Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Talk to your kids about curses
A That's Not Canon Productions podcast
Hi there, and welcome back to Oof! Right in the Childhood. I’m Jen, and each week, I talk to you about the history of a different Disney animated feature film, then discuss it from a modern point of view. Today, we’re talking about 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, a movie about why you should talk to your kids about curses.
Sleeping Beauty isn’t nearly as old as the Cinderella mythos, only dating back to 14th century Britain. The work, Perceforest, and is often considered the genesis of the Arthurian legend. And though some are familiar with the Grimm version, again, not the one that Disney was drawing from, the Perceforest has some pretty dark themes.
Without getting into the whole story, a woman is in love with a hero, and while he’s away being a hero, she falls into an enchanted sleep. When he returns he, um, impregnates her and then goes off to be a hero again. Let’s not think too hard about the consent aspect of that.
Anyway, our heroine gives birth, still in an enchanted sleep, and the infant, attempting to nurse, draws a strand of flax from under her fingernail, thus waking her from her sleep. What does that have to do with Arthurian legend? Yeah, I have no idea. Feel free to tell me.
The version of Sleeping Beauty that Disney used was, again, written by Charles Perrault in 17th century France. Just because I did for Cinderella, I’ve linked to Perrault’s version of the tale. In his version, he kind of leaves out that whole premarital probably-rape thing. In fact, it’s a very barebones version of the tale that jumps from the birth of a princess to her 16th birthday to 100 years later when a prince finds her.
What I found really interesting about the Perrault version is that he doesn’t stop after the prince and princess fall in love, like Disney tends to. No, they go on to have two children in two years, a daughter and a son, and his mother, a queen descended from ogres tries to eat them and then throws herself into a vat of vipers and toads to be eaten. It’s a whole — thing. I’m pretty okay with Disney choosing only to tell half that story.
Sleeping Beauty might also be the film from the Silver Age that was the newest in Disney’s mind. Unlike the previous four films, Walt Disney first decided to make Sleeping Beauty in 1950. So this film didn’t go through the process of a startup in the 30s, a delay in the 40s, and a rebirth of the 50s.
As I mentioned earlier, he based the concept on the Perrault version of the story, but this time, he took it a little further. He included aspects of the Tchaikovsky ballet and from the Grimm Brothers’ traditionally darker themes. In fact, the princess’s name comes from the two of these.
Aurora is the name given to the princess in the ballet. This is actually Latin for Dawn, which is her daughter’s name in the original work. Then, the Grimm Brothers gave the story the name “Little Briar Rose” which the writers used for the princess in hiding. In fact, in the Perrault version, the prince simply arrives at the moment the spell is broken. It was the Grimm Brothers who gave us the idea of kissing her awake.
And for the first time, Disney gave the prince a name! The prince would be named Philip. Disney and Wikipedia claim that this was in recognition of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The problem with those claims is that the Prince’s name was Philip in the earliest drafts from 1950, and Philip formerly became a prince of England in 1957, so if this movie had been released on schedule, it wouldn’t have made sense as an homage. But if it hadn’t been delayed so many times, it probably would have played out perfectly. This might have been a situation where Disney’s retconned the name of the prince to get more publicity on it. Who knows?
And again, there was more technology in the works. A method called “Super Technirama 70” had just been developed where a typical 35mm film would be blown up to twice its size. This was considered the epitome of epic film making, and Walt Disney wanted to be considered epic, so immediately after demanding that they remake Lady and the Tramp [twice] for the Cinemascope process, Walt decided they’d make Sleeping Beauty in Super Technirama 70 making it, not the first animated movie made in this format, but the first movie ever released this way. In fact, only 23 movies were ever released in Super Technirama 70, including 1985’s Black Cauldron.
Walt put Wilfred Jackson in charge. He planned to release the film by the end of 1955. This was, obviously, not to be. Though the team had all of the dialogue recorded by 1953, Walt took one look at the initial test animation, threw it all out, and delayed the release. To him, the original looked too much like Cinderella. They’d used the same Rococo style in the original sequence, and Walt wanted something a little different.
Then Jackson had a heart attack and had to leave the project. Eric Larson took over and scheduled the release for February of 1957. It was during this time that another animator, John Hench first saw the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York. These seven massive tapestries date back to the 15th century and are possibly the best preserved medieval works at this time. Hench came back to the studio with pictures of the tapestries. He showed them to Walt who said, and I quote, “Yeah, we could use that style.”
I really can’t imagine being part of Walt Disney’s animation team. The capriciousness with which he made these kinds of decisions makes me wonder how every picture of them doesn’t have glasses of bourbon everywhere. Disney’s seemingly random decisions would definitely be the reason I drank.
So they put Eyvind Earle onto making the backgrounds for the film, but he left before the project was done. When Clyde Geronimi took over for Earle, he thought that Earle had made the backgrounds more important than the movie, so he softened them. The problem was that the rest of the animators had to match Earle’s style, and they kind of hated it. An unnamed character animator claimed that the cleanup animators were only producing one drawing a day, which is about a second of animation per month.
They brought in some new talent to speed up the process. No one major, just some guys named Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Don Bluth. Most only worked for a few months to a couple of years and left, but they dipped their toes in the Disney pool. Nonetheless, the release was delayed until Christmas 1957 then Christmas 1958, and finally, it was released in January 1959.
The final product cost the studio $6 million or $53.7 million when adjusted for inflation, which was more than the other releases of the 1950s, and it did really badly. Its first release only resulted in a box office of $5.6 million or $50 million, which was devastating.
As if the box office wasn’t bad enough, the New York Times said the art was beautiful, but felt like the story was too similar to Snow White. I mean, um, dwarves, dragons, they’re the same right?
Time magazine also panned the film saying it was too commercial and the art was cubist. That said, Variety loved its creativity and the music. It’s at this point, I’m seeing a little bit of a theme where the New York Times, Time Magazine, and Variety’s reviews were concerned.
Sleeping Beauty was nominated for a handful of awards and won none. It lost most of the nominations to Porgy and Bess.
For the first time in over a decade, Walt Disney productions filed a fiscal loss. As a result, dozens of animators were laid off, but the most significant repercussion of these losses was Walt’s decision to stop producing fairy tales. He determined the American public wasn’t interested, and the company would not release another “princess story” until The Little Mermaid thirty years later.
However, like most Disney films, the story of Sleeping Beauty doesn’t end here. Though Walt Disney died believing the film was a failure, it was rereleased in 1970, 79, 86, and 95 which resulted in a much better reception. Based on those releases, the movie actually has a lifetime box office gross of $51.6 million, or wait for it, $623.56 million when adjusting for inflation. That makes it the second most successful rerelease behind Ben Hur and one of the top 30 highest earning films of all time.
Finally, last year, in 2019, Sleeping Beauty was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as they considered to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
So the question is, what was it that the 1950s audiences hated so much, that later audiences applauded? After this short sponsor break, we’ll dive into my impressions of the film and see if I can figure it out.
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Of all the early Disney movies I’ve seen, this is the one I’ve seen the least. For some reason, we didn’t own a copy, and I only had one friend who did. She also had a Nintendo, so it was a choice between playing Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt, or watching Sleeping Beauty when we were together.
Was that the most Xennial phrase ever said or what?
For those who don’t know, the Sleeping Beauty theme is actually the Sleeping Beauty Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. I grew up listening to chamber music, see also, the many references I make to my dad being a band director, but I think this is the first time I really knew that a piece was considered “classical.” Well, it was that or “Kill the Wabbit.” Incidentally, I played the Sleeping Beauty waltz when I was in high school orchestra, and it was probably the one song we played that everyone could just hum without learning the music first. That’s the importance of classical music in cartoons.
The beginning of the movie is a set of illuminated manuscripts which I had completely forgotten about. Again, because my family didn’t own this movie, I feel like I saw this movie in snippets while also playing Barbies or something. Royals file into the castle and sing “Hail to the princess.”
Aw Prince Phillip is just a button. Phillip’s like um 10, and he’s giving a present to his future bride. Ah, the Middle Ages.
The fairies drift down from a sunbeam. Mistresses Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. In the Perrault version, there were seven fairies all invited with custom place settings, and the eighth fairy didn’t get invited because most people thought she’d died from old age. You know, the way you wanted that to go.
Anyway, our three fairies are denoted by the colour of clothing they wear. Flora wears red, Fauna wears green and brown, and Merryweather wears blue. I always loved how they could change size to befit their surroundings.
Each of the fairies may give the child one magical gift. If I were those fairies, I’d be like, “She’ll be healthy and never fall ill. No one will raise arms against her kingdom, and she’ll be a wise, thoughtful leader who will never give her subjects a reason to hate her.” That’s why I’m not a medieval fairy.
Flora gives the child beauty. Yeah, that’s a thing she’ll need. She’s already engaged to a 10-year-old. We get a song about how pretty the unseen infant will be.
Fauna grants the gift of song. Again, there are so many more useful traits to give her to, you know, rule a kingdom, but okay, she can carry a tune.
Merryweather starts to say what her gift will be when the doors blow open and the music tells us that evil is here. Maleficent arrives in a green flame with a raven. Of everything in Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is, hands down, the most iconic. Actually, the Silver Age villains are all pretty epic. You have Hook, Peter Pan, Cruella DeVille — that’s your hint to tune in next week — but I do kind of see where the reviewers were going with the “It’s too similar” critiques.
I mean, we have fairies, Cinderella had a blue fairy that’s not unlike Merryweather. We have villains with high-collared robes. The Evil Queen from Snow White could be Maleficent’s sister. We have an enchanted sleep being broken with a kiss — but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Maleficent has horns which I didn’t understand as a kid. Honestly, I’ve watched the Angelina Jolie movies, and I don’t understand it any more than I did.
None of the fairies like Maleficent. She calls them quaint rabble. I don’t blame them.
Merryweather tells Maleficent she wasn’t wanted. Like, keep your mouth shut. And then, in a move I don’t think I’d ever noticed, the Queen calls her “Your Excellency.” In the reboots, she’s the queen of the Moors, but that’s a little detail that begs the question, who does a Queen call, “Your Excellency?”
Maleficent’s like, “No, I’m not offended by you not wanting me here, I’ll give the tiny defenseless child who had absolutely nothing to do with that decision a curse that will kill her.” Okie dokie. That’s a little much for not being invited to look at a cradle.
The king tells his spearmen to seize the woman who came in with a flame, and they just stand there looking afraid of her. I mean, that’s a choice.
Merryweather says she’s pretty sure she can’t undo the whole curse thing, but now the princess will sleep until woken by true love’s kiss. Because to quote the song, “Love conquers all.”
Okay, so this king’s actions are so confusing to me. He has 16 years to handle the spinning wheel thing, and he orders everyone burn their spinning wheel that day. Like, what were his subjects supposed to do? This is clearly in the high middle ages, and you couldn't just go out and buy thread. You had to spin it. What compensation did the spinners get for never being allowed to use their trade? I mean, that’s a pile of thousands of spinning wheels to protect one princess.
You know what would have made a lot more sense? Introducing this kid to spinning wheels as soon as she was old enough and being like, “So, hey, there’s a curse, and this spindle thing? You can’t touch it.” Talk to your kids, folks. It’s way better.
Instead, the King burns thousands of people’s livelihoods, and the fairies are like, “That’s not going to help,” while they’re still burning. So, that was a whole bunch of wasted effort. Merryweather is my fairy. “Turning her into a fat toad would make me happy. “
The fairies try to think of ways to circumvent the curse. Flora wants to turn her into a flower. Because flowers don’t have fingers and therefore can’t prick them. Flowers also can’t talk to their parents and give them the joy of welcoming a child after years of trying. Like, okay, this curse was only supposed to come into effect on her sixteenth birthday. They could have turned her into a flower for like 72 hours. That would’ve worked!
Merryweather’s like “But Maleficent will send a frost.” Again, they could have fixed that by doing the flower ploy for a very short amount of time.
In this scene, the fairies are in a little golden box with golden dishes and flatware, and my first thought was that these were like gifts for the princess. The baby dishes that well-meaning aunts give parents who are then afraid to use them, but now that I’ve stared at it for 10 minutes thrashing the idea of turning an infant into a flower, I wonder if this is a reference to the Perrault story where each of the fairies received a custom set of gold cutlery set with diamonds and rubies.
Flora goes off on a tangent that reminds me of me having a random idea. She’s decided they’ll take the princess to the abandoned woodcutter’s cottage and raise her as three peasant women. Again, this curse only takes affect on Aurora’s sixteenth birthday. Even as a child, this plan made no sense. Like, keep the kid, tell her spinning r wheels are bad, tell her about the curse, then on her 16th birthday, keep her safe. How is this hard?
Merryweather’s like, “Can we not?” but Fauna’s totally in on it. She just wants to cuddle the baby. “Live like mortals for 16 years?” Again, no, this is a terrible idea.
I want to review with you what this must have been like for these parents. In the beginning of the movie, it says this royal couple had been trying for a baby for years. In the Perrault story, it says they’d traveled to every country, made pilgrimages to holy sites, and tried every medicine. So this couple had been wanting a baby for way longer than was comfortable.
They finally find a way to have a child, and that infant is taken from them immediately. I just cannot imagine. I would have made any choice but this one.
“The kingdom knew that, as long as Maleficent’s domain thundered with frustration, her evil prophecy had not been fulfilled.” Again, it shouldn’t be fulfilled until the princess’s 16 birthday.
It’s at this point, I went back and listened to the curse. “The princess shall indeed grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her. But before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.”
My entire life, I have been convinced that this kid would prick her finger on her 16th birthday, but I guess that could also be interpreted to mean “at any time before her 16th birthday.”
And now I’m like. Okay, so Merryweather fixed this to be an enchanted sleep broken by true love’s kiss, but could we have pricked an infant’s finger and then had her parents kiss her? These people who wanted a baby for so long had to have true love for her.
I know, that would make a super short story and eliminates the need to marry her off.
Meanwhile, back at the evil castle, Maleficent has, um a pig army? Who’s been looking for Aurora for 16 years. It’s not been going well.The pigs have been looking in the cradles. They didn’t consider that she wouldn’t be an infant forever.
Okay, so to fix this, she sends the raven out to find a maid of 16 years with hair of sunshine gold and lips as red as a rose, and okay — the princess is 15 because her 16th birthday hasn’t come, and how does she know what she’ll look like? King Stefan had brown hair. She could’ve had brown hair. Whatever.
We’re at the woodcutter’s cottage, which has holes in its roof because, in the last 16 years, they haven’t learned how to do anything ever. Ah, it is her 16th birthday, so the raven is looking for a 16 year old.
The fairies are going to make Aurora a dress. Based on what I know is about to happen, they’ve never made a dress, but they’re going to make this stunning off the shoulder piece and just “add a few pleats,” which contrary to how they make it sound is the opposite of the easiest thing to do.
Aurora overhears them getting on about making her a surprise and is like okay, I’ll pick berries. Whatever.
Fauna’s never made a big cake, but she’s going to make this one 15 layers with pink and blue forget-me-nots. I mean, go make a 4 layer cake without any practice and consider how this is going to turn out.
Merryweather’s like, “this is a terrible idea. You’ve never sewn, she’s never cooked.”
And watching them make this dress and cake without ever sewing and cooking before gives me as much anxiety as the Mad Hatter putting jam in a pocket watch.
They cut a hole in the middle of the fabric to be the bottom of the dress. They said they were following a book. What book?!?
Fauna, meanwhile tries to fold in the eggs by placing whole eggs in the dough and folding it. I think the writers of Schitt’s Creek remembered this scene for the “fold in the cheese” saga.
Merryweather is now in the worst dress ever made while still in her own dress, mind you, and says, “It looks awful,” and Flora’s like, “That’s because it’s on you, dear.”
These women are something.
Fauna adds salt and pepper to the cake batter that does not resemble cake batter.
They do seem to genuinely love the princess, though. They cry that she’ll be leaving them. It’s very touching.
Aurora walks through the middle of the forest singing and a bluebird mimics her. We have the Disney princess attracting wildlife trope.
A handsome man on a horse hears the singing and says, “What is it?” like he’s never heard someone sing in the forest before. Actually, that’s a good point, you don’t tend to hear hauntingly beautiful singing in the forest at random.
The horse gets really into finding the singing and throws him into the river by accident.
Aurora sings about how every bird has someone to love, as she takes a twig from a single owl. Ouch.
She wants to meet someone and the owl keeps asking “Who?”
Aurora says she’s met someone in her dreams. It’s kind of sad, really. She’s met no one more than the fairies.
In the middle of this, Squirrel sees a cloak and hat drying on a tree and decides that all the animals should steal it and boots and pretend to be her prince. Because that’s healthy.
She thinks it’s cute. She sings this song about seeing the prince in her dreams. And the man appears from the bushes and kind of spies on her for a bit. Hmm I don’t think I’ve ever noticed she doesn’t wear shoes.
So dude sneaks up behind her and cuts in on her dancing without her knowing it. She’s like, “Dude, bro, you can’t just sneak up on a gal like that, oh well, let’s dance anyway.”
He asks her name, and she suddenly realizes she does not know this dude. “When will I see you again?” “Never.” “Tomorrow?”
Okay, man, that’s a step down.
And she’s like, “Okay, tonight at the cottage in the glen.” There’s only one, I guess.
I have to say, Fauna’s cake turned out way better than expected. Like, a 15 layer cake isn’t exactly able to stand up on its own anyway. For a first try, it looks pretty good, despite the fact that she has to bolster it with a broom, and their kitchen looks like there’s been a war.
Oh my god, that cake hasn’t been baked. Oh dear.
The dress, on the other hand, is a monstrosity.
Merryweather’s known where the wands were the whole time. That’s self control I’m not sure I’d have. She casts the Sorcerer’s apprentice spell on the bucket, mop, and broom to clean up. Magic dressmaking looks amazing, y’all.
Fauna’s completely given up. She tells the ingredients to read the cookbook themselves.
I love how the broom makes a huge pile of dust and Merryweather just vanishes it. Again, they don’t seem to need to bake the cake batter. Raw eggs are bad for you.
Flora and Merryweather get into a fight about what colour the dress should be, and this scene has always been my favourite, even if it does alert the raven to their whereabouts.
They hide to make what has to be the biggest surprise party ever as they couldn’t sew or cook before.
But Rose ruins everything by telling the fairies she’s in love which then leads to them telling her the whole story, betrothal and all. And the Raven hears everything. Okay, but the thing is, she needs true love’s kiss to wake her, and though they’re not planning on her to fulfil the curse, but it would be useful for her to have a true love to fall back on. Really, it was quite lucky that she met the man in the forest.
Again, they’re taking her back to her father tonight. The curse breaks tonight. Why not tomorrow?
The kings are hanging out waiting for Aurora to appear.
Philip’s dad has already built them a honeymoon castle. Forty bedrooms, dining hall, nothing too elaborate. Gosh that sounds lovely.
He’s decided they’re getting married tonight. And again, we have a family who tried for years for a baby, haven’t seen that baby in 16 years, and she will be married off that night. Again, at 16. I know, I know, that was normal but eugh.
King Hubert gets all offended that Aurora would maybe like to know she’s a princess more than 3 hours before she gets married. But they’re good friends in the end.
And they’re talking about carving a royal cradle like right now. It’s actually pretty insensitive to an infertile couple to assume that this new couple is gonna get pregnant right away. Sorry y’all, this one’s hitting me in all the infertility feels.
Philip rides up, and maybe a surprise to the viewer, it’s the man from the forest! Of course, you and I know that, but I have no idea if OG audiences would have figured that out or if this was a surprise.
Philip’s in love with a girl he met at random. Poor King Hubert. This is a tough sell to Middle Ages royalty. “Now father, you’re living in the past. This is the 14th century.”
Philip riding off to find the girl he loves is actually the thing that saves everyone here. Hubert better apologize.
The fairies sneak Aurora into the castle in a giant cloak. I can’t imagine how she must be feeling. This one’s a tough sell.
They conjure her a crown, and realizing she’s doomed to marry her betrothed instead of the one she loves, which she doesn’t know is the same person, she cries, and the fairies leave her alone. Nope, sorry, she can be sad with them for a little longer. She can cry after nightfall.
Maleficent conjures a green will o’ the wisp and opens a hidden chamber. I guess this is an enchantment of some sort because she can’t help but follow it. It becomes a spinning wheel which further cements that King Stefan didn’t need to destroy his spinning guild after all.
There’s just so many plot holes here. They could’ve had the party the next day. Bringing her to the castle the day the curse breaks was really dumb.
Meanwhile, the fairies have put her to bed, and haven’t told anyone that they failed. Oh, Flora doesn’t think they should. They’ll just put thousands of people to sleep instead of owning up to it. Everyone sleeps on their feet. Cool.
So, here’s the thing with Sleeping Beauty’s music. It’s really pretty, but there’s literally one song I know by heart. I keep being surprised every time there’s a new song.
At least Merryweather knows to put out candles before putting everyone to sleep.
As King Hubert falls asleep, he mumbles about Philip falling in love once upon a dream, and Flora realizes that Aurora and Philip are in love after all! They have to tell him.
As Philip knocks on the door, the cottage looks exactly like Snow White’s cottage.
Maleficent is waiting for him. The pig goblin minion things tie him up before the three fairies make it back.
Like, Philip’s already had more involvement in this story than both the other princes combined. Good on him.
Maleficent’s castle is straight up terrifying. They’re having a creepy ass party around a green flame while Philip is locked in the dungeon. Like, I don’t know why she wouldn’t just kill Philip instead of being like, “You could be a hero.” It’s like she wants to be thwarted.
The fairies fought about the dress colour, and Aurora’s dress ended up blue before she fell asleep. But her dress is pink in all current depictions. I guess Flora won after all.
So, Maleficent’s plan is to keep Phillip until he’s super old then let him wake Aurora? I guess to make him miserable as well? Like seriously, what did he do to her? I know that the Maleficent movies have retconned this, but I think that’s because her motivations are just pure evil here. There’s no other reason.
The Raven catches them breaking Philip out. At least they thought to give him a sword and board before they did.
Y’know what? This might be the most content-dense Disney movie to this point. I wonder if that’s why people didn’t like it?
They pig goblin things throw boulders, but the fairies turn them to bubbles. Arrows turn to flowers. Boiling oil is — stopped by a rainbow. Merryweather turns the crow into a gargoyle. Maleficent missed the whole escape. What do you do when the person you didn’t kill successfully twarts you? Cover the castle in thorns and turn into a dragon, of course!
“Now you shall deal with me, o Prince, and all the powers of Hell.” Wait, what?
Luckily princes in the 15th century were given battle training and fairies.
The Maleficent dragon is way cooler looking that Maleficent. But it turns into an oil smudge on the ground and clears up all the thorns. Don’t know why it didn’t lift the sleeping curse. That would’ve made sense. Maybe because that was done by Merryweather.
And the prince kisses her and everyone wakes up. I think this took like a couple hours? I guess it’s better than a hundred years.
A beautiful family reunion! King Hubert is so confused. In his perception, his kid ran off to marry a peasant like 10 minutes ago, and now he’s here with the princess all happy and dancing. Seems legit.
Oh, I just love happy endings. Oh there goes Flora changing the dress colour again. Sigh.
So, I looked hard for that “Oof! Right in the childhood,” moment, and really, the most argumentative things in this movie are that Philip kisses Aurora while she’s sleeping, and that’s non-consensual. But if he didn’t, she’d have stayed asleep. Maybe the problem is that the spell is written to be non-consensual?
But all-in-all this movie is the least objectionable Disney film yet. There’s very little sexism. No animal cruelty, unless you count the slaying of the Maleficent dragon. I mean, maybe it’s because this comes right after Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, maybe it’s because I didn’t immerse myself in this one as a child, but I just don’t have an “Oof!” moment.
So, why don’t you come tell me yours? I’d love for you to pop on my social media and tell me that problematic moment you never noticed as a child. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at oofmychildhood or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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