Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
True Love Conquers All
In the fourteenth-century world of Disney’s very 1950s fairy tale, pure, innocent love possesses such tangible strength it can defeat anything, even seemingly unbeatable curses or fearsome dragons. Unlike the vague and elusive real-world concept of love, true love within the film’s storybook world has definite qualities and characteristics, and its rules are easy to grasp. True love is instant and permanent. Once Briar Rose sees the mysterious stranger, she falls for him completely and irrevocably. The fairies can’t faze Rose even when they tell her she’s really a princess and will soon marry a prince. Instead, Rose flees to her room, distraught at the possibility that she’ll never be with her true love (whose name, incidentally, she does not yet know). Second, true love has utter faith and never questions itself. As soon as Phillip and Aurora admit to themselves that they love the other, neither ever doubts his or her decision, and each assumes that their union is the only right path. For instance, as Phillip hacks his way through Maleficent’s henchmen and falls off crumbling cliffs, with the future of an entire kingdom resting on his success, he never questions once why he’s doing it. Once the couple is united, they will indeed live happily ever after. The final dissolve of the film transports the dancing couple from the floor of Stefan’s ballroom into the clouds and serves as visual proof of the perfection of their relationship and their faith.
The success of true love matters not only to the lovers involved, but to other people as well. If Phillip and Aurora do not unite, the entire kingdom crumbles. Maleficent will reign victorious, the kingdoms of Stefan and Hubert will not merge, and chaos will presumably splinter the land, given that a giant dragon is on the loose. Since true love is rare and special, not everyone can have it. It becomes a model for others to look up to, and the glue that holds a kingdom together. Indeed, above all else, the film posits that true love conquers all. It can defeat and dismiss every obstacle, every evil, and every unloving person who comes into its path.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
Home environments provide the crucial foundation for the love and goodness that the characters in Sleeping Beauty value so highly. The characters who have families have love and support, even in times of strife. Stefan and his wife have each other and share a longing for their daughter, the three fairies have one another, and Hubert has his son and, presumably, a wife back in his kingdom. The only character with no other human companionship, of course, is Maleficent. The evil fairy’s inability to love and be loved (she calls herself the “mistress of all evil”) is suggested by her lack of proper companionship. She keeps a raven and a horde of subhuman henchmen within her castle walls, which suggests some sort of perversion. Even the loving cottage of the fairies and Briar Rose is a humans-only affair. Maleficent is also excluded from another kind of domestic relationship: that between parent and child. Stefan and Hubert are both fathers, and even the fairies raise Briar Rose for sixteen years. Maleficent has only “my pet,” her raven, which is an inadequate substitute for, and a perversion of, true human family relations. A moral of the film is that families provide support and should join to create even larger families to generate even stronger support. Stefan’s and Hubert’s joint kingdoms will certainly prosper for generations to come.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The score of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is adapted from the music Tchaikovsky wrote for the ballet The Sleeping Beauty, which opened in St. Petersburg in 1890. Tchaikovsky incorporated musical motifs for each of the main characters, and they appear both simply and within more complex orchestral arrangements throughout the ballet. Tchaikovsky stayed very close to the storyline of The Sleeping Beauty as he composed his score, the result of which is a tightly woven arrangement that moves the story and its themes forward.
Almost every major character in Sleeping Beauty has his or her own musical reference that emphasizes his or her particular personality. Every time Maleficent appears, for example, harsh brass instruments whine, shriek, or burst suddenly from the silence, while the bows of cellos and basses slither ominously on low-register strings. Aurora skips through the forest with the dainty accompaniment of a harp, emphasizing her lightness and ethereal quality. Mary Costa, who voiced Aurora, has an operatic, upper-register singing voice that suggests childishness and Aurora’s burgeoning adolescence. Prince Phillip trots in on his horse, Samson, to an orchestrated, stomping march. The characters in Sleeping Beauty aren’t difficult to evaluate, and musical accompaniments are not needed to further an understanding of them. Instead, these repeated and consistent musical accompaniments serve as triggers of a sort, to increase the tension, movement, and cohesiveness of the film. In particular, the music that surrounds Maleficent intensifies her evil intentions and serves as a kind of foreshadowing—we know something bad is coming when Maleficent appears and we hear her ominous accompaniment. The melodies repeat themselves persistently—characters sing and whistle them, and various instruments pick them up throughout the film. This repetition gives the film a kind of solidity and simplicity. The most famous song, “Once Upon a Dream,” appears so often that it is practically a major character, and it serves as the thematic thread that holds the movie together.
Dreams and Visions
Throughout Sleeping Beauty, characters dream of and idealize lives beyond their own. Briar Rose, for example, dreams of the eternally perfect groom. Her song, “Once Upon a Dream,” literally describes the way she meets Phillip, who first hears Rose’s sirenlike voice from afar, as if calling to him from a dream. Aurora appears to be dreaming as she falls into a deep sleep in the castle, though we are not privy to what she’s dreaming. In addition to the dreams that characters sing about or discuss, the film presents visions—spectacles that show something past or to come, but without making clear who in the film has them. For example, when Flora and Fauna bestow their gifts upon the baby Aurora, the film illustrates each gift by dissolving into a vision. Galaxies of colors swirl, heavenly choirs praise either the gift of beauty or song, and through dissolving clouds, fluttering doves, and silver fireworks, the viewer is treated to a majestic demonstration of just how special and otherworldly these gifts are. Whether the eminences in the castle court can see the vision, however, remains uncertain. Maleficent also creates swirling visions for the captive Phillip in her dungeon. The first is of Aurora sleeping deeply. The second is of Phillip, a hundred years older, heading back gray-haired to his castle. These visions serve to enhance the magical qualities of this fairy tale and reaffirm that, despite being drawn into the tale, the viewer remains outside of it, “reading” the story from beginning to end.
Animating the Inanimate
Sleeping Beauty is, obviously, an animated film, but the magic of film animation is both showcased and echoed by scenes in which characters bring static or inanimate objects to life. The central plot involves Prince Phillip waking Aurora, and with her the entire kingdom, from a magical sleep, in effect reanimating the world of the film. The fairies animate items that are normally unmoving, such as mops and sacks of flour, giving them the ability to dance and clean. Every time a fairy waves her magic wand and transforms something from one thing into another, the viewer may think of Disney’s team doing the same thing. Elements that are still, static, or dead are awakened, animated, reanimated, or given new life.
The Geographical Triangle
Every scene in Sleeping Beauty takes place in one of three places, each with a distinctive terrain and its own set of values. At one point in this geographical triangle, Stefan’s sun-splashed kingdom sits high atop a green hill, white-walled and positioned to catch the sunset. The forest sits at another of the three points, where the fairies’ modest cottage is nestled within the depths of the shaded glen. Tall trees, forest animals, spacious greens, and healthy rivers abound in this rustic locale. And at the third point, of course, lies Maleficent’s fortress, atop the purple crags of the Forbidden Mountain. It swirls in green gases and comprises a dizzying array of rotting, mossy hallways woven into an evil labyrinth that only Maleficent and her henchmen can navigate.
Most of the film’s action results from a resident of one of these three places venturing into another’s terrain, thereby presenting a clash of values and the instigation of some sort of conflict. For example, when Maleficent appears in Stefan’s castle, she levels the curse upon Aurora that propels the plot. When the Prince rides Samson into Briar Rose’s glen, they meet and spark true love at first sight. And when the fairies venture into Maleficent’s fortress, they free the Prince and commence the final battle between Good and Evil. Each resident has the most power on his or her own home territory. The fairies take Aurora deep into their woods to protect her, Maleficent kidnaps Phillip and chains him in her own dungeon to hide him, and Stefan never leaves his castle, providing the strong home base for his family, which is reunited happily at the film’s close. The simplicity of this three-pronged geographical arrangement allows for rich contrasts based on which resident is in which terrain, and how arrangements of people interact in unfamiliar landscapes.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Spinning Wheel
Part of Aurora’s “fall” into Maleficent’s spell—her finger pricked on the spinning wheel—refers to her approaching maturity or awakening. When Rose dips her foot into the water by the river, for example, she appears to be testing it out, awakening to new, mature knowledge of the world. This maturity could ultimately mean a flowering into sexual awareness, since she is, after all, sixteen and dreaming of a Prince, or simply a general adolescent growth into adult knowledge. The film never takes a firm stand on what sort of maturity Aurora grows into, but the overall conceit of Aurora “awakening” to a man’s kiss suggests that her maturity may indeed be a sexual one.
A spinning wheel often symbolizes the unstoppable revolutions of the years, and in the film it encourages the contemplation of time and how it changes things. Spinning wheels also refer to creation, since they’re used to weave yarn or string into cloth. Most simplistically, the spinning wheel is a literal manifestation of the old phrase “spinning a spell,” which means to curse someone. Aurora, under Maleficent’s power, is made to touch the spindle—the wheel appears precisely at the crucial moment of the curse’s fruition.
Colors and Shapes
Sleeping Beauty establishes a palette of meaning by associating certain hues and saturations with certain qualities of character. Everything painted in black, green, scarlet, or sickly purple hues is evil. These colors mark Maleficent’s clothing, her castle’s interior, and the atmosphere outside of her castle. These colors are also heavily saturated, deep and harsh, and often fit into a coded shape pattern. The darker colors usually appear in less pleasing, angular shapes, such as Maleficent’s sharp, lanky dress, her jagged castle jutting into the sky, or her talon-like fingers.
Aurora and her father’s kingdom are painted warmly in an array of bright colors: oranges, blues, pinks, and yellows. Anything rendered in these colors in the film appears happy, friendly, relaxed, and loving. The borders around these colors are less harsh, more softly edged. Aurora’s soft profile, the sumptuous feast of Hubert and Stefan, and the cuddly animals of the forest are colored in this spectrum. Every dominant color in the film corresponds to a specific person or place. Samson’s white hide, Merryweather’s blue dress, and Maleficent’s henchmen’s brownish cast all indicate something crucial about their characters.
Since the prominent animals in the film do not really exist outside of their relation to a human, the role of these animals is to serve as indicators of the humans’ own characteristics. The cute, friendly animals in the forest, such as the smiling owl, the pair of wide-eyed rabbits, and the loping chipmunk, are all associated with Briar Rose. Because of them, her character appears gentle, free, playful, radiating good will for all, and, most of all, innocent. Samson, the strong white horse of Prince Phillip, reinforces Phillip’s nature as innately pure, a master of beasts, and powerful, but also friendly and kind to all good creatures. Finally, Maleficent’s raven insinuates that she is a spying, secretive, harsh creature. This style of communication is crucial to Disney films. Before the human characters act or speak, animals or other figures give an idea of how to understand them. These characters don’t have to say much. Through the colors in which they are rendered and the animals that accompany them, they are clearly coded to be read in a certain way.
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