Monday, May 16, 2011

The Horror of Sleeping Beauty

This year the British Film Institute is showing all 50 films in Disney’s official animation canon. It’s a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the quality of the animation on the big screen, and to catch some of the more seldom seen pictures in the Disney collection.

Not every one is a complete masterpiece, indeed, some of more obscure pictures are obscure for a reason. But there was one film I was particularly keen on seeing, and that was Sleeping Beauty. Why? Because Sleeping Beauty was to be Walt’s big attempt at a full length epic – something that would prove that animation could be taken seriously as art.

He spent 7 years animating it. Had actors perform many of the scenes so they could be rotoscoped. He scored the film with pieces of Tchaikovsky's ballet of the same name. He spent so much time developing the look of the thing, that he, alas, neglected some of the story telling.

The Prince and Princeless are entirely bland, totally pared down to little more than instruments of the story, not real characters at all. And the villainess Maleficent is humourless and colourlessly wicked – although admittedly an impressive looking creation. It’s as if the story is so tried and true, that Walt is going through the motions. Only the good fairies are really memorable.

But still, Sleeping Beauty is worth seeing, and because of the seven good years Walt spent on it. Just admire the beautiful colours and the stunning layered effect of this opening sequence (well as best as you can on YouTube.

Despite it’s duller than average storytelling, Sleeping Beauty is still a worthwhile spectacle. Walt’s excesses are justified. But besides the wonderful opening, the other sequence of note is the climax, which is what stimulated me to write this post.

I went to see Sleeping Beauty on a Saturday, and what had not occurred to me at all, is that the screening would be full of kids. It was packed too, which was good to see. The kids were quite well behaved too. But it was the parents who surprised me. They hadn’t seemed to have expected that the film just might be a bit scary.

Now this is the BFI, where a film is part of a programme, it’s not screened over and over – the parents will have chosen to bring their kids here, they won’t have been badgered by them. Could they really not have known what they were seeing?

In the climax, the handsome Prince escapes from Maleficent’s dark castle (as frightening a dark castle as has appeared in any animation) and having dodged many of her attacks, he rides towards the Princess’s kingdom. Maleficent casts a spell which surrounds the city in a forest of thorns. But the Prince hacks through the thorns with his enchanted sword.

Enraged, Maleficent roars through the sky and lands ahead him. She transforms into a dragon and roars waves of fire at him. He is forced back, protected by only his shield. The forest is set on fire and the ground collapses under the weight of the dragon’s strength. The Prince is pushed to the edge of a cliff; his shield falls from his grip. All is almost lost, but the good fairies bless his sword once more and he plunges his sword into the dragon's heart. It falls dead, almost upon the Prince, who is forced to run up its back to avoid plummeting into the chasm as the ground collapses under it.

It’s a dark sequence and pretty scary. There was a sense of tension in the air, not just because of the drama. Maybe it was just me, but I thought I could feel mumblings of “that’s a bit much”. Judge for yourself:

Then as the sword hits the dragon’s heart, I heard the women sat next to me, I’m guessing a grandmother, with granddad and granddaughter, made a very audible tut. When the film end As I stood to leave, I heard the woman next to me say to her husband “well it says a great deal about the people of that time”.

Now, I can only assume she was talking of the violence and horror, which she had so clearly shown displeasure at. I also heard others claim that it was quite a surprisingly scary sequence. True, it certainly has impact. I noticed at the screening, and confirmed on the YouTube vid, that there’s even a bit of blood.

I must admit to being rather aghast at this bizarre response. Now granted, I am not a parent. But I was a child once, and I saw Sleeping Beauty when I was a child, although perhaps a bit older than those in the screening. I don’t remember being scared by it. I remember it. When the dragon hits the prince with the fire and it knocks him across the ground - I remember that vividly. It made other dragons in other cartoons look pathetic.

So from personal experience, it was not too scary. But what about other children? You know, I don’t think I heard any child cry or scream during the scene. There was some crying earlier, when Maleficent stalked menacingly, but none during the actual sequence.

Just what did the woman mean when she said, “well it says a great deal about the people of that time”. That the audience was less sophisticated? This is Sleeping Beauty, one of the most gorgeous looking animations of all time. Is she seriously suggesting it is less sophisticated than, say, Sammy: A Turtle’s Tale or Rio. And the fact that the cinema is full more than 50 years after its first release says something surely for its credentials. There are no shortage of animated films, even in the Disney canon – we could’ve gone to see something else.

I’m guessing it’s the horror and the violence she objects too. Yet horror and violence have been part of children’s stories for centuries. Have you read a Grimm Fairytale? I have a vivid memory of one where an imp type creature tricks boys into climbing in hollow trees, and then traps them inside and dances off. The End – no happy ending at all.

So what’s so harmful about this particular film? The violence? Is the killing of the dragon with a sword condoning violence? Should the Prince have tried to reason with it, a monster who literally delights in evil? Where would the excitement be in that, do we not view fairy tales, not just for the romance, but for the excitement? They are never without adventure – why else would boys even give them a look.

Do they really think that children are going to pick up swords and start trying to stab each other? I don’t think in the last 50 years there’s been a huge rise in sword related violence. Knife crime perhaps, but again, I don’t somehow think the gang lads from East London and the council estates where brought up on a diet of Disney. And they’re not children are they?

Disney, the company, is not without its panics as regards violence. Another film I saw, Make Mine Music, features a hillbilly sequence, which was removed from the DVD release because of the constant gunplay. I can sort of sympathise with this, guns can look like a toy, but then again, it’s the parent’s responsibility to store them safely. And again, I don’t think gun deaths in America are likely to have risen between kids after watching Disney – I doubt there was any rise at the time, and the movie came out during WW2!

Why do parents feel the need to patronise their children in this way? Do they not think they can tell the difference between reality and unreality? Do children not understand that an animation is an animation? That there are no Dragons or Witches or talking animals.

I watched cartoons with absolute obsession when I was a child. I knew the difference between truth and reality. I never thought that if I shot my brother (and believe me, we did not get on), in the way that say Elmer Fudd shot Daffy Duck, that he would be fine in 5 seconds time. Kids can believe what they know really isn’t true, and while every so often a story appears where a child had been hurt does appear, are these not very isolated incidents?

I just can’t believe that people honestly feel these things need censoring. Or that children today find this material too strong. There’s a bizarre lack of retrospection – if it was fine for you to watch as a child, why wouldn’t it be fine for children now? You know, there were no screams in the cinema, no crying during the big climax. Only adults were frightened.

Who knows what scares kids? When I was a child I screamed when, in an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine, he was covered black in coal*. I once babysitted a girl frightened by the appearance of Santa in an episode of Barney. Yet I turned out reasonably normal; I can honestly say I've hardly shot anyone in ages.

Is it possible, just possible, that kids knew it would turn out ok? Will they have now deduced by now that maybe it will turn out ok despite the horror? Maybe, just maybe, Walt knew what he was doing, and maybe that’s why Sleeping Beauty has lasted, while Sammy: A Turtle’s Tale and Rio will be forgotten quickly.

And I wonder whether some of the others there who were surprised by the scariness, where surprised because their memory had played tricks on them? Was it that scary when they were kids? Well yes it was, and is that the power of the happy ending – that it clouds out all the nightmares on the way?

It just worries me that such an engaging piece of art can be devalued by the wet-prejudices of people who would seek to protect children from scary things, unreal violent things. That they should think them so simple that they can’t determine truth from fiction. That they could be patronised so, and as result, deprived of such character.

We are depriving our children if we do not treat them to art, and fob them off with committee made CGI talking animal blandities. There’s a reason that the cinema was full, and that’s because generations have enjoyed this film, and wanted to share the movie with their kids. You are not different from your children, they are like you were when you were a child. They cannot take less than you can. And if they’re scared, well, they’ll get over it. Children are resilient too.

Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the tutting women, disgusted with Walt’s violent narrative, is happy with her granddaughter hearing the story of outspoken man who was betrayed by his friend, stoned, beaten and then nailed to a cross until dead.

Now that’s a story that’s had long-standing violent repercussions.

*I was put off by the idea of black-face even then.