My favorite part of watching the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty on Disney+ was the scene where the two dads get sloppy drunk and one tries to use a big fish as a sword, while a servant gets black-out wrecked, and falls asleep in a mandoline. These guys know how to party! But, this scene, along with the rest of the animated classic, horrified me. The last time I saw this movie, I considered it to be among the very best of the old Disney films; an amazing confluence of old fairy tales, art-deco style, and clever remixes of classical Tchaikovsky music.
But now, it feels like a movie about the unnecessary sexualization of teenagers. If you’d asked me last week if I’d let my 2.5-year-old daughter watch Sleeping Beauty when she was, I dunno, 5 years old, I would have said yes, 100 percent. But now? I’m not sure I can let her see this thing until she’s 16.
In almost all ways, Sleeping Beauty is a horror movie. Look, here’s the girl who gets left alone for two seconds, and then BAM, a demon appears in her fireplace, and the next thing you know everyone is racing through the dark yelling her name. Sleeping Beauty is terrifying, not only because Maleficent summons “all the powers of hell” in the big climax, but because the entire plot is predicated on the idea that the world is a dangerous place for this young woman.
The trouble is, my memory of Sleeping Beauty was of a cozier version of the movie. In my head, the movie is all about the owl dressing up as the prince and dancing in the forest, and the fairies dunking on each other mercilessly while trying to bake a cake. All that stuff is still there, but the absolute terror that lurks around the next corner is the breathless, nail-biting soul of this movie. If you’re worried about the safety of your child (and what parent isn’t) Sleeping Beauty is not here to make you feel better. It’s not cozy comfort food. It’s pretty much the darkest version of the world any father can imagine sending his daughter out into. No wonder King Stefan drinks so much! (Not that he’s off the hook for trying to get his daughter pregnant and married at 16! Come on!)
All of this is to say, watching Sleeping Beauty is not boring. If anything, it’s one of the most thrilling films I’ve watched or rewatched in years. It’s impossible to overstate how good Tchaikovsky's music is, but it’s even harder to wrap your mind around how creatively this music from 1888 was repurposed in 1959. I can’t think of another example of a classic piece of cinema pulling this kind of thing off. I mean, I guess Julie Taymor tried it with the Beatles in that movie Across the Universe. Right? The point is, the music combined with the arresting animation style makes this movie a heart-stopping ride of a film. And for that, I really can’t fault it.
But it’s also sexist as shit to the point of really making you wonder what your small grade-school-aged kid could get out of it. I mean, if you don’t present this as a scary movie (and, it really, really is) what are you saying this is? A good story? What is the lesson? If you have a drunk absentee dad, just pray that three nice old ladies will raise you in the forest away from spinning wheels and wi-fi. Also, don’t talk to strangers, unless you believe in astrology, and then, it’s totally fine. Or, how about this one: If you think everyone is out to either sabotage you or sleep with you, you’re probably right.
All of this is pretty bleak stuff, and I can’t really justify letting my kid watch this until she is the same age as Briar Rose herself; 16. Because, at that point, I could at least put the film in context. I can say to her gently: This is a movie people used to think was okay for children, but now, we know it is actually a horror movie. Do you like monsters? Good. Are you okay with a movie in which a woman who does nothing wrong has all her agency taken away from her? Yeah, neither am I. But, hey, this is a horror movie, so let’s just remember that’s the reason we’re watching this: to be scared out of our minds.
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