Disney Canon, in a variety of different ways. Let’s start with the more obvious of the two differences: the beautiful art style and animation of the film.

This film’s animation style is different from anything that came before it, and truly, anything that comes after it. I do not think we will see a more artistic film in mainstream animation. This film truly looks like a painting in motion, and it is a huge testament to the work of Walt and his Animators. This was nine years of extremely tough work, and it truly paid off for them. This film is hypnotically gorgeous. It truly is stunning to look at.

Part of the hypnotism, as it were, comes from the brilliant use of color. I absolutely love the use of bright colors throughout the film, giving it an almost pastel look, and certainly a painted look, as was intended. From the opening scene, where the kingdom marches into the castle to celebrate  the birth of Princess Aurora, one can see how bright and colorful this film is. The Yellows and Blues and Reds and the many, many other colors present in the film just pop off the screen. and you don’t even need 3D! Seriously, though, this is beauty incarnate. A true testament to what animation can do as a style.

Of course, it can be the absence of these bright colors that can absolutely bring brilliance and feeling too, and it comes in the form of Maleficent’s world. Whereas the rest of the world of Sleeping Beauty is bright and cheery, Maleficent has herself surrounded by the colors of black, brown, and sickly, dark green. It seems like such a simple idea, but it works so effectively, and is executed absolutely brilliantly. It truly is amazing how something as simple as differentiating color can be so brilliant.

Another aspect that makes the animation so wonderful to look at is how flat the animation looks. Yes, this is traditional animation, and traditional animation is meant to be flat. These other Disney Animated films, however, use different drawing techniques in order to make the characters looks more three-dimensional.

Sleeping Beauty, however, forgoes these techniques in order to make the characters a little more flat, and thus look  a little bit more like a painting. Working in conjunction with the colors, the flatness of the characters completes the film’s attempt at looking like a painting in motion. The flatness of the characters also completes Walt Disney’s goal of making this film look completely different from any other Disney Animated film in history. The flatness gives the film a truly artistic charm that is just beautiful. That’s the only word I can use to describe it. Beautiful.

Where the design of the film really shines through, though, is in the Character Design. We’ll talk a ton about character design in the Top 10, as many of the most brilliant examples of it in the canon are coming up on this list, but the reason that Sleeping Beauty’s works so well is, one again, how much the design looks like characters you see in an old European painting. King Stephen and his wife, King Hubert and his son Phillip, and especially Aurora herself all are brilliant designed. The flatness and the colors don’t work if the characters don’t look like they fit the bill, but the animators do wonders with this film and came up with some extremely appealing character design.

Let’s move back to the design of the world itself. The background on Sleeping Beauty are absolutely gorgeous. I feel like you could argue that I’m just repeating myself at this point, but I can’t get over the fact that this film is gorgeous! The backgrounds are so rich with detail,  and yet still fits in with the rest of the film. The forest in the Once Upon a Dream sequence are a perfect example of that. The forest still has a realistic quality to it that would remind you of the work you might see in something like Bambi, and yet the stylization remains. The painted look of the characters fits in perfectly with the backgrounds to bring a truly spectacular, dynamic look.

I brought up the forest mainly because it is a location that continually appears in Disney films, but let me be clear that all of the locations in this film are just awesome to look at. The Forest, The Castle, The Courtyard, the Cottage, and especially Maleficent’s Domain are all intricately detailed and just as amazing to stare at for hours upon end as the animation is. A special shout out to the location of Maleficent’s dungeon. Along with the use of color I mentioned earlier, the dirtiness of the whole thing just gives it the perfect vibe. It is among my favorite designed locations in Disney films.

OK, I think I’ve gone on long enough about the film’s art style, but before I move on to the change in tone, as hinted about 1000 words ago, I just want to say that the reason that the art style of this film is so memorable is because it all fits together like a perfect puzzle. The color, the flatness, the animation, the backgrounds, all work together to create a beautiful work of art, worthy of the works that inspired it.

(OK, I may think of animation as a work of art in and of itself, but Sleeping Beauty is in a different realm altogether. Moving on.)

The style change of the art in Sleeping Beauty is matched by the second difference between this film and other Disney films on this list: the tone. Working with the dramatic artistic shift, Sleeping Beauty is among the most dramatic, if the not the most dramatic, work in the Disney Animated Canon. I feel that Sleeping Beauty is the closest we’ve come to a straight animated drama here in the United States.

And that isn’t to say that the film is humorless. Far from it. Humor is present in this film and, as per usual in the Walt Disney era, it is awesomely funny. The banter between the three fairies, especially within the famous fight about what color Aurora’s dress should be, is full of witty banter and wonderful visual humor. The drunken song between King Stephen and King Hubert, as they discuss the future of their children, is also a riot, and an underrated scene within the film itself. There are punches of humor throughout the film, even in small parts, and scenes like the drunken song and lines like “Oh, father, you’re living in the past. This is the 14th century!” contribute great chuckles.

But what is different about this humor is that it is a little quieter, a little more subtle, a little smaller in scope. The humor isn’t as in your face, slapsticky, or loud as you might find coming from Captain Hook in Peter Pan or Timothy Q. Mouse in Dumbo. I would almost describe the humor as more serious than normal. I find it hard to describe how the humor in Sleeping Beauty feels because it does have such a different feel to it. Even Bambi, another very dramatic film, had its humor feel grander.

But the smaller, quieter humor works perfectly with the story of Sleeping Beauty. From the very beginning, the film presents itself as an epic tale of great importance. The opening scenes are a perfect representation of this. The procession of the town in celebration of the birth of Aurora, the narrator describing our story and our characters, the looks on the faces of the Kings and Queens, showing the importance they give to their own child, the fairies presenting their gifts to the newborn princess, and Maleficent’s dramatic entrance and her curse on the child all come together to create a striking opening, one that gives the film a big feel, an opening that gives us the feeling like we were being told the greatest story ever written. It feels like the story actually comes from the era of kings and queens it comes from.

And a part of that feeling comes, of course, from the art style, but I should also point out the importance of the music in this instance. Again differing from the films around it, the song and score of the film do not come from the “Tin Pan Alley” musicians and other in-house songwriters like the Sherman Brothers. Instead, this film adapts much of the score to Tchaikovsky’s ballet based on the Sleeping Beauty story, changing them up by adding lyrics, lengthening some of the movements, and even moving around the placement of the songs.

What this does is, once again, adds to the films dramatic tone. The Sleeping Beauty ballet is a classic, and the classic arrangements of the songs from the ballet give the film a grandiose feel, the classical tones of the score ringing in your ears. The beauty of songs like “Hail to the Princess” and “Once Upon a Dream” feel completely different from even the songs of the previous two princess films, Cinderella and Snow White. Imagine if either of those two films had been based off of ballets. Would those films feel completely different? Absolutely. But it would have not worked for the vision of those films. But here, it does.

And sure, the difference in the humor and the songs add to the change in tone, but, obviously, what gives the most addition to the tone is the script and the story itself. From the beginning, this film is presented as a love story between Phillip and Aurora, and it does it beautifully. Everything in the film leads up to their fate as lovers, and it gives this journey the greatest of importance. I think it is actually striking how little humor Aurora and Phillip bring to the table, but this only enhances their arc as characters, as it gives them a drive that isn’t undercut at any point in the film.

But once Aurora pricks the spindle and lives to the title of the film, as the child friendly version of the saying goes, things just get real. From then on, there is no humor, no brightness, the only song being the beautiful song “Sleeping Beauty” wonderfully sung by the Disney Studio Chorus. The focus is squarely on Phillip’s quest to save Sleeping Beauty, from his capture by Maleficent, to his daring escape, to his final battle with the forces of evil. Sleeping Beauty is among the greatest romances in Disney history, because the films presents it as such. (Also, maybe because Phillip is actually one of the more developed princes in Disney history, but more on that later.)

Man, I feel I’m repeating myself once again, so its time to end our discussion of tone as well. But the story of Sleeping Beauty could not be presented in any other way. Cinderella and Snow White couldn’t work with this dramatic weight, just as Sleeping Beauty couldn’t function with the constant humor of the stepsisters and the dwarves. Sleeping Beauty is an epic tale, and the film feels like an epic tale. The grand story and the beautiful art are a large, large part of what pushes Sleeping Beauty to the seven spot on our list.

But, as you should know on this list by now, it all comes back to character on these Disney films. And Sleeping Beauty is no exception. As any film fan should know, a great plot can only get you so far, and Walt Disney certainly knew that. So much focus is put onto character here, as it is in any Disney film, and that’s what truly pushes it into the top 10. So, why don’t we get started?

And why don’t we start with our title character, the sleeping beauty, Briar Rose, AKA, Princess Aurora. (Let me emphasize again: Her name is NOT Sleeping Beauty.) Aurora, like Cinderella and Snow White, is a wonderful princess, full of pure heart and pure mind. She shares many similar characteristics, such as her connections with animals and her dreams of a greater life outside of the confines of her cottage that she grew up within. And all of these, again, like with Cinderella and Snow White, come together to create the classic Walt princess.

But also like the other two, Aurora has enough qualities to make her a unique character. To me, what stands out most about Aurora is her sheltered life. Her lack of knowledge about her true heritage actually creates a fascinating character, one that is humble, respecting the world around her and the “mothers” that raised her, yet a character that yearns for something greater. She wants to go out and meet people, find something larger than what she knows. Of Walt’s three princesses, Aurora probably shares the most similarities to the modern Princesses of Ariel and Belle, and I think that adds to what makes her interesting. The situation of the story forces Aurora to be a different character in Walt’s canon, and her pretty (apparently Audrey Hepburn inspired) character design, her lovely voice, and her sweet personality only bump Aurora up the Greatest Disney Princess list.

Of course, I should mention here that Aurora only appears in the film for about 18 minutes, certainly a short amount of time for a title character. But, as you watch the film, you don’t even realize that she is in it for that short of a time. Her presence is always felt, her character always on your mind. To me, that is truly the sign of a great character. She sticks with you despite her lack of screen time, and you push for Phillip to save her. You care for her. She is the film no longer than she needs to be, but she remains a very memorable character regardless, and that is a true success of writing.

The real protagonist of our story, in my opinion, is Prince Phillip, no doubt the greatest of the traditional Disney Princes. Phillip is charming, courageous, intelligent, and heroic, mainly, everything you could ask for in the Prince character of this film. What really makes him so likable is how he handles himself, how pure is own heart is presented, how perfect of a companion he becomes to Aurora. He would rather lose the throne by marrying a peasant girl than gain it by marrying a Princess. He risks his life escaping the dungeon and fighting Maleficent  to save the one dream he has, Aurora. He likes Aurora not because she is a princess, for most of the time, he doesn’t know, but because of the person she is (I guess the looks don’t hurt either). Already, all of this give Prince Phillip more character, and more likability and most of the Princes in the canon. I am a huge fan of Phillip, and he becomes one of my favorite parts of the film.

You may remember that in the Snow White review (or you may not remember, because I it was so long ago) that I mentioned many aspects of this film, like the dungeon escape, were intended for him, but fit the Prince Phillip character better. This is because that these daring escapes not only fit the story of Sleeping Beauty better, but also add much more to the Prince Phillip character. Even though it comes towards the end of the film, his reactions to Maleficent’s taunts and his escape from the castle, battling the minions of Maleficent, round out the character we’ve seen fall in love with Princess Aurora. And together it creates a well-rounded, and frankly, awesome Prince.

Ahh, but the real star of the show is none other than the villain of the piece, Maleficent. Perfectly voiced by Eleanor Audley, whom you may recognize as the sinister voice of Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, Maleficent is the most purely evil bad guy the Disney folk have ever created. She is evil to her core, and she is so much fun to watch. The script gives Maleficent so many fun lines and taunts, and Audley reads them perfectly each and every time. Watching Maleficent taunt Phillip about the Sleeping Beauty is a scene I could watch over and over again. Maleficent is always in consideration for one of the great villains of any medium, in my opinion.

Of course, the iconic scene, one of the all time great Disney scenes, is the moment where Prince Phillip and Maleficent have their final confrontation. The spells Maleficent casts, the thorns, the dragon transformation, and the iconic line “Now, shall you deal with me, oh Prince, and all the powers of HELL!” contribute to an unbelievable sequence. It’s bold, it’s striking, it’s imaginative, it’s epic, it’s emotional, it’s everything you want in a movie. It’s iconic for a reason.

Now, before we wrap up, we must conclude the character exploration. Probably the most important characters in the film are the three fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. All three bounce off each other great, and contribute some of the film’s best humor, including the iconic argument about the dress’ color. The trio of fairies help to drive most of the film’s plot, but they never feel convenient or contrived. Like the rest of the cast, their scenes come naturally. And just like the rest of the cast, their scenes are a blast to watch. Their distinct personalities are there for the world to see, and they are perfect magical counterparts to Maleficent’s dark magic.

Finally, we arrive at the kings, Stephan and Hubert, perfect counterbalances to each other. Stephan is wise, where Hubert is a little slow. Stephan and Hubert both share a concern for their children, and they both share a sense of seriousness. And yet, Hubert is much more of the party type, something he goads Stephan into getting into. These two characters are wonderful in their own ways, particularly Hubert, who contributes many funny scenes between himself and Phillip and Stephen. You also really feel for Stephen’s plight, having not seen his daughter for years, and you jump for joy when all is finally well.


The best scene is the final battle between Phillip and Maleficent. It’s bold, it’s striking… oh, I already said all this.

The best song is Once Upon a Dream. The melody is catchy and beautiful, and the sequence that goes along with it is beautiful in its own way. The lyrics added to the song only serve to enhance it, creating one of the classic Disney love songs.


There are two things I want to say.

The characters, style, and tone of Sleeping Beauty all help to create one of the most memorable films in Disney History.

And I’m glad to be back! Again!


2 thoughts on “Ranking the Disney Canon – 7: Sleeping Beauty

  1. Sleeping Beauty is indeed a memorable motion picture easily recognized by Disney fans worldwide. How the art is inspired by the medieval period, the memorable moments our cast provide, and how the music reflects on a classic orchestra further demonstrates how different this film intended to be. Even though it follows an all too similar ‘love at first sight’ trend, even though the actual ‘beauty’ is barely on set for long, and how the film seems to star mainly the fairies (Including Maleficent, whom I’ll get into later), it’s still has that timeless feeling. From the dance between the Prince & Aurora, the battle for the dress color in the cottage, and the ultimate battle between good & evil these essential moments show what makes a great Disney feature. And there is no doubt why Maleficent is the top Disney villain (If not ‘the’ symbol of Disney villainy) in history, how intimidating she can be, how eerily calm she is portrayed as she can be angered, and how her performance was so great she would eventually be featured in ‘Kingdom Hearts’ and her own movie (Which received some mixed reception from fans). Though there is certainly much of the film that could’ve been preferred, it’s still a beloved fairytale and it’s truly a wonderful film to watch.

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