Dreams, Tchaikovsky, and One Scene-Stealing Owl: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

I'm very excited to present my first post for Movie Movie Blog Blog's "One of My All-Time Favorite Cartoons" Blogathon, a dream for a girl who watches cartoons every day. I'm a hardcore Disney fan -- I've kind of lived and breathed it every day for the past 21 years now -- and oddly enough, I had been thinking about writing up pieces on Disney classics when magically Steve's blogathon popped up. And then I got so giddy that I chose two films, which couldn't be more different despite only three years separating their release dates: 1959's Sleeping Beauty and 1961's 101 Dalmatians. Are any of you as thrilled as I am to get started on this?! Probably not, but thanks for pretending.

It isn't a stretch to say that Disney has become a major part of pop culture. Everyone has heard of it, and I'll bet you everyone has seen at least one Disney movie. My family is composed of fanatics, so if you want to be super negative about the brand, please go elsewhere. I don't have time in my life to waste on hearing your complaints. I love Disney and I'm unashamed. Anyway, since the movies have become so embedded in our culture, it's probably silly for me to do my usual review. So, instead it's time for that old Love Letters favorite -- a list! Today I'll be telling you all that is wonderful about Sleeping Beauty, which is quite a lot so get ready.

1. The look of it.
Disney has made a lot of gorgeous movies, but none more so than the hand-drawn ones -- it's part of why I love their classic stuff more. Every frame would look stunning hanging on your wall, especially Sleeping Beauty. It has so many different textures to it which help it come alive, from the stone castle walls that look cold and rough to the touch to the finely thatched roof of the cottage to the remarkable trees. The detail in this film is just incredible and marvelously fills out the frame, making it a real feast for the eyes. The animators actually had a hard time blending the grand backgrounds with the more bland characters (bland in a good way!). Walt Disney was determined to keep the film rooted in a classical atmosphere, forcing his employees to cajole him into allowing more humor, such as the fairies and the drunk lute player. Blogger has a weird sizing system, so I couldn't make all my photos big enough to show the movie to its best advantage and still format it with the writing, but I tried. I'll let the screenshots speak for themselves:

2. Sequence 8.
Probably the most notorious moment from the movie is when Aurora and Phillip meet. We know it as the "Once Upon a Dream" scene, but its creators called it Sequence 8, and it was hands-down the most difficult part of production. Work on it clocked in at close to two years -- two years! Animator Don Bluth said, "They could only do, if they were really lucky, maybe eight
drawings a day. Eight drawings a day -- that's one drawing, one girl an hour, but 24 frames go by your eye in a second, so you need three days to make one second." Whoa! Want to know the sequence's final cost? 10,000 smackeroos. If you didn't appreciate Sleeping Beauty before, surely this has to make you re-think it. So much hard work and care went into every detail, it's simply mind-blowing.

Prior to learning these facts, though, Sequence 8 was always my favorite part. Aurora wistfully sings "I Wonder" as she roams the forest, waking up her animal friends who accompany her. Her voice echoes through the woods, reaching the ears of Prince Phillip. Charmed by what he hears, Phillip wants to find out where it's coming from, a suggestion that doesn't thrill his horse,
Sampson... until the promise of carrots and oats is mentioned. Sampson breaks into a fast gallop, accidentally throwing Phillip into a stream.

We cut back to Aurora as she confides to the animals that she's growing tired of her isolated life, and she doesn't understand why her aunts (the fairies) are so insistent on her keeping to herself. "But you know
something? I fooled them! I have met someone!" It may only be in her dreams, but hey, it works. Wanting to cheer her up, some of the animals spot the lucky appearance of men's attire hanging on a tree. Stopping to dry his clothes, Phillip is bewildered when the animals steal his things and he runs after them.

Aurora, meanwhile, is surprised at the sight of her
"dream man," which is really two rabbits in a pair of boots, a squirrel under a hat, and birds holding up an owl in a cape. It's weird and whimsical, Aurora dancing with the "prince" as she sings "Once Upon a Dream." Phillip watches in amusement before substituting himself in for the owl, a move that freaks Aurora out: "You're a, a..." "A stranger? But don't you remember? We've met before." "We, we have?" "Well, of
course! You said so yourself -- 'once upon a dream!'"

He reprises the song and beguiles Aurora into dancing with him. It's a gracefully elegant sequence that has yet to wear out its welcome, and every time it feels much too brief. You can watch some of it here.

3. The music.
When you're a kid, you could care less about classical music. For me, I would rather listen to *NSYNC than that boring stuff (still kinda true). But I have always been enchanted by the score of Sleeping Beauty, and it wasn't until I was older that I was able to appreciate its composer, Tchaikovsky. Because of this movie, I've sought out more classical music and I can count Tchaikovsky as my favorite. His music is incorporated so seamlessly into Sleeping Beauty, you almost can't believe it wasn't written for it. George Bruns did the best job in the world of rearranging the music to make it match the film. Special attention must also go to Jack Lawrence and Sammy Fain. You might recognize Fain's name -- he co-wrote many standards such as "I'll Be Seeing You," as well as scores for films like Calamity Jane, winning an Oscar for its ballad "Secret Love." Fain and Lawrence had originally written a Broadway-style score for Sleeping Beauty, but Walt Disney quickly realized that it wasn't the proper style for what the studio was trying to do. The only song of theirs that remained from this first score was "Once Upon a Dream."

4. Prince Phillip.
Just look at him -- what a cutie. Prince Phillip has a lot going against him, aside from the usual dragons and dungeons and stuff. Many people claim that the Disney princes pre-Little Mermaid are pretty blank and dull. This isn't helped by the influx of dreamy leading men like Tangled's Flynn Rider and The Princess and the Frog's Prince Naveen. (By the way, I'm fully aware I'm talking about fictional, animated characters and I probably sound insane. Just let me have this.) I've always had a soft spot for the original princes, though. The prince from Snow White was probably my first crush, his gorgeous voice crooning "One Song" still giving me goosebumps to this day. I know these guys aren't given much to do, their screen time deferred to the princess and her problems instead, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

This is where I feel like Phillip differs. He has an adorable relationship with his horse (which Frozen duplicated with Kristoff and his reindeer Sven); he gets a scene with his father where he joyfully tells him that he's defying tradition by planning to marry a peasant ("Father, you're living in the past! After all, this is the 14th century!"); he nervously goes to Aurora's cottage for a second meeting, only to be ambushed by Maleficent's goons; and he is tortured by Maleficent who reveals that she'll only release him once Aurora's 100 years of sleep are up, knowing that he will probably be dead before then because, well, logistics. Throughout it all, Phillip remains endearing and delightful. Plus, let's not forget that he succeeds in the end with the help of women, three of them in fact...

5. The fairies.
When people talk of Disney princesses, it inevitably comes down to "She's a damsel in distress! She relies on men! She's a bad role model for children!" All of which I think is really stupid and just fodder for people who love to stand on soapboxes. But that's a rant for another day, because for this post I just want to quickly touch on the overlooked fact that it's not actually the
prince who saves Aurora -- it's Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather. They figure out what's happened to Phillip, and they rescue him and make sure he stays safe from Maleficent's goons by turning their arrows into flowers and such. The fairies also fashion weapons out of magic for Philip so he can defeat Maleficent and wake up their beloved Aurora. What's especially important to note is when Maleficent becomes a
dragon and she traps the prince on the edge of a cliff. Fire engulfs the scene and Phillip is out of options, his swordplay no match for a huge, scary dragon... until Flora puts a spell on his sword: "Now Sword of Truth, fly swift and sure, that evil die and good endure!" Bam! The sword goes flying right into Maleficent's chest, where it's shot ambiguously enough that you're not sure whether Phillip threw the sword or the spell did. So yeah, the fairies are hardcore.

They're also a lot of fun to watch. They have a great dynamic, with Flora and Merriweather constantly bickering over who gets to be the boss, culminating in one of the best catfights out there as they argue over what color Aurora's new birthday gown should be. While Flora wants pink, Merriweather wants blue (agreed) so she changes the color without asking. They finally get so frustrated that they start magically dying each other's clothes, the music in sync with the tinkling sound of their spells until it crescendos with the gown in a mess.

Meanwhile, Fauna hums to herself and bakes a cake,
a delightful sequence that shows how completely clueless she is when it comes to non-magical things. "One tsp?" "One teaspoon!" "Oh, yes, of course!" The best is when she reads the ingredients and as she looks for the measuring cup, she repeats to herself "Cup, cup, cup, cup, cup..." This movie is so ingrained in my brain, every time I cook, I get Fauna in my head. Fun fact: Spring Byington was one of the models used as a reference for drawing the fairies.

6. Maleficent.
She may be the epitome of evil, but she's also really cool. I could totally be best friends with Maleficent. She has a raven for a pet, a spectacular sense of fashion, and a fierce personality. She's also a real stickler for good manners, a trait I can relate to. I'm not sure it was completely necessary for Disney to try to humanize her with the recent Angelina Jolie film -- just let Maleficent be a badass, guys. She kind of sort of does it really, really well.

7. The owl.
I'm obsessed with owls, and Sleeping Beauty doesn't help. Snow White may have squirrels and deer, Cinderella may have mice and birds, and Jasmine may have a tiger, but Aurora's got an owl. And he's adorable. If that doesn't sell the film to you, I don't know what else I can do. Weirdly, Wikipedia lists his name as Vernon, despite no one calling him anything in the movie. He's also the only owl, so it's not like a name was needed to differentiate him from another owl. Not sure if Wikipedia is to be believed on this one.

8. Sampson.
Cute animals are definitely Disney's thing. Phillip's horse Sampson is no exception. Whereas Phillip is curious and adventurous, Sampson would rather chill out and eat carrots. In that way, we can all relate to him. Although I certainly find chocolate a better motivator than carrots...

9. Aurora.
Yes, they named her after the dawn. And while she may not be the most exciting princess out there, I still like her. Disney could have dived into her character a lot more, but the company wasn't quite there. Plus, it took years and almost bankrupting the business for them to make the 75 minute finished project, so lacking in character development feels like a given. There are glimpses of what could have been, though, like the few scenes we get with Aurora and the fairies. They raised her secretly in the forest once she was cursed as a baby by Maleficent, and there's clearly a lot of love between them, demonstrated even before Aurora goes into her slumber and the fairies save her. It's simple, but effective, when Flora and Co. call Aurora "Rose," a shortened version of "Briar Rose," the nickname they used as she grew up in case Maleficent's spies overhead them.

Another quick look into Aurora's personality is right after she meets Phillip -- she realizes it's getting late and has to run home, leaving a stunned Phillip to yell after her "But when can I see you again?" "Oh, never! Never!" she replies. "Never?!" "Well, maybe someday!" "When, tomorrow?" "Oh no! This evening! At the cottage, in the glen!" It's surprisingly funny, and very reminiscent of Rear Window, when a hurt Grace Kelly tells boyfriend Jimmy Stewart that they won't see each other for a long time, "at least, not until tomorrow night!"

10. Its acknowledgement of its fairy tale origins.
It should come as no surprise that Sleeping Beauty is based on a fairy tale. (If you didn't already know this... spoiler alert?) Disney's version is a mix of the Grimm Brothers' story and French writer Charles Perrault's, all of whom were source material in 1950 for Cinderella as well. Another similarity to Cinderella is the film's opening and ending, which was also a technique used in Snow White: a fancy storybook is opened to reveal the film's narrative, with the help of a narrator who reads aloud. I enjoy this idea -- it's old-fashioned and quaint, and a strategy that is still used to this day, albeit without the bejeweled storybooks. By the way, could someone make these books a reality? They're amazing.

11. It's my favorite Disney film.
I'm definitely in the minority on this one, but what can I say? Everything I said above combines to make a seriously great film, one that gets overlooked by showier characters and more complex storytelling. If you don't like Sleeping Beauty, I can understand why, but I also think it doesn't hurt to give it another try, especially if you haven't seen it recently. Sit down, let the gorgeous music and imagery wash over you, and just have a good time with it.

With love,


  1. Nice post! "Sleeping Beauty" is not one of my Disney favorites, but you've certainly made me appreciate the hard work and artistry that went into it. Well done!

    1. That's all I wanted to do. Thanks for the comment!

  2. What a fabulous post! This is my favorite animated film by far. I love how Walt's artists used Renaissance paintings as inspiration. And Eyvind Earle's background work- swoon! I spend a lot of time ranting about how empowering the Disney Princesses are, so I love that you wrote about Aurora's role too. This film is actually feminist, seeing as how three (old, pudgy) women are the ones who save the day!

    1. Couldn't agree with you more! I always feel like breathing fire whenever people rant about the princesses. So happy to see there are others like me!

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Wow – great post! I had no idea animators averaged eight drawings a day, and that it would take that long to get one second of film. Your screencaps have given me a new sense of admiration for this film. You're right when you say each one could be framed and displayed.

    1. Animators really don't get their due, in my opinion -- so much incredible work and detail goes into these films, it can be easy to "oooh" and "aaah" and overlook what goes on behind the scenes. If I made you appreciate Sleeping Beauty just an ounce more, I did my job.


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