by Taxi Browning
NOW LET US CONSIDER AURORA, how she is and how she is seen; the most mysterious and perhaps least-beloved of the ‘canonical’ Disney Princesses. The case against Aurora is familiar: she is passive, she is boring, she gets scant screentime, her role in the plot is only that of the MacGuffin, she is “asleep half the movie”, and especially that she is bland and has no personality or character. This is the fatal flaw for which Sleeping Beauty has been damned, since its original release in 1959, as static, stodgy, and insipid.
Some fans (teenaged girls mostly, of course, so completely ignored) have heroically attempted to rescue the film from this disdain, whether by straining to pull character meaning from her every glance and gesture, or, more commonly, by claiming that the three good fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather are the true protagonists. I find these arguments unconvincing (though charming), and would rather ask, “who cares about character anyway?”
Aristotle found six points to talk about in tragedy (later extended to all theater, and finally to all narrative art), and placed them in this order of importance: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Song, and Spectacle. The 19th Century reversed the positions of plot and character; in this as in so much else, we are all of us living unconsciously in the shadow of the Victorians. Time has only strengthened the position of Character as preeminent in fiction; it is ubiquitous in writing advice, even for genre writing where plot might be expected to hold its last territory. (“Character is plot, plot is character,” a supposed F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, is the usual squaring of this particular circle: the faith that once your characters are sufficiently stuffed with personality, the plot will emerge of itself.) Like much popular aesthetic advice it has been repeated back-and-forth like holy dogma, more and more stridently, until, by now, it has taken on a peculiar moral force: to deny the primacy of character now seems to be to deny the importance of human beings.
But this is hardly the only way to write a story; and even less is the only way to make a movie. In the early 20th Century, a few visionaries of the theater protested against the post-Ibsen naturalism which had exalted character above all. Antonin Artaud, the most electrifying of these polemicists, sneered, “I think both the theater and we ourselves have had enough of psychology.” His relentless campaign was in favor of the sensual aspects of theater–sights, sounds, movements, lighting, music–against the intellectual, literary aspects. I found an unexpected echo of these thoughts in the mumbled DVD commentaries of director John McTiernan for his masterpiece, Die Hard: “I found myself thinking of movies as musical structures. A lot of people think that they’re books, or print…It’s actually something that’s always bothered me about films–the print preoccupation.”
Throw away the idea of Sleeping Beauty as a character piece. Sleeping Beauty is not even a story; it is a pageant, it is a spectacle, it is a ballet. Everyone knows what’s going to happen before it begins; not just the audience but the characters too: Merryweather foretells the plot at the opening of the movie, and Maleficent’s magnificent taunting of Philip only works if she knows the fairy tale conventions she is ironizing. In the Making Of featurette on the DVD, the animators explain that they’d done the story of “Sleeping Beauty” already, in Snow White, so forget the story, make a show.
That’s what they did, that’s what Sleeping Beauty is. It is an abstract film, abstract as the design of the beautiful background paintings; it is sights and sounds above all else. In this it is different from all other Disney movies but Fantasia, or the Silly Symphonies. It is McTiernan’s musical structure, a musical painting, choreographed more than written. (In her book Hippo in a Tutu on dance in Disney, Mindy Aloff notes that though there is relatively little actual ‘dance’ in Sleeping Beauty, the ballet is implicit in the Tchaikovsky-based score and the characters’ sweeping movement.) We don’t ask a ballerina to create a 3-dimensional character, we ask her to move beautifully. We ask for beautiful design of stage and costume, and perfect integration with music: an audio-visual experience, not a narrative.
Aurora is as exquisitely drawn as one could imagine a character to be; animated at a rate of 1/3 of a second per day, her every movement is eloquent, every frame beautiful, even surpassing the other astonishing feats of draftsmanship in the movie, like Merryweather, Maleficent, King Hubert, and the squirrel, to name my favorites. Just watching her skirt twirl in “Once Upon a Dream” makes me want to cry. Mary Costa’s vocal performance, wordlessly singing with the birds as she walks through the forest, justifies Prince Phillip’s opinion: “that voice…too beautiful to be real.” She is not complex: just a romantic teenager, which is all the character she needs. Criticizing her for this simplicity is as silly as criticizing Eyvind Earle’s gorgeous background paintings for a lack of 3-dimensional modelling. We accept that they are appropriate to the film: based on the tapestries and illuminations of the period, filtered through the midcentury modernist aesthetic Earle shared with the great Mary Blair. Isn’t Aurora the same, a medieval fairy-tale maiden with just a touch of the 50’s teen?
And yet to consider her so seems not quite to capture the mystery, the strange elegance of Aurora, who is the central figure holding the choreography together, the key in which the music is composed. The film is drawn in terms of Aurora, her angular/arabesque linearity, not the soft roundness of the fairies or the caricature of the kings. She gives the movie its enchanted, modernist atmosphere; for Aurora is not just beautiful, she is otherworldly. Consider this character sketch, drawn quite late in the process–the same design as the movie, in every way, except that this drawing has a sort of approachable sweetness which is all wrong for Aurora. I think Prince Phillip was on the right track when speculating that Aurora was “some mysterious being” like a wood sprite. Aurora is gifted from birth by four fairies; her beauty and singing voice are literally supernatural. She grows up “in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her,” raised by immortals, far from any humans, strolling barefoot as an elf through magnificent primeval forests with a coterie of animal companions. In her long vertical aristocratic glamour she is more like Maleficent than like any human. Aurora is a demi-fairy, touched by the spirits, half outside this world. Don’t think of Sleeping Beauty as a ballet, if you please; think of it as a ritual. Think of her name, think of her sleep; she dies and is reborn, the sun returned in glorious dawn, dancing among the clouds. Think of her enchanted dress in its endless cycle between the pink of morning and blue of evening. Aurora is not a young woman with humanizing flaws, not a friend or a role model. She is an aspect of nature, the circles of the sun, the flow of the seasons; she is the Persephone of the Disneyland.
Taxi Browning blogs about women in avant-garde music at womenofnoise.tumblr.com.