Monday, May 24, 2010

Second Star Series, Part 1 - Sleeping Beauty

Though class is focused on Peter Pan, introduction via Sleeping Beauty got some thoughts churning. Forgive my idée fixe: watching a Disney animated feature always gets my thoughts churning. Class discussion only furthered this impulse
To be honest, these thoughts bubbled some time ago. I have long been curious about and fascinated by Maleficent’s and Princess Aurora’s connection. However, I have not had the opportunity to flesh them out in a formal setting.

Maleficent and Aurora are a unique hero/villain pair in the Disney canon, as no other duo is so clearly connected aesthetically. Notice their angled faces, high cheekbones, distinctly arched eyebrows, upturning eyes, red lips. Though not apparent in these screenshots I took, their body construction is also similar, as both are tall, slender, and willowy. 
Further, they exhibit similar body language, as both demonstrate upright carriage and grace characteristic of classical ballet. Scholar Elizabeth Bell identifies balletic movement as the pinnacle of youthful feminine beauty and “princessisity” in her article “Somatexts in the Disney Shop.” 
"The markers of class, however, are covertly embodied in the metaphors of classical dance. Royal lineage and bearing are personified in the erect, ceremonial carriage of ballet and manifested not only in the dance sequences, but in the heroines’ graceful solitude and poised interaction with others. Classical dance carriage and royal bearing are interchangeable in Disney animation” (Bell 111).
Both are undeniably beautiful — though today’s society would likely encourage Maleficent to get some sun.
Maleficent’s and Aurora’s similarity’s significance would be dismissed by some for two reasons: they share the same supervising animator and the film’s overall design aesthetic was somewhat constraining for the animators. Marc Davis was then Disney’s go-to female lead animator, having famously supervised Tinkerbell, Cinderella, and Cruella DeVill as well. By no means, however, was Davis a one-note artist, having designed many characters for Bambi, supervised Brer Rabbit in Song of the South, and designed the audio-animatronic pirates for Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Davis’ characters display such a vast range of design that attributing their similarity to sharing him as a supervisor would be rather spurious. Davis clearly had the ability to construct diverse characters. Some may counter, however, that Sleeping Beauty’s medieval design aesthetic limited Davis’ choices when designing the Maleficent and Aurora. There is some merit to this argument, as Davis and his contemporaries all expressed frustration with the strict, sweeping graphic design chosen for the film. Background painter Eyvind Earle was selected to design the film’s overall design. Drawing inspiration from the famous unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters, Earle chose an angular flavor to style the film like a medieval tapestry. Such a style had not been seen in previous Disney features, as Walt had long favored a more rounded, fleshy, living aesthetic. As such, Davis and the other animators were working with a style they were not used to and was also very strict. If a character’s design deviated at all from the angular style, the film’s look would not have a cohesive whole — which Walt would have deemed highly unacceptable. Viewing the range of character construction exhibited in the film, however, reveals that the constraints did not hinder the artists. Though Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather are very similar, being squat, round, and dressed the same, they are highly individual designs. Each has a different body shape, facial construction, and coloring.

Though likely unconscious, Maleficent’s and Aurora’s similar design did not occur randomly. They are two sides of the same beauty: maidenhood. As a young woman, Aurora clearly stands on the threshold of sexual maturity, preparing to move on to motherhood and cronehood. Maleficent is obviously older, as she appears in the same form when Aurora is a baby. What she has done, however, is refuse to move on to motherhood and cronehood. Thus, she preserves feminine power for herself rather than bestowing it on others, as the good fairies have done and Aurora will supposedly do. Such a construction condemns this life path as evil and unnatural.
There is so much more to be said. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and one second of film requires 24 drawings, then it is quite clear that I have barely scratched the surface with these musings. However, I shall let them lie here for now and likely tackle them more in depth at another time. I believe I have rambled on a little too long for a quick response paper as it is. Needless to say, though, these thoughts needed to come out. Prepare similar musings when we screen Peter Pan.

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