(Many, many, many thanks to Tony Dayoub for the screen captures.)
I've often expressed my admiration for Sleeping Beauty, extolling it as one of the greatest animated films of all time, and certainly the greatest thing that Walt Disney's studio ever produced. This is an opinion that's often been met with befuddlement: people don't "get" my "Sleeping Beauty thing", and they wonder how on Earth could anyone champion this film above all others? Frankly, I'm about as befuddled: I can't imagine anyone not liking it. It is animation, and thus cinema, at its pinnacle.
To start with, there's the aspect ratio: 2.55:1, wider than wide. Every composition emphasizes the very horizontal-ness of the frame, whether it's tracking movement from left to right--
-- or creating moods both romantic and gloomy via the use of negative space--
-- or staging some of the most thrilling action sequences to ever be animated.
Notice how Maleficent and her flames move diagonally across the frame, pushing Prince Philip into one corner or the other. It's still very much a horizontal composition, but the injection of the vertical adds a sense of danger. Vertical movement in the film's widescreen world is upsetting and tumultuous; it's no coincidence that this frame of the post-spindle Briar Rose, intended to shock, is fundamentally vertical:
Whereas this more peaceful frame finds her horizontal:
Horizontal, but also somewhat flat. It is, to my eye, an appealing flatness, one that reoccurs through-out the film and gives it the stylized, illuminated manuscript vibe that I also find incredibly, breathtakingly, astonishingly beautiful.
And there are some who will grant me the film's formal pleasures, even go as far as to admit that it's eye-popping, but that the film lacks for "heart" or that's it is pretty but lifeless, empty. Not up to par, they say, with the True Classics. And, again, I can't really see what they're talking about; this is a film that's absolutely bursting with life.
This, after all, is the only Disney film with a charming prince who had any kind of identifiable personality. Watch the scene with Phillip and Samson again and tell me that he's just another handsome, stuffed-shirt cipher like the rest. Maleficent, for her part, is a villain with real teeth, tall and black and imperious, dripping with sadistic sarcasm and cruel menace. The climax is the liveliest that Disney's got, and also the scariest-- "Now you shall deal with me, oh prince, and all the powers of Hell!" is a line that still gives me chills down my spine.
The three fairies do their part to provide comic relief, though for me the real chuckles come from the two kings, a servant, and a bottle of wine. That scene is as loose and gangly and joyous as the hand-washing and "The Silly Song" sequences in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (classic Disney at its best always having ample room for long digressions where nothing much actually happens). And like the best of the Disney canon, the story unfolds not in bite-sized little montages and unit-like scenes but in longer sequences that possess a real sense of flow and that allow the characters to interact with one another. The illusion of life, in this case perfected with a formal elegance and stylistic flavour that none of the other Disney films ever attempted to match. That's not to slag the other great Disney films-- count me as an ardent fan of the studio's earliest features-- but rather to point out that they all have a certain look, a certain feel, in common, yet there's nothing that looks or feels like Sleeping Beauty.
It's funny, thrilling, sad, dark, stylized, daring, slender, austere, loose, and gorgeous. A masterpiece of cinema both in terms of visual splendor and storytelling. The last truly great Disney film, the absolute peak of American hand-drawn animation.