Monday, September 15, 2003

Disney's Sleeping Beauty ("Girlfriend in a Coma")

"Sleeping Beauty" is not the most promising of fairy-tale plots. It involves a young princess who is cursed by an evil fairy: On her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, then fall into a deep sleep until her true love wakes her with a kiss. What happens next depends on which version you consult. In the original 13th-century tale, the princess sleeps for a hundred years until the right prince comes along. In the Walt Disney film, the princess has met her true love shortly before the Big Prick (thus calling attention to their weird arranged marriage), and her betrothed -- a.k.a. "Little Prick" -- rescues her after only a few hours. In the Rocky and Bullwinkle version, Prince Charming decides not to wake her up, and builds a theme park around her instead. Then there's that eighties song, "Girlfriend in a coma / I know, I know, it's serious." In the end, what can you say about a woman whose greatest achievement is simply waking up?

Well, she's the nominal protagonist of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, now out on DVD. The film's six-year production schedule and budget of over $6 million, adjusted for inflation, might make it the most expensive and labor-intensive cartoon of all time. It was first released in 1959 as a stupendous, 70-millimeter widescreen spectacular, and like most Big Hollywood movies of this time, it comes across as overproduced kitsch today. In the tradition of early widescreen films, the direction is static and uninvolving, with stagy, long-distance shots. Close-ups, which might create audience involvement, are avoided like the plague; it's almost as if Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray had never figured out how to convey emotion with the wider frame.

The score, derived entirely from Tchaikovsky's ballet, comes with a million rippling strings and an unintelligible mixed chorus. Despite its strenuous efforts to merge classical music and popular entertainment, it's only a faint echo of the cultural coup Disney pulled off two decades before with Fantasia. Alas, the highbrow pandering doesn't end there. Backgrounds and characters are painted in the sharp, angular style of medieval illuminated manuscripts; character movements were modeled closely on ballet dancers. Disney clearly wants us to see Sleeping Beauty as Classic Art, but it doesn't make the grade.

The plot is a treasure trove of moronic fairy-tale cliches, with more holes than half-eaten gruyere. Bad-movie fans will be delighted to discover that all the characters are irredeemably stupid: Our narcoleptic heroine is the kind of blonde who inspires dirty jokes, her parents (natural and surrogate) are guilty of child neglect and reckless endangerment, and the handsome Prince Charming can't so much as tie his shoelaces without the good fairies' help. Yet when the evil witch Maleficent turns herself into a big black dragon, the animation kicks into high gear and the action becomes, for a few minutes, genuinely thrilling. It's a great climax -- and would be even better, I suspect, if I gave a damn about any of the characters.

Widescreen and fullscreen transfers on the DVD, along with some of the special features, have been lifted wholesale from the 1997 video and laserdisc editions. The best new feature is "Grand Canyon," a widescreen short which played with Sleeping Beauty on its original release. It's a twenty-nine minute montage of nature footage set to Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite. Despite its painful pretension -- or more likely because of it -- this short won an Oscar in 1959. The French New Wave came not a moment too soon.

The only advantage to seeing Sleeping Beauty on DVD, is that you'll be able to skip the first hour (when the dimbulb princess sings to birdies and squirrels) and go straight to the dragon. It's worth at least a rental to see that beastie snap and snarl. But from the rest of the film, good Lord deliver us.

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