Easily my favorite is Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959) which took the studio some eight years to develop, five for the animation alone. It featured grand-scale music by Tchaikovsky; stunning Medieval- and Gothic-inspired artwork by Eyvind Earle; a suitably princess-y princess (sweet, not a little dull) that might have been turned out from the same plastic mold as Barbie; and, most impressive of all, a magnificently malevolent villainess named Maleficent.
Animated by Marc Davis, voiced by Eleanor Audley, Maleficent was regally tall, with pale, toad-green complexion and knife-blade brows, her voice feline and insinuating, her head topped by a huge horned jet-black helmet--the unholy issue, one guessed, of a union between the regally cheek-boned Katherine Hepburn and the Night in Bald Mountain demon Chernabog, from Disney's Fantasia (1940). By film's finale Maleficent transforms herself into a bat-winged dragon, jaws and neck stretching diagonally across the vast Technirama 70 screen (one of only two Disney features to ever be shot in this format). Motion animator Eric Cleworth modeled the dragon's motions on a rattlesnake's "powerful muscles moving a bulky body over rocky terrain;" sound effects man Jim MacDonald based its fiery voice on a U.S. Army flamethrower. The result is one of the most memorable monsters ever, a clashing, clanging steel-armored Gothic creation that finds its closest equivalent in Ursula K. Le Guin's distinctively metallic descriptions of dragons in her fantasy novels A Wizard of Earthsea, and Tehanu (perhaps she was inspired by the film).
Every Disney princess since has grown increasingly saccharine, the pictures increasingly pallid echoes of Beauty. In the '90s the studio experienced a renaissance of sorts--they discovered Broadway, and created animated parodies of classic song-and-dance numbers. With the help of composer Alan Mencken and lyricist Howard Ashman they gave a mermaid her legs (The Little Mermaid, 1989), a bookworm-y belle her beast (Beauty and the Beast, 1991), considerably diluting along the way the tales' darker tones with the usual Disney uplift.
Pfui. Belle was ostensibly a pretty nerd, with fetching brunette locks drooping as her head bent over leather-clad books, but beyond actually being seen with the tomes there was little evidence in her thoughts or words that she was more than average smart. I much prefer Gretchen Baretto in Mario O'Hara's Johnny Tinoso and the Proud Beauty (1994)--she professes to no special literary knowledge, and would never be caught cracking open a book (too much dust involved), but she was witty the way Belle was never witty, wielding the kind of barbed cruelty only a thoroughly spoiled bitch living in her hacienda mansion can develop, alone in her princess suite and sitting in her bath with the special bubbles (I like to think she viewed Mae West films in her spare time). O'Hara's film, taking its cue from the Nick Joaquin story, adds a twist or two: when the beast is cured it's beauty's turn to suffer--a clawed hand clutches at her horned forehead, a little head sprouts out of one side her skull, its tiny expression twisted with pain. "Tell me you love me," she demands of Johnny Tinoso, hoping the formula that worked on him would work on her as well. "I love you," Johnny says quietly, truthfully; nothing happens. "Say it again!" she demands of him. He does, and again nothing happens. This is Joaquinland, where sensuality and not fantasy reigns, and ironic twists of fate coupled with an oddly moving moral reckoning are the order of the day.
Nathan Greno and Byron Howard's Tangled (2010) is, if anything, largely irony-free, and if I ever find anything sensual I'd be happy to mail it back to the studio free of charge. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is your standard-issue princess, re-tinkered by Pixar veteran Dan Fogelman (he wrote Cars (2006)) to be spunkier, more teeny-bopper friendly than the helpless martyrs of Disney films past (though in the end she turns out to be every bit as passive as her predecessors); her Prince Charming is Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) a self-conscious, narcissistic rogue (with the inevitable heart of gold). You could pretty much sense, not to mention sum up, the Pixar touch (John Lasseter is executive producer) when regarding these characters: spiffed up and modernized on the surface, basically the same ole sorry thing underneath.
There's a missed opportunity in the relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), the witch that kidnaps the girl from her rightful royal parents--Gothel is seen cannily exploiting Rapunzel for her own selfish ends, or at least that's what we ultimately see; in the movie's early scenes there's some doubt, a possibility that Mother Gothel really does care--a possibility that the movie quickly tosses out the tower window (Apparently Disney villains are incapable of lasting emotional attachments; any emotional complexity can be briefly suggested, but should be squelched immediately after to avoid confusing the kiddies). When Mother Gothel shifts into supervillain mode Rapunzel becomes equally simplified, becomes yet another standard-issue simpering Disney martyr ready to serve up honor, life and hair to the one she loves (who invariably is Prince Charming--sorry, Flynn Rider).
Oh, there's a pretty digital light-and-sound show somewhere in the middle of the picture (frankly, I think the St. Augustine Fire Balloon Festival in Tanza, Cavite is much lovelier), but the show's real attraction is Rider's heroic sidekick Maximus--well, he doesn't start out that way; actually, he pursues Rider with the deadly determination of a Javier Bardem in a Coen Brothers film, until he learns differently. That he--the horse--shows more wit, inventiveness, energy and character development than anyone else in the movie says something about said movie, I think. There should be a sequel, with that horse as the star.
First published in Businessworld, 1.27.11