Saturday, February 23, 2013

Mulan, a Feisty Fighting Heroine

Mulan Takes Charge and Fools All the Guys

Mulan's Origins

Mulan has become quite famous recently for an ancient Chinese legendary figure. To wrench an analogy, she is the Joan of Arc of China and has achieved similar fame in the West. Mulan has her own Disney animated feature film "Mulan" (1998), is a recurring star in the ABC tv series "Once Upon a Time," and a sequel to the first film, "Mulan II" (2005). Mulan's roots, obviously go much deeper than that, way back to ancient China, in fact.
Mulan ancient depiction
10th Century Depiction of Mulan by Zhou Wenju

Hua Mulan

Hua Mulan is known from "The Ballad of Mulan," a poem whose origins are lost in the mists of history. "Mulan" is translated to mean "Magnolia." Her last name varies according to the source, but is usually considered either Wei,, Hua or Zhu. It was first written down for posterity in the 6th century in a document called "Musical Records of Old and New," but undoubtedly had been told and retold for centuries before that. That book itself was lost, but fortunately the poem itself was copied into another book, Guo Maoqian's "Music Bureau Collection" from about five centuries later.
A traditional Chinese image of the Mulan story

"The Ballad of Mulan" is composed of phrases of similar numbers of characters, varying from five to nine, and each line has different numbers of syllables. It is the basis of a later novel during the Ming Dynasty, and is considered a classic folk tale in China. It is fairly short and to the point and not very "poetic" in a simplistic rhyming sense, and later versions invariably flesh out the story according to their own tastes and needs. For instance, there is no romance in the original ballad, but that is a staple of later versions, especially the Disney one.

Shan Hu Mulan 1927
Shan Hu as Mulan in Li Pingqian's 1927 version

Early Chinese Films

Disney was not the first to make about this Chinese legend. Several Chinese films were produced before and during World War II. "Hua Mulan Joins the Army" (1927), "Mulan Joins the Army" (1928) and "Mulan Joins the Army" (1939). These films were very inspirational to the people of China at a time when their homeland was under attack and they needed national heroes, especially one who went out of her way to defend her country like Mulan.
Poster "Woman General Mulan" 1964
Poster for the 1964 version

A more elaborate operatic film was produced in Hong Kong in 1964, "Woman General Hua Mulan," directed by Feng Yueh. It starred Ivy Ling Po as Mulan and Han Chin as General Li. This classic film is considered by many to be closer to the original story than Disney's later film. It is presented in the form of a traditional Chinese Opera, complete with dancing and singing, though it is not restricted to a stage format and has different sets. It is a serious, adult view of Mulan without anything watered down as in the 1998 Disney film. Instead of a dragon as companion, Mulan has a cousin who helps her to maintain her facade. The idea of sacrificing oneself for the good of the nation was a popular one at the time in Communist China, and this Hong Kong production catered to that spirit.
Ivy Ling Po Mulan
Ivy Ling Po as Mulan

The 1998 Disney Version

Disney took the ancient Chinese legend and, as is usually the case when Disney tackles a classical character, added standard crowd-pleasing elements: a wacky animal sidekick, funny fellow soldiers, and, most importantly, a romance.

Mulan: Everybody's Favorite Cross-Dresser

DVD cover Mulan 1998

Patriotism knows no gender, and "Mulan" (1998), directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, portrays a young woman determined to help her country by fighting for it. While no princess, the title character Mulan is usually included with that select group of Disney characters. "Mulan" is based on a Chinese legend (set forth in the traditional Chinese poem "The Song of Fa Mu Lan,") of a story that seems to occur in many other countries as well - that of the plucky female who disguises herself as a male to achieve her unconventional ends. Mulan is a very popular character who remains highly visible in the Disney universe, currently appearing as a regular character in the ABC television series "Once Upon a Time."
DVD disc Mulan 1998
The Mulan DVD - as usual for Disney DVDs, brilliant artwork

In ancient China, the government mobilizes the citizenry to combat an invasion by the dreaded Huns. Each family must provide one male member. Fa Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh), the only male in his family, is too old to serve, so his tomboy daughter, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), disguises herself as a male named "Ping" to take his place. Fa Zhou prays to his ancestors, who provide the small dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy) as Mulan's adviser and protector.
Yao, Ling, Chien-Po Mulan 1998
The "Trio" of Yao, Ling and Chien-Po

Joining troops headed by Li Shang (B.D. Wong, singing by Donny Osmond), Mulan becomes a competent warrior. Mushu arranges for the troops to be ordered into the mountains in relief of General Li, who is Li Shang's father. There, they find that General Li and his troops have been destroyed. The Hun ambush Li Shang's troops as they try to leave, and only Mulan's use of a rocket to start an avalanche saves them.
Mushu Mulan 1998
Mushu the mighty!

Mulan is wounded in the battle, and her gender is revealed during treatment. Li Shang does not execute her for being an imposter as required, but leaves her on the mountain. After everyone else leaves, Mulan sees that many Hun were not killed in the battle and remain a threat to the Emperor.
Mushu in Mulan 1998
Mushu at work

Mulan goes down to the Imperial City to warn Li Shang, but he ignores her. The Huns attack and capture the Emperor (Pat Morita), barricading themselves in the palace. Mulan devises a strategem for Yao (Harvey Fierstein), Ling (Gedde Watanabe) and Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo) to enter the palace disguised as concubines and defeat the Huns with Li Shang's troops.
Mulan fighting Mulan 1998
You go, girl!

Mulan challenges the Hun leader, Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer), onto the roof for a single combat. Mushu, meanwhile, is ready with rockets and fires them when Shan Yu is in the right spot on the roof, killing him. Everybody honors Mulan for her service, but one question remains for her: will she ever find true love?
Mulan and Mushu Mulan 1998
Mulan picking up Mushu

"Mulan" is a heroic tale of valor and wit. By breaking the rules, Mulan spares her unfit father from having to serve in the military, and her own military sense enables the Chinese to defeat the Hun. Everybody can feel good about the character, as she goes to extreme lengths to do the right thing for her family and the country.
Mulan holding hand to Li Shang Mulan 1998
Grab hold!

A high point of the film for many is the music. Jerry Goldsmith wrote the score, while Matthew Wilder and David Zippel contributed five songs. Former Mouseketeer Christina Aguilera was a featured singer and did a wonderful job, kick-starting her career as a pop star. "Reflection" was the big hit from the show. Lea Salonga, who previously sang as Princess Jasmine in "Aladdin," did the singing for Mulan. Donny Osmond also performed a song that many like, "I'll Make a Man Out of You."
Mulan and Mushu Mulan 1998
Mulan with Mushu

The animation is wonderful, as always the case with Disney Animation Studios products. Several new techniques had to be developed to portray the crowd scenes shown in the film. A sort of precursor to true 3D, a technique called "faux plane," added depth to several shots in s subtle way.
Reading in garden Mulan 1998
Mulan at home in garden

Not everybody is in love with this film. Some do not find the songs particularly memorable, despite (or perhaps because of) Aguilera's trademark heady vocals (and you can blame "Mulan" for Aguilera's entire career, for that matter).

The story is a bit trite, with the plucky girl who naturally turns out to be a better strategist than any man, and it is not as if the outcome is going to be any great mystery. You would think that with a total of 30 (!) writing credits that the script would have been better.
Mulan in partial shadow Mulan 1998
Mulan, woman of mystery

There are those who think the whole idea of a female having to pretend to be a male in order to succeed is insulting to females, but the story is what it is, it is a historical legend and not something that Disney just made up based on market research or something like that. "Mulan" adds yet more proof to the growing stack that you just can't please everyone.
Demonstrating swordplay Mulan 1998
I can do anything you can do better

Mulan has become an iconic figure for many, a symbol of heroism and determination. The voice actors are all excellent, with Eddie Murphy a stand-out as Mushu. Many top Asian-American actors were used for the English voice work, and Jackie Chan voiced Li Shang in the Chinese version and sang a song as well.
Mulan and Li Shang Mulan 1998
Would you like to stay for dinner?

"Mulan" made a lot of money and was considered a big success. However, "Mulan" could have made even more if Disney had not been on the outs with the Chinese government at the time (over a film that Disney had funded about the Dalai Lama, "Kundun"). The Chinese got even for that previous slight by scheduling "Mulan" for a soft part of their film year, after New Year's. The film still did well worldwide, out-grossing the previous two Disney releases ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Hercules"). Direct-to-video "Mulan II" followed six years later, one of the last of the Disney movie sequels to previous hits.
With the emperor Mulan 1998
"You saved us all"

Most people consider "Mulan" to be a fine story about a feminist icon, like Xena or Wonder Woman or similar female fighters. If you want to view it that way, wonderful, but also try thinking about her as just a normal girl trying to do the right thing. "Mulan" is not quite in the same class as the top tier of Disney Renaissance releases such as "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," but, then, few films are. "Mulan" makes for a fine evening's entertainment.

The official trailer is below.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Belle from Beauty and the Beast

Belle Beast Beauty and the Beast

Belle: A Modern Heroine

Belle from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is one of the most popular of the Disney Princesses. While Belle from Beauty and the Beast first came to real fame with the smash hit 1991 movie "Beauty and the Beast," Belle's history goes back further than that. Of all the Disney princesses, this is probably the one that little girls most look up to these days and see as having a nice balance of qualities between being strong and adventurous while still ultimately wanting to find romance in her life.

Belle Beast castle Beauty and the Beast
Very romantic setting of Beast courting Belle

The story of Belle is from a traditional French fairy tale that goes back hundreds of years. The first known published version was by a woman named Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. She wrote a very lengthy story with many intricate subplots and a beast who is truly dangerous.

Beauty and the beast
Belle and the Beast in love

Her story was adapted by  Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont a few years later and published in 1756. Beaumont's version is the one we recognize as the true birth of Belle and her fabulous story of beastly love.

Belle Beast eating Beauty and the Beast
Belle and the Beast dining

Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's Version in 1756

Three teenage sisters of a wealthy merchant live together in a mansion. The two eldest daughters are wicked and cruel, while the youngest, Belle, is lovely and pure of heart. Their father loses his money and the family is forced to move to a small cottage and take up jobs. A few years later, the father learns that one of his ships that was believed lost at sea in fact has returned to port and may contain valuables. Before going to inspect the ship, he asks his daughters what they would like for him to bring back as presents. The two eldest ask for gifts of great value such as jewels and fancy clothes, but Belle only asks for a rose that only can be found in the area which the father will be visiting.

Beast father rose Beauty and the Beast
Belle's father with the rose

The father goes to port but finds that the ship's cargo has been taken to pay his debts. On his journey home, he gets lost in a forest. He finds a beautiful palace which is fully provided with food and drink. After spending the night, he prepares to leave, but first stops to pick a rose for Belle as her gift. A Beast suddenly appears and accuses the father of stealing his most prized possession. When the father protests that he only wanted a gift for his youngest daughter, the Beast lets him go with the understanding that he will return to face punishment. The Beast also gives him presents for the other daughters.

Belle Beast sitting in parlor Beauty and the Beast
Beast courting Belle

The father returns home and gives his daughters their presents, but he tells Belle about his deal with the Beast. He has Belle go to the Beast's castle to serve as a prison in his place, and she is greeted warmly. The Beast gives her many presents and lets her have the run of the castle. He asks her to marry him every night, but she refuses every time. Belle has dreams of a handsome prince asking why she wouldn't marry the Beast, but her answer is that she only thinks of him as a friend. Belle mistakenly comes to believe that the prince in her dreams is being held prisoner by the Beast, so she searches all through the castle for him without success.

Beast in a tree Beauty and the Beast
Belle feeding the Beast

Belle lives at the castle in fine style for several months like this, but eventually becomes homesick. The Beast allows her to return home only if she will return in a week. Belle sets off with an enchanted mirror and ring, the mirror showing what is happening back at the Beast's castle, and the ring enabling her to return to the castle instantly. Upon her return home, her sisters are envious of her wealth and happiness and convince her to stay longer than the Beast allowed in the hope that the Beast will be angry and eat her. When Belle looks in the mirror, though, she sees that the Beast is dying from heartbreak at the fact that Belle has betrayed him, so she uses the magic ring to return to him immediately.

Belle beast garden Beauty and the Beast
Belle returns to find the Beast dying

Belle returns to find the Beast almost dead. She cries over him and tells him that she loves him. Her tears transform the Beast into a handsome prince, the one from her dreams. It turns out that the Beast had been cursed by an evil fairy long before because he had not let her stay the night during a storm. Only finding true love, in the person of Belle, enabled the curse to be broken. Belle and the Prince live happily ever after.

Belle hugging beast Beauty and the Beast
Beast finds true love at last

The Walt Disney Version

Walt Disney Studios took the idea from the classic fairy tale and changed it a bit to make it more palatable to modern viewers. Belle becomes the one who decides to stay at the castle, making a conscious choice to sacrifice herself for her father.

playbill Beauty and the Beast

Stage Versions Based on the Disney Characters

Belle appeared in the smash hit Broadway musical "Beauty and the Beast" which ran from April 1994 until July 29 2007. "Beauty and the Beast" quickly sold over $700,000 in advanced sales – a Broadway record.  After its successful first season, the musical was nominated for 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Direction, Book, and Original Score. It ran for 13 years and finally was replaced by the Disney play based on "The Little Mermaid," so they were just changing which Disney Princess they would feature on stage. Actresses that played Belle included Susan Egan, Debbie Gibson, Toni Braxton, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Christy Carlson Romano and Anneliese van der Pol. Alan Menken and Tim Rice added a song, "A Change in Me," which became a fixture of the musical. For many, the Broadway show is their real connection with "Beauty and the Beast."

The Classic Disney Animated Film Beauty and the Beast: A Fairy Tale of Love Triumphing Over Looks

Blu-ray and dvd combo cover Beauty and the Beast 1991

Walt Disney, of course, invented feature film animation with the 1937 Disney movie classic "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," and he had been working on shorts for 15 years prior to that epochal film. "Snow White," with its lush technicolor and memorable songs, was an island of delight in a sea or black-and-white melodramas from other studios, and the public was hungry for more. "Snow White" ushered in what is known as the "Golden Age" of animated Disney movies, which lasted through the sentimental "Dumbo" and tragic "Bambi." Walt Disney even considered making "Beauty and the Beast, but he ran out of time. World War II disrupted everything, and while Disney movies got back on track in 1950 with "Cinderella" and the subsequent "Alice in Wonderland" and "Peter Pan," times were changing fast and lavish animated musicals (and musicals in general) were going out of style. Walt Disney Pictures lost its way after Walt's death in 1966 and retreated to non-animated films starring kid-friendly actors like Don Knotts and Tim Conway, with middling success. Nothing wrong with that, but a lot of good opportunities were lost in those days to advance the art of Disney movie animation.

Belle reading book Beauty and the Beast 1991
Belle reading, presumably in French?

All that changed with "The Little Mermaid," which ushered in what is known today as the "Disney Renaissance." "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), directed in heroic fashion by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, followed a couple of years later and marked Disney's attempt to build on "The Little Mermaid"'s unexpected success and rekindle Disney's past glory from the Golden Age of animation. Did it work? It worked gloriously! There had been other recent stirrings in the animation field, such as with 1988's "Akira" and "The Land Before Time," which focused attention on new well-crafted animation films. Disney's own "The Little Mermaid" a year later had gotten the ball rolling, but there had been false starts before. "Beauty and the Beast" cemented the Disney movie revival that lasted through to 1999's "Tarzan." "Beauty and the Beast" came out in the days before massive computer-generated graphics, so this is a traditonal hand-drawn film that bears the standard Disney movie mark of quality. As usual with a classic Disney movie product, it involves a love-lorn girl looking for her prince.

Belle, Gaston Beauty and the Beast 1991
Gaston and his smarmy attempt at charm

And "Beauty and the Beast" is indeed a classic tale. "Beauty and the Beast" required 12 (!) writing credits to refine a story that is well-known and established, including such later heavy hitters as and , but at heart it remains a simple tale about a strong, plucky girl who certainly is no victim. Belle (Paige O'Hara) is a lovelorn girl who is dissatisfied with life in a small provincial French town with few opportunities for true love and wants to do something about it. She is hit on by Gaston (Richard White), a conceited local, but isn't taken in by his smarmy charm despite the fact that everybody else in town is.

The Beast scary Beauty and the Beast 1991
The Beast looks scary at first despite his warm personality

Another potential suitor lurks nearby, but nobody even realizes he is there. The Beast (Robby Benson) is a prince who was placed under a witch's spell because he callously turned her away from a night's rest in his castle. He has the appearance of a beast, and his servants became household items. The enchantress was not without heart, though, and gave him a rose which would bloom until his 21st birthday, by which time he must somehow find true love or the spell would become permanent, and also a magic mirror which shows future events. The Beast stays to himself out of shame, but one day Belle's father Maurice (Rex Everhart) is chased by wolves and stumbles upon Beast's castle. His wrong turn eventually brings Belle and the Beast together.

Beast's castle servants Beauty and the Beast 1991
The household servants

The Beast locks Maurice up for trespassing, but his horse leads Belle back to the castle. She offers to take Maurice's place, and the Beast agrees. He leaves and tries to interest Gaston and others in what has happened, but they don't believe him. The Beast asks Belle to dine, but she refuses. Lumière (Jerry Orbach), a servant who was transformed by the witch into a candelabra, feeds Belle anyway against the Beast's orders, and Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), now a clock, takes Belle on a tour.

German DVD cover Beauty and the Beast 1991
The artwork on the German DVD is elegant

Belle meets Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury), now a teapot, and on the tour finds the witch's rose in the Beast's private section of the castle. The Beast, humiliated, chases Belle away and she is attacked outside by wolves. The Beast saves her but is injured himself, so Belle tends to his wounds. The Beast is gratified and grants Belle access to the castle. Gradually, the Belle and the Beast learn more about each other and become friends.

Gaston waving Belle Beauty and the Beast 1991
Belle does not love Gaston

They share a romantic dinner, then Belle tells the Beast that she misses Maurice, who has been committed to an insane asylum by Gaston until Belle agrees to his proposal. The Beast lets Belle use his magic mirror, and in it she sees her father dying in the woods in an attempt to rescue her. The Beast lets Belle go to try and save her father, giving her the mirror, and then confides in Cogsworth that he loves Belle.

Maurice Beauty and the Beast 1991
Maurice is an inventor

Belle rescues her father, using the magic mirror to prove that Maurice is sane and was telling the truth. Gaston, infuriated that Belle is falling in love with the Beast, incites a riot among the townspeople against the Beast, lying to them that the Beast is a danger and must be killed. The mob heads to the castle, with Belle locked away with Maurice in Gaston's basement. Chip (Bradley Michael Pierce), one of the Beast's servants who was transformed into a teacup, then reveals that he impishly stowed away in Belle's baggage and frees Belle and her father.

Beast and Belle in the night Beauty and the Beast 1991
The Beast and Belle in love

The villagers storm the castle, and Gaston searches out the Beast to slay him. While the Beast at first feels that fighting is pointless as he is doomed, the sight of Belle returning inspires the Beast, and he finally fights back against Gaston. The Beast prevails, but Gaston proves his true treachery when he refuses to accept defeat, causing tragedy but also renewal for himself and the Beast.

Belle and Beast Beauty and the Beast 1991
Belle loves her dance with the Beast

"Beauty and the Beast' was put together in just two years, which is very little time for animated features that usually take five or more years. Teams in Glendale, California and Lake Buena Vista, Florida (Disneyworld) worked on the animation, using the Pixar CAPS program of computerized graphics first tried out on "The Rescuers Down Under." This program restored some of the variety of colors and soft shadings lost when Disney went away from hand inking and toward the new xerography process with "101 Dalmations" to cut costs. The CAPS program also provided a primitive form of 3D animation by separating the characters from the background, giving some depth to the animation. CAPS further combined computer imagery and hand-drawn characters seamlessly. The almost magical ballroom sequence, in which Belle and the Beast dance while the camera circles, was a triumph of this process and instigated intense development of computer animation processes, so you have "Beauty and the Beast" to blame for the later over-use of CGI in almost every action/adventure/science fiction film. Here, though, it is used sparingly and in just the right places.

Belle Beast dancing Ballroom Beauty and the Beast 1991
Beast makes Belle happy, and that is all that matters

"Beauty and the Beast" won two Oscars for its songs (credit Harold Ashman, who sadly passed away during production, and Alan Menken, who went on to become the composer of choice for Disney movie musicals). "Beauty and the Beast" also was nominated for Best Picture, a true rarity then for an animated film. The opening operetta-styled "Belle" is a fan favorite and was the first one composed by Ashman and Menken. Other popular songs include "Be Our Guest," sung to Belle by the servants when she first comes to eat, and "Gaston," sung by the swaggering Disney movie villain. The songs were recorded live, with the orchestra and voice work together, rather than separately as is the more customary modern practice. This gives the recordings some echo and may take away a tiny bit of "radio-like" precision from "Beauty and the Beast," but it injects an energy and sense of "being there" that cannot be duplicated otherwise. "Something There" lets Belle and the Beast sing of their developing feelings and is one of the most romantic moments in "Beauty and the Beast." Céline Dion and Peabo Bryson perform a pop version of "Beauty and the Beast" over the end credits (Angela Lansbury sings it earlier in a somewhat tremulous but sincere voice as her character Mrs. Potts) which became a Top Ten hit in both the United States and the UK. Home video releases of "Beauty and the Beast" have music videos by Dion and Bryson along with later ones by Jump 5 and Jordin Sparks (on the 2010 Blu-Ray/DVD release). "Beauty and the Beast" was a breakthrough in that it was the first Disney movie to be adapted into a Broadway musical, a practice that subsequently became commonplace.
Belle reading Beast smiling Beauty and the Beast 1991
The 3D version is a definite enhancement

A lot of research went into making "Beauty and the Beast," and it shows throughout "Beauty and the Beast." Art directors preparing for "Beauty and the Beast" travelled to France and studied many great 18th Century painters who remain little-remembered today. Many of the paintings shown on the castle walls are copied from such classic French artwork. That respect for the material - new for animation with "Beauty and the Beast," but after this the standard in the industry - gifts "Beauty and the Beast" with a unique classical and ornate look that elevates "Beauty and the Beast" far above the pack of toy-oriented mass-merchandising animated Disney movies and Pixar/DreamWorks products that followed. You may even absorb a tiny bit of culture while being entertained without realizing it, as watching "Beauty and the Beast" is like touring Versailes or an exquisite French chateau. The expressiveness on Belle's face as she takes the Beast's hand in the intensely decorated ballroom, and his awkward grunting as he fumbles with awkwardness that rapidly disappears, is priceless.

Beast Belle dancing Beauty and the Beast 1991
Belle and Beast about to dance

"Beauty and the Beast" developed into a cottage industry for Disney. The long-running Broadway musical starred Debbie Gibson and several other fine singers. Television versions of "Beauty and the Beast" seem to crop up every few years in various formats. The Disney movie version of "Beauty and the Beast" places a heavy emphasis on singing, so almost all the stars of the various versions of  "Beauty and the Beast" have fine voices and usually are Broadway veterans. Disney, with remarkable foresight and looking for synergy as usual, planned "Beauty and the Beast" from the beginning in hopes of turning it into a musical, which obviously worked in spectacular fashion. "Beauty and the Beast On Ice" soon followed and ran at Disneyworld for an astonishing 18 years. There even are half a dozen video games featuring the "Beauty and the Beast' characters.

Belle and Beast dancing Beauty and the Beast 1991
Dancing in the castle's elegant ballroom is the highpoint of the film

There is no question that "Beauty and the Beast" is a very entertaining film with a legion of fans, and not just young girl fans, either. "Beauty and the Beast" is well worth a look even if you don't normally like musicals or romantic fairy tales or "princess" Disney movies. "Beauty and the Beast" was the first animated film to get nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, and the last for many years due to the addition of the "Best Animated Feature" category until "Up" and "Toy Story 3" came along after the annual nominations for Best Picture were doubled from five to ten. The recent 3D release of this film has garnered very positive reviews, with some particular scenes - such as the key ballroom dance - much enhanced. Disney did a fine job with the 3D conversion, and that is the version to see if possible.

The 2011 3D trailer is below for your viewing pleasure, and below that the climactic ballroom dancing scene, accompanied by Angela Lansbury singing "Beauty and the Beast."


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sleeping Beauty - The Most Romantic Awakening

Sleeping Beauty

The Fairy Tale of Sleeping Beauty has a Long and Colorful History

One of everyone's favorite princesses is Sleeping Beauty. As with the story of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty comes out of the mythic foklore of Europe. The first major version was by a French author, Charles Perrault, who some consider the father of the modern fairy tale. While the Brothers Grimm are much better known these days, it was Perrault who wrote up earlier versions of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots. While they are not the versions we know today, they show the long tradition of the classic princesses, especially when you consider that Perrault was simply transcribing stories that had existed long before him. Perrault included a second part to the tale that is not widely known and usually is left out of modern re tellings.

Sleeping Beauty and the Prince
The classic Disney portrayal

Earliest Versions of Sleeping Beauty

As usual with fairy tales, there were versions kicking around Europe for centuries became they became codified into a final form not long after the invention of the printing press in 1453. An Italian namesd Giambattista Basile wrote "Sun, Moon and Talia" in 1634. The further back you go, the less familiar the story sounds, but there are striking similarities with what we know now as the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty. The story is a bit raw for modern eyes, though, showing that our times remain more politically correct than during medieval times.
Giambattista Basile
Giambattista Basile

Basile's "Sun, Moon and Talia"

Upon the birth of a great man's daughter Talia, the court Astrologers and assorted Wise Men predict that Talia will be harmed by a splinter of flax. The father immediately bans flax from his castle. When Talia grows up, though, she becomes curious about how clothes are made and finds an old woman spinning flax on her spindle. Talia spins the flax, but quickly gets a splinter of flax under her fingernail. The pain is so intense that Talia falls unconscious and is presumed dead. Her father can't bear to bury her and instead has her body brought to one of his other villas.
Talia at the flax wheel

A king later is hunting in the area and finds the house. He follows his falcon inside and finds Talia, still unconscious. He cannot awaken her.After making love to her, he leaves. Talia later gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The little boy one day manages to suck the splinter out of his mother's finger, which awakens the sleeping girl. She names her children "Sun" and "Moon" and the continue to live in the house together.
Talia Sleeping
Finding Talia

The king returns and finds Talia awake with his two children. Being already married to the queen, however, he cannot marry Talia. He is so besotted with her, though, that he calls out her name in his sleep. The queen hears this, and then commands that the children be brought to her immediately. Ordering the cook to kill the children and prepare them for the king's supper, the queen prepares to take her revenge. However, the cook hides the children and substitutes lamb instead. The queen still thinks it is the king's children that he is eating and makes fun of him while he eats.
Thorns and prickers protecting sleeping beauty
The castle overgrown with thorns

The queen then has Talia brought before her. Ordering a huge bonfire lit, the queen commands that Talia be thrown into it. Talia asks that she be allowed to take off her fine clothing before being burned, to which the queen agrees. While undressing, Talia screams with each garment that she removes. The king hears this, but when he arrives, the queen reveals that he ate his own children. Incensed, the king orders that the queen, his secretary and the cook be thrown into the bonfire instead. The cook talks his way out of this fate, though, by revealing that he saved the children. The king rewards the cook by making him his personal servant, and the king marries Talia.

"The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood" by Charles Perrault

A king and queen long have hoped for a child, and when a girl is born, they invite seven fairies to be the child's godmothers. There was an eighth fairy, though, who was not invited because she had been missing for many years, locked up in a nearby tower and presumed dead or incapacitated. This fairy shows up, however, and is offered a seat, but not one as luxurious as those of the other fairies because she was unexpected. Six of the seven fairy godmothers offer the child enchanted gifts of talents and natural grace and beauty that will enrich her life. The eighth fairy, irked at being slighted, offers her own enchantment: the baby princess, she proclaims, shall prick her hand on a weaver's spindle and die. The seventh fairy godmother then amends the curse so that the princess shall only fall into a deep sleep for a hundred years and then be awoken by a prince.
Sleeping Beauty sleeping
This is probably a little closer to how the medieval folks really thought about this fairy tale
The king, fearful of his daughter's safety, orders all spindles destroyed. When in her mid-teens, though, the princess stumbles upon an old woman within the palace who still has a spindle, the last in the kingdom. The princess, curious, tries her own hand at spinning, and pricks her finger, falling into a deep sleep. The king orders the princess carried to the finest room in the palace and placed upon a bed covered with the finest fabric. The seventh fairy, the one who changed the curse from death into a deep sleep, arrives in a chariot of fire drawn by dragons. She orders the castle sealed and puts everyone remaining within it to sleep so that the sleeping princess shall not be alone in her dreams. The good fairy godmother then casts a spell so that prickers and thorns shall grow around the castle so that the princes shall not be disturbed in her slumber.
One hundred years later, a handsome prince is hunting near the princess's castle and is told by an old man about the sleeping princess. The prince enters the castle, the prickers and thorns parting to allow him passage. He awakens the princess, the castle comes back to life, and the prince and princess are married in the castle chapel.
Beauty asleep
Beauty fast asleep
In part two, the Princess bears the Prince two children, L'Aurore (Dawn) and Le Jour (Day). The Prince keeps the children a secret, for his mother the Queen is an Ogre. The Queen mother does not like the children, and orders the Princess and her children taken to a secluded house in the country. There, the Queen mother orders the Princess's son killed and prepared for her dinner. The cook substitutes lamb, which tricks the Queen mother, and when the Queen mother demands to be served the Princess's daughter for dessert, the cook substitutes a young goat. The Queen mother then orders the cook to prepare the Princess herself to be served next. The Princess, thinking her children dead and eaten, does not care to live any longer anyway. The cook, though, once again decides to trick the Queen mother. This time, though, the Queen mother is not fooled, and orders a vat prepared in the courtyard filled with deadly vipers and other creatures, into which the Princess is to be thrown and killed. When the Prince returns at the last moment and threatens to kill the Queen mother, she throws herself into the vat to avoid being killed by her own son.
Sleeping Beauty Brothers Grimm beauty sleeping
"Dornröschen" is an alternate German name for "Sleeping Beauty"

The Brothers Grimm: "Little Briar Rose"

Over a hundred years after Charles Perrault wrote his story about Sleeping Beauty, the Brothers Grimm were compiling their own collection of fairy tales. Instead of calling it "Sleeping Beauty," though, they gave Sleeping Beauty a name but left almost everything the same as in Perrault's version. The Princess now was called "Briar Rose," though in some versions it became Rosamund. The Brothers Grimm also ended the tale before the Ogress mother-in-law came into the picture. This is the version that became widely known as the "official" version, even though it was almost a completely plagiarized from Perrault.

The Walt Disney Version

Walt Disney Studios had its greatest hit with the 1937 animated classic "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Disney could just as easily have done "Sleeping Beauty" then instead. After World War II ended and the studio returned to normal, Disney finally decided to tackle the tale of Sleeping Beauty. As will be seen, Disney adopted the Brothers Grimm version of the tale, with some minor changes, in their classic 1959 animated film, "Sleeping Beauty." 

"Sleeping Beauty": Maleficent on the Prowl Against Princess Aurora

DVD Cover Sleeping Beauty 1959

Everybody knows the fairy tale story of the Walt Disney movie "Sleeping Beauty" (1959). Princess Aurora (Mary Costa) is the beloved only daughter of her loving royal parents, who name Aurora that because she brings sunshine into their lives. A neighboring kingdom, ruled by King Hubert (Bill Thompson), has an eligible suitor, Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley). A marriage is arranged to bring the two families together.

Maleficent enters the castle in Sleeping Beauty 1959
An uninvited guest
There are three Good Fairies who come to bestow blessings on the match and lavish gifts upon young princess Aurora: Flora (Verna Felton); Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen); and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy). They are good-natured, though quarrelsome. There is an uninvited Fairy, however, and when she shows up, that is when the trouble starts.

Aurora and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Touch the spindle!
The uninvited guest in this Disney movie is Maleficent (Eleanor Audley), who is known to all as The Mistress of All Evil. Maleficent has come down from her lonely perch on Forbidden Mountain because she is upset at being excluded from the festivities. Just like with "The Godfather,"you have to show a little respect, so it isn't all her fault. Maleficent curses Aurora, and Maleficent is someone you don't want cursing you. Maleficent states that at the age of 16, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.

Maleficent plotting in her castle in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Maleficent has an idea
The Good Fairies cannot stop Maleficent, but they can help in other ways, and boy do they help. Merryweather places Aurora into a deep sleep until the spell can be broken, and the fairies carry Sleeping Beauty Aurora off into the forest so she can hide, incognito, under the name "Briar Rose." King Stefan (Taylor Holmes), frantic to save Aurora even though she must leave him forever in order to survive, orders all the spinning wheels in the land destroyed, and they are - all except one. An evil creature like Maleficent will not be deterred, however, so Maleficent scours the kingdom to find Sleeping Beauty Aurora and make her prophecy turn into reality.

Maleficent gesturing in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Maleficent talking to her bird
While this Disney movie follows the basic "Sleeping Beauty" fairy tale closely, it makes a few modifications. The prince, who in fairy tales usually only arrives at the last minute and does very little, is very active in this film. Prince Phillip battles dragons and witches, actively courts Aurora in the forest even though he doesn't know her identity, sings and dances more, and generally acts like the first super-hero. Comparing this film to "Snow White," you see the stylistic changes that Walt Disney probably, in hindsight, wishes that he had incorporated into that earlier film rather than in "Sleeping Beauty."
Maleficent in all her glory in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Maleficent in her palace
The really startling character of this Disney movie, though, is Maleficent. The fearsome Maleficent is brilliantly drawn, quite beautiful in her own way, with garish stylistic similarities to the Evil Queen in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and the cackling laugh of the Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz." The evil oozing out of Maleficent is all the worse because it stems from common emotions such as petty jealousy and spite that we all can understand. When the furious Maleficent turns into a dragon and threatens Prince Phillip with "Hell," a rarity indeed in a Disney movie), it is obvious that it is not just any old dragon, but a dragon embodying the fiery spirit that drives a Maleficent crazed with hatred and frustration. Maleficent is voiced by Eleanor Audley, who also did Lady Tremaine in the original "Cinderella," so she was an old hand at creating classic characters in Disney movies.

Mary Costa Aurora Sleeping Beauty 1959
Mary Costa, voice of Princess Aurora

As portrayed, the character of Maleficent is one of the great villains of all literature. From time to time, you even read about someone like Tim Burton being interested in making a film focusing squarely on her. There actually is a film called "Maleficent" nearing completion, starring Angelina Jolie. It will be interesting to see a Disney move fairy tale villainess from her own point of view. "Sleeping Beauty" may be a fairy tale you subconsciously have filed away in the back of your brain as passé, but it is has been and remains front and center to very powerful people in the creative arts in the past, today, and always.

Aurora asleep in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Aurora, beautifully drawn
"Sleeping Beauty" Aurora also is one of the great creations of Disney movie animation, though Maleficent is a hard act with which to compete. She is beautiful, and must be for the story to resonate. Mary Costa as Aurora demonstrates a fantastic operatic singing voice, and never got her full due for voicing this classic role of "Sleeping Beauty's Aurora." Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty Ballet" is used throughout, and the original song "Once Upon a Dream" is one of the great tunes of all animation. George Bruns scored the film with cutting edge 6-track stereo which he went all the way to Germany to find (the Beatles several years later had to make do for much of their existence with four tracks, and began with only two) and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.

Aurora in forest in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Aurora, like Snow White, is a friend to nature
There are many scary scenes in this Disney movie. The background music adds an air of foreboding to "Sleeping Beauty," and some of the scenes almost appear psychedelic, such as the evil Maleficent inducing Aurora to touch the deadly spindle, leading her there with a spectral ball of green fire. Even Maleficent doing simple things like oozing up the stairs of her dark palace, or her pet raven looking back with malevolence, are spooky. The "Sleeping Beauty" artwork was the brainchild of Eyvind Earle, officially the color stylist, who lavished inordinate time and detail on the backgrounds and the artwork. "Sleeping Beauty" has a unique look that combines the medieval and the modernistic, something a modern-day computer simply can't replicate in quite the same way.
Aurora asleep Sleeping Beauty 1959
Aurora in her chamber
The most surprising thing about "Sleeping Beauty" is that this Disney movie, the most expensive animation ($6 million) made by the Disney movie studio up to that time due to Walt's rigid refusal to accept less than perfection for the fairy tale story of "Sleeping Beauty" Aurora, was a financial failure when it came out (though it was re-released many times and thereby ultimately became the second-highest grossing film of 1959). Clyde Geronimi, who had helped direct "Cinderella" back in 1950,gets the directing credit for "Sleeping Beauty," but this was Walt's pet project from start to finish, almost an all-star affair. Even the great Chuck Jones worked on "Sleeping Beauty" during a brief time when Warner thought that 3D was going to take over, but it didn't matter. The time simply was not right for animation, or a classical fairy tale, or both. Also, the tale and style is very similar to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," enough so that it seemed as though Ol' Walt had run out of ideas and was repeating himself (and he even originally wanted seven fairies, not three....). It didn't matter that his mantra throughout production was "It can't be like Snow White," when you see Aurora in the forest mingling with the gentle forest creatures, it almost seems like a remake of that classic Disney movie - and no remake was necessary, the original still held up quite nicely. Several scenes discarded from "Snow White" were used in "Sleeping Beauty," underlining the similarities. In addition, the heroine almost disappears for much of the film and only has eighteen lined of dialogue in the entire Disney movie, so essentially this becomes a Disney movie about the supporting players such as the royal parents, Maleficent and the fairies. The fairies are all very nice, but the film is "Sleeping Beauty," not "The Three Good Fairies." A final problem was the rise of Television: Disney had a weekly program on throughout the '50s, and the "common wisdom" was that there was no reason to pay to see something you could see for free on the little box in the living room anyway. The entire film industry quaked in terror, not just the Disney movies studio, leading to the first "3D" craze (sound familiar?). Of course, there was nothing quite like a quality Disney movie such as "Sleeping Beauty" on the tiny black-and-white sets most people were using then, but many people at time followed what seemed like common sense like sheep. A fine example of peer pressure in action, or maybe mass psychosis.

Prince Phillip battles the dragon in Sleeping Beauty 1959
Maleficent the Dragon
Disney lost money on "Sleeping Beauty" that year, apparently a lot of money, but was saved by the Disney studio's huge television revenues. Walt Disney, badly burned, became gun-shy. Wouldn't you if you had other sources of revenue that were steady, growing and enabling you to expand to new, profitable ventures such as theme parks? Walt Disney even talked about shutting down the Disney movie feature film animation operation entirely, though he never actually followed through on that threat. Disney did look for ways to cut costs on the production of Disney movies and had to lay off a lot of people. In any event, the Disney movies studio didn't experience a true revival, despite occasional huge financial successes such as "The Jungle Book" and "The Rescuers," to its former heights of glory until it finally, at long last, took a chance on another fairy tale in 1989l, thirty years later, with "The Little Mermaid." When that Disney movie succeeded, "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) followed and cemented the Disney Renaissance, pumping new life into the whole animation genre. Disney movies returned to being the powerhouses in animation that they once seemed destined to become. But, despite the problems this Disney movie caused and its initial lack of popularity, "Sleeping Beauty" holds up well beside any of those later films, and perhaps above them all. "Sleeping Beauty" is one of the absolute classics and delights in the Disney movie library is this tale of love and redemption.

Prince Phillip finds his Princess in Sleeping Beauty 1959
The Prince finds his love in front of a looming enemy. Isn't this animation design awesome?
You could say that "Sleeping Beauty" is a film only for little girls. You can say that "Sleeping Beauty" is old and tired and nobody now needs to view it to understand animation's possibilities. You can say that all of women's troubles in the world are caused by wanting the "Sleeping Beauty" fairy tale to be true for everyone, when it can't be. You can say that animation has surpassed "Sleeping Beauty" and that this Disney movie wasn't ever as good as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" anyway.

Prince Phillip Aurora in Sleeping Beauty 1959
True love's kiss is what it takes
You can say all that about "Sleeping Beauty" - and you'd be wrong. Ask yourself a question, but answer secretly, only to yourself, and never tell a soul, especially me - in your heart of hearts, when all is said and done - wouldn't it be nice?

Below is a link to the entire film.