"Maleficent": The Original

With the live-action/3D Maleficent a success at the box-office (at least this week), I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the origin of the title character.

Most people probably know that the arch-villainess first appeared in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The 1959 film was in production for most of the decade and ended up costing six million dollars, making it the most expensive animated feature up to that time.

Original 1959 Whitman "Story Hour" Sleeping Beauty

Disney had wanted this film to be his masterpiece, and to a certain degree, mostly visually, it is. In keeping with the epic trends of the ‘50s (Ben-Hur, et al.), Sleeping Beauty was shot in Technirama, one of the largest widescreen processes of the era, and with multi-track stereophonic sound.

Another innovation was having one artist oversee the entire look of the film. Eyvind Earle, an artist noted for his stylized renderings of California landscapes, was given free rein to style the film’s total look. But while the film looks fabulous, Disney was also involved with the development and opening of Disneyland (in 1955) and so had less time to contribute his usually-astute editing skills to the film’s story and characters.

However, one aspect of the film that was a unique success is the character of Maleficent, the wicked fairy whose curse motivates the entire story. Her character was visualized as a statuesque, even glamorous, blue-complected creation with a throaty voice and a rather sophisticated sense of irony. Her subtle evil is enhanced by a flowing black robe with touches of purple topped off with a formidable headdress of two prominent black horns (the latter a kind of premonition of her awesome transformation into a dragon at the film’s spectacular climax).

And as if more was needed, viewers of the period really knew they were getting a new kind of Disney villain when, during the dragon scene, she declaims “Now shall you deal with me, oh prince, and all the powers of HELL!”

However, some of the 1959 film’s character motivations remained a bit vague, so if you’re still wondering why, aside from being snubbed at the christening, such a dominating sorceress was ticked off enough to put a death curse on a newborn princess, I hear you can find out in detail in the new Maleficent (2014).

In the Ventura County Library collection the original animated Sleeping Beauty is available in a two-disc Platinum DVD set with lots of extra features. Eyvind Earle’s autobiography, Horizon Bound on a Bicycle (1990) is also available. Several editions of Christopher Finch’s The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom (Abrams, 1973) provide a comprehensive overview of the Disney oeuvre. The well-known author/illustrator Bill Peet also worked on Sleeping Beauty’s story adaptation.

 

Ross Care

Daisy Duck as Maleficent, Main Street, Disneyland