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.
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.
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.
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.