Bernadette Peters, beverly d'angelo, brothers grimm, Carol Kane, charles perrault, Christopher Reeve, fire breathing, forest of thorns, giambattista basile, giant, kay nielsen, nutcracker ballet, prince charming, princess, rene auberjonois, russia, russian art, sleep, sleeping, sleeping beauty, sleeping beauty ballet, sleeping beauty waltz, squire, Tchaikovsky, the sleeping beauty, thorns, woodcutter, woodsman
“What is that?” “What does it look like?” “An enchanted castle […] is there a princess inside?” “Of course! You can hardly have an enchanted castle without a princess inside, now can you?”
– The “Squire” and the Woodsman on the topic of today’s story
I feel the need to post a Content Warning before we begin: The opening paragraphs include mentions of rape, traumatic childbirth, and sexual harassment. If these things are a trigger or are otherwise upsetting, please skip to “Read More” (or the paragraph after the Jack Sparrow gif) where I look at today’s episode proper.
There’s a a folklorist I follow named Austin Hackney; he’s a talented and disciplined author whose passion for fabulism is evident in his Folklore Thursday videos. His introduction on the story of The Robber Bridegroom, however, gave me pause:
It’s a fine example of just how dark and scary fairy tales can be before…Disney and the like dissolved them in the saccharine solutions of their retellings.
It’s not easy to convey in text but the distaste for Disney is evident in his voice. On the one hand, I get it, gigantic corporate overlord devouring IPs while demanding worship and all that. On the other hand, it’s unfair to cover all of Disney’s fairytales under such a massive blanket statement. Most fairy stories you can recount in five minutes tops; if you’re not going to alter them when adapting to a visual medium, you’re doing the audience and the creative team involved an extreme disservice. The artists would have very little room to stretch their creativity, and audiences, well, to say their tastes and suspensions of disbelief have changed since the fifteenth century would be a gross understatement – and that’s where Sleeping Beauty comes in.
I’ve already gone on record saying how Disney’s retelling is one of the stronger entries in the canon, both visually and in the story department. The wise decision of putting the Fairies front and center transforms the simple plot into a tale of revenge, political intrigue, and espionage with a feminist twist.
The story it’s based on, however, isn’t nearly as riveting. Much of it feels like a series of “this happened then that happened”, not helped by the titular character being there to only snooze through it. Surprisingly, the element of a cursed beauty trapped in eternal slumber and in need of rescue has appeared in many stories before its current incarnation, from Egypt’s “The Doomed Prince”, to Siegfried and Brunhilde in the Volsunga saga, to the medieval courtly romance Perceforest. It’s from there that Italian author Giambatta Basile was inspired to write his version of Sleeping Beauty, otherwise known as “Sun, Moon, and Talia”. Unfortunately, in adapting Perceforst, he kept in one unsavory detail that snowballs into an avalanche of…
Well, a cursory search on Youtube will give you a plethora of clickbaity titles such as “THE DARK HORRIFYING ORIGINS OF DISNEY’S SLEEPING BEAUTY” and “THE REAL EFFED-UP STORY OF SLEEPING BEAUTY”. Loathe as I am to say it, they’re not wrong.
In Basile’s story, Talia is a wealthy lord’s daughter who is prophesized to be doomed by a flax splinter. Her father decrees that all flax, which is used for spinning, is banished from his castle. One day teenage Talia finds an old woman spinning under a tree. A flax splinter gets caught in her finger when she has a go at it and she collapses, seemingly dead. Her father can’t bear to put her in the ground, so he shuts her in an opulent tower bedroom and abandons the estate altogether. The place gets so overgrown that it becomes part of the forest. A king goes hunting and discovers the tower when his hawk flies in through the window. He makes his way in, finds Talia, and is so taken by her beauty that he “grew hot with lust” and…
He rapes her. In no uncertain terms.
While she’s unconscious.
And still underage.
And it gets worse. King Epstein leaves Talia after he reaches his happy ending and completely forgets about her. Nine months later she goes into labor – while still unconscious – and wakes up, no doubt confused and horrified, when one of her babies sucks the flax from her finger. Her, for lack of a better word RAPIST, then suddenly remembers Talia and returns to the tower for another go only to discover he’s a father now. Talia is okay with the situation when he explains what he did to her, and he visits her frequently for more lovemaking…even though he’s married to someone else.
And it keeps. Getting. Worse.
The queen learns about Talia after the king shouts her name in his sleep one too many times. Rather than call out her philandering rapist husband, she lures Talia to the palace, accuses her of being a whore and orders her and her children to be executed. Talia buys herself some time by doing a slow striptease for the queen, crying and screaming as she’s forced to hand over her clothes. The king returns just as she’s down to nothing and has his first wife killed instead. And the moral of the story is, I kid you not, “Those whom fortune favors find good luck as they sleep”.
So, yeah, regarding adaptations of Sleeping Beauty, you can only go up from there. Most of them tend to be pretty rote retellings of the later Charles Perrault or Brothers Grimm versions – which, to their credit, completely omit the rape, wedlock, infidelity, just about everything that makes this tale traumatic. I am perfectly fine with dragon-slaying and True Love’s Kiss saving the day over…THAT. They also end the story with the prince and princess getting their standard happily ever right after the kiss with no first wives or cannibalistic stepmothers getting in the way*, which is a plus in my book.
Like a number of fairytales, Sleeping Beauty has come under fire from feminists as of late; while their arguments against Snow White and The Little Mermaid seem shallow at best, I understand where they’re coming from in this instance. The thing is, when you get right down to it, the Sleeping Beauty is more of a macguffin than a character. The people in her life want to claim or destroy her, and she often has little to no say in the matter. Whomever chooses to adapt her story has to make the characters surrounding her more interesting if we want to remain invested. Few versions exist where the Sleeping Beauty has a better-defined character or an active role in the plot because of what has to happen to her. Today’s episode of Faerie Tale Theater leans heavily on the former, but I admire their attempt at the latter mainly because of who they cast in the part.
This Sleeping Beauty’s setting is moved from medieval Europe to Russia, which gives the show an excuse to shake things up regarding visuals. Make no mistake, the look of this production is excellent. The elaborate costume design and sets raise it to a near-theatrical level. Speaking of theatricality, the episode carries on not unlike the Russian fantasy films of Alexander Rou or Ptushko, or one of the “tv-plays” that were popular on Soviet television. The fourth-wall breaking narrator, the occasional over-the-top acting, simple special effects and sets that wouldn’t feel out of place on a stage make it feel like a recorded play.
A Woodsman who loves telling stories invites us to sit with him as he relates the story we’re watching while it happens before us. Confused yet? Good, moving on. A less-than-handsome or charming prince (Ron Rifkin) and his alarmingly handsome and charming squire (Christopher Reeve) appear in the middle of the Woodsman’s work and sit down to share some wine and a good yarn. When the squire asks about a castle in the distance, the Woodsman regales them with his favorite tale. By an astounding coincidence, it’s about that castle and its inhabitants.
Once upon a time in a kingdom far, far away (be prepared to hear those words often in this outing), there was a Queen named Natasha and a King named Boris. Boris loved nothing more than Natasha doing one thing to him in bed – read him stories. Boris is a good king who clearly loves his wife but has a childlike naivete that puts him slightly out of touch with the world around him; when Natasha says she wishes for something like the pitter-patter of tiny feet, he asks if she wants elves. A voice coming from a jewelry box distracts Natasha before she can elaborate.
This…little person whom I assume is a fairy gets Natasha to realize that what she desires is a child, and she’ll have to forego storytime tonight if she wants to have any. Then she whispers in her ear how to get one, which Natasha whispers to Boris and next thing you know…
The Tale of the Frog Prince had its occasional innuendo, but Sleeping Beauty is overflowing with them. This is one of the thirstiest episodes of the series – and it’s part of why I enjoy it. A great deal of the humor is targeted squarely at adults, but not so much that it overpowers the story or becomes too lurid. The actors really know how to sell the jokes without being indecent. I think we can all be glad, however, that the squire chose to interrupt the story there before the Woodsman went into too much detail.
Anyway, Boris and Natasha are soon blessed with a lovely baby Princess. Boris invites every fairy in the kingdom to attend the christening – all except the fairy Henbane, who hasn’t been seen in years and is presumed dead. The fairies’ faces are painted to match their colors they represent in the original story, Red, Green, Yellow and so on, which is a neat touch.
The fairies bestow the usual royal gifts on the infant – beauty, grace, and so on – but before the last can give her gift, Henbane shows up mad as a hornet over being snubbed. Henbane is played by Beverly D’Angelo, and she does not hold back on the smarmy ham. Where Maleficent was smooth, cold, and calculating with flashes of temper beneath her icy surface, Henbane is brash up front, taking personal pride in how nasty she is and always ready with a sharp quip. Based on how the fairies talk about her (the Green one in particular), and her fuming at the royals, her spell seems cast not so much out of spite but because she has a reason to spread more misery:
Henbane: Where are your manners, kingy?!
Boris: W-we really searched far and wide –
Henbane: Never been either place.
Natasha: Besides, we’ve heard you weren’t exactly partial to these functions.
Henbane: Hate ’em. But that’s no excuse!
Henbane curses the princess to die from the prick of a spinning wheel spindle. Her gift of death, as she sees it, spares the princess from the burden of trifling emotions like love that comes with her fellow fairies’ gifts. Luckily Henbane’s sweet scatterbrained sister The Pink Fairy (Carol Kane) steps in and commutes the death sentence to a hundred-year sleep (“Give or take a few days”) which will end when a noble prince finds and kisses her.
With the Woodsman’s tale seemingly at its end, the Prince is eager to continue his journey. The squire, however, is enamored with the Princess and insists on rescuing her. The Prince and Woodsman have to hold him back; many princes have tried to reach the Sleeping Beauty before but none of them have gotten past the man-eating briars surrounding the castle, let alone its fierce guardian, a monstrous, towering, fire-breathing –
…giant. A fire-breathing giant. Totally not a dragon.
When none of this dissuades the squire, the Prince spills the beans – he’s really the squire, Squire Tuck (ha), and the upstart squire is the true Prince. His refined manners, taking charge of the conversation and fixating on the Princess was already a dead giveaway, but come on, it’s Christopher Reeve. You just can’t shunt a perfectly chiseled six-foot-tall blue-eyed specimen of manliness into the sidekick role and make us believe it. He’s confident, he’s brave and kind, he’s just plain super – a “super man”, if you will.
The Prince then tells his story: Once upon a time, he dreamed of a maiden that was the vision of loveliness and charity. The Prince took Squire Tuck on a worldwide journey to seek her out. Their search led them to the kingdom of one Princess Debbie (Bernadette Peters). Debbie is beautiful but vain, shallow and mean-spirited, hardly the picture of grace and generosity. Bernadette Peters has always had a wide acting range, and it’s fun to see her play conniving bitchy characters such as Debbie. She and Christopher have some amazing chemistry together too, acting, comedic, and…otherwise. The Prince is cordial to Debbie in spite of his doubts, while she thinks he’s a bore. The only reason she continues putting the moves on him is because her mother reminds her how wealthy his kingdom is.
The Prince invites Debbie to feed the poor with him in disguise, one of his favorite pasttimes. Debbie brings him up to her bedroom under the pretense that her jewelry is worth enough to help feed the populace for weeks – and she wants him to pluck it off her piece by piece. When Debbie makes the Prince pull some pearls off her bodice with his mouth –
– he realizes it’s just costume jewelry and that he’s been had. Debbie laughs at his humiliation then suddenly transforms into Henbane. She warns him to stay away from princesses and promptly vanishes. A fine bit of trickery to be sure, but with it comes a number of questions. Was Henbane possessing Debbie? Did Debbie even exist? Did she enchant Debbie’s mother into believing she had a daughter? Were they and the entire kingdom conjured up by Henbane as part of her elaborate ruse to make sure the Prince doesn’t undo her curse?
The Prince, while unnerved by this experience, isn’t put off enough to give up his quest entirely. Instead he has him and Tuck switch places so they’ll have an easier time discerning the good princesses from the bad. The Woodsman tells him his story stinks and continues his tale:
Boris and Natasha’s daughter grows into a perfect lady with a dowry you could cry for. Boris entertains King Murray, the father of one courting prince, in the hopes that she’ll be married and moved far away for her safety (Henbane’s curse extends only to the kingdom’s borders). He’s also taken extra precautions by banishing all spindles (quite right, good idea, quite right) and not telling the Princess anything about the spell…
A thought occurs: have any of the parents in these Sleeping Beauty stories ever bothered to warn their daughters about the curse placed on them? I imagine a lot of trouble could have been avoided if they did.
The Princess is also played by Bernadette Peters, but she is Debbie’s opposite in every conceivable way. Courteous, kind, gentle and charitable, she instantly delights her potential father-in-law. And honestly, who wouldn’t be won over by Bernadette’s natural charm? She also entertains the kings with a Judy Garland song; an unusual and anachronistic choice, but I’ll take any excuse to hear her sing.
Arrangements for the wedding begin at once. The Princess is terrified about marrying a man she’s never met, but she takes her father’s word about her future husband being sweet, courageous and wise – which turns out to be a filthy lie. Just like how Bernadette Peters plays both the Princess and her less-than-winsome counterpart, Christopher Reeve portrays the Prince’s ignoble doppelganger – and he’s a riot. Reeve rarely had the chance to excise his comic chops outside of The Muppet Show (and apparently Noises Off, though I haven’t seen that yet) but oh, what could have been! “My Son, The Prince” (that’s all he’s referred to during his far-too-brief scene) is a self-absorbed dandy modeled after Walter Raleigh and Reeve is unrecognizable in the part.
The Princess may be willing to do anything to keep her father happy, but she draws the line at marrying Beau Brummell. She hides from him in an unfamiliar room where she finds an old woman at a spinning wheel. The crone (spoiler alert: it’s Henbane) gives the princess a spinning tutorial and her curse comes to pass. Boris and Natasha are heartbroken until the Pink Fairy reminds them that their daughter’s only sleeping. When Boris points out that everyone she knows will be dead by the time she wakes up, the fairy gets the bright idea of freezing over the kingdom. Boris, Natasha and some of the guards fall asleep like in the story, but others such as the cooks and servants get a freeze frame in the middle of their work. Typical, even when cursed the upper class lays about while the rest are stuck laboring. Then Henbane shows up and zaps the briars into existence around the castle just to spite her goody two-shoes sister and prepares one more nasty surprise…
Now that he has the full story, the Prince borrows the Woodsman’s axe to hack his and Tuck’s way through the thorns (and past the corpses of failed princes). The Woodsman wasn’t exaggerating when he said there were man-eating brambles; the vines reach out to attack to them unawares. The scene gets a lot of mileage out of waving the vines in front of the Prince as he swings at them while the camera frantically zooms in and out. It’s the one moment that looks like something from a home movie instead of a professional production. The Prince defeats the briars only to come face-to-face with the giant – Henbane herself, channeling Lo Pan, Godzilla and Rita Repulsa all at once.
Henbane challenges the Prince to “Step into MY reality!” – not as threatening as “Now you shall deal with me and all the powers of hell!”, but it applies to how bizarre this scene is: the background gives way to inverted black and white footage of battles as they duel, really making it feel like they’re in a different hellish dimension. Ultimately the Prince defeats Henbane by quite literally shattering her reality.
Now that Henbane’s dead and all of her defenses are down, the Prince searches the castle until he finds the Princess. Indeed, she is the one he’s been dreaming of. He goes on a lovely bit of purple prose in admiration of her and wondering if he should dare disturb such purity –
He does, and the Princess awakens at last. It turns out she’s been dreaming of the Prince too and is happy to see him in person. It’s a sweet moment until the King and Queen wake up and make things awkward. But of course, everyone lives happily ever after – except for the Woodsman, who never got his axe back and is stuck trying to cut down a tree with a knife. Eh, at least he doesn’t have to do it with a herring.
Finally, an episode that’s good all around with hardly any problematic elements, some perfectly cast actors, witty dialogue and the right amount of alterations needed to tell the story to its fullest. Yes, the amount of mature humor manages to outdo The Frog Prince, and it has its moments of 80s cheese, but this entry is clever in how it utilizes both to give us an unforgettable time. Christopher Reeve likened the experience of shooting this to a fun school play that helped him rediscover the joy in acting. Sleeping Beauty is easily one of Faerie Tale Theatre’s crown jewels, and I can’t recommend it enough.
- Like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty this episode weaves Tchaikovsky’s ballet music into the score as well as pieces from Tchaikovsky’s other works: his Romeo and Juliet theme is in the background when our lovers are united, and the Arabian Dance from The Nutcracker plays when Princess Debbie tries to seduce the Prince.
- Carol Kane would somewhat reprise her role here in Richard Donner’s Scrooged as the fairy-like Ghost of Christmas Present. She also compares the film’s Tiny Tim, a little boy who’s gone mute since witnessing his father’s death, to Sleeping Beauty, saying he’s trapped under a spell like she was. Coincidence?
- Henbane spends her introductory scene walking across the tables, towering over everyone as she sneers at them and almost stepping on the baby at one point. A perfect visualization of her attitude, and Beverly D’Angelo exercises some good physical comedy too.
- Apparently the Sleeping Beauty costume was lost for years, until devoted Faerie Tale Theatre fans tracked it down and presented it to Shelley Duvall as a gift. How nice.
- Bernadette Peters would return to fairy tales in one of my favorite musicals, Into The Woods, though as a Witch instead of a princess. Sleeping Beauty makes an appearance at the end, bringing everything full-circle.
- Two of the fairies bless the Princess with bravery (a quality more befitting a prince, Boris tries to argue) and “the wit of an angel”. Angels are associated with many qualities, but wit isn’t among them to my knowledge. Hearing Christopher Reeve sincerely declare “The wit of an angel!” whenever he rattles off the Princess’ charms gets a chuckle out of me. Shame we don’t really see the Princess utilize these gifts…unless you count her being smart enough to recognize that “My Son, The Prince” would be an awful match for her.
- Despite the Woodsman referring to Henbane’s final form as a giant, the fairy tale book that came with my DVD set claims she turned into a dragon, and her look is very reptilian. I’m assuming the showrunners could only do so much out of fear of upsetting the Mouse.
- There’s actually a decent green-screen shot where the Prince wanders past two of the frozen servants with a tablecloth midair between them. It looks like he’s in the same room as them.
- The Green Fairy is played by an actor who gives him some stereotypical gay mannerisms. Compounded with the fact that that “fairy” is an age-old slur for gay men I should be annoyed at this portrayal like I was in past episodes, yet his zingers directed at the other fairies – especially Henbane – are on fire, and he’s on the side of the heroes for once. And even though the foppish “My Son, The Prince” isn’t free from scrutiny either, well, both characters entertain me enough to earn a pass.
- Oh joy, we have a female AND male lead with no official names this time around. Equality, I guess?
- Most of the fairies’ voices are pitched up and put through some kind of filter that make them sound a bit off. One comment on Youtube claimed that this was a change made for the DVDs and their voices went untouched on the original VHS tapes, but having found a version of the episode ripped from a VHS, I can confirm that their voices were always like that.
- Princess Debbie’s kingdom, skimpy wardrobe and full name (Deborah al-Shmitar) are inspired by the Orientalist view of the Middle East; it has unshakeable Arabian Nights vibes.
- I have a confession to make: the only reasons I know about Ptushko and Roe are from their films appearing on MST3K. To be fair, they are among my favorites that Mike, Joel and the bots have riffed on. The cinematography and production value are excellent in spite of the goofy American dubs and editing. Plus I can’t say no to a good fantasy epic.
- Yes I’m aware of Red Son, the comic that reimagines Superman’s origin story if he landed in Soviet Russia. I can’t really envision Christopher Reeve playing that kind of Superman, though.
- Boris and Natasha, interesting choice of names for the King and Queen. Your thoughts, Steve?
Hey, Was That…: Rene Auberjonois plays King Boris, his second king since Tale of the Frog Prince. I’d make an argument for typecasting but we’re only five episodes into the series. The Woodsman is played by George Dzundza, one of the victims in Basic Instinct. Richard Libertini, the voice of Dijon from the original Ducktales, is King Murray. Sally Kellerman, Major “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan from M*A*S*H* (from Robert Altman, another Popeye connection!) is the third actor in this episode to play a double role, Queen Natasha and Queen Farrah. One is a loving mother who does what she believes is best for her child out of the need to protect her, the other pushes her daughter at someone she hates because of his money; again, the theme of negative parallels abound heavy in this outing.
Who’s The Artist?: Kay Nielsen, respected Danish illustrator and concept artist during Disney’s early years. Ironically, Sleeping Beauty is not one of the films he worked on – but he was responsible for the look of Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain, and his Little Mermaid sketches for an unrealized Hans Christian Andersen feature would later inspire the Disney artists when they brought The Little Mermaid to the big screen.
NOTE: Turns out Wikipedia was wrong! Nielsen did some preliminary character designs and artwork for Sleeping Beauty after all; some of his drawings were featured in a recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about the influence that classical European art had on iconic Disney animated films Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast.
Better Or Worse Than…?: While Disney’s Sleeping Beauty will always be my favorite, this is quite good as well. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s my second favorite version of the tale. It even outdoes HBO’s Happily Ever After’s take on the story, which is no small feat, but considering the alternatives are the Cannon Movie Tales, Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics, Golden Films, a bunch of foreign and erotic movies I’ve never seen, and Angeline Jolie’s Maleficent (ugh), it speaks volumes as to how rare it is to find a good retelling of this story.
A quick note: Since some of you have mentioned some worthwhile literary retellings of these fairy tales in the comments, should I also include them in this category? I’m open to the possibility of doing so.
Ranking: This is not an easy choice, but I found so much more to appreciate and enjoy in this episode than I have in previous viewings. Because of its ingenious updates to the story and setting, incomparable leads, and just being an overall joy to revisit, Sleeping Beauty gets the new number one spot, bumping Tale of the Frog Prince down to second place (and unfortunately signaling that my original Top 10 list is most likely going to be out-of-date by the time we reach the series’ end, but we’ll see how it goes.) Play us out, Pyotr!
Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre Reviews: Fee fi fo fum, I smell Jack and the Beanstalk!
Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th each month while film reviews are posted on the 20th. Special thanks to my patrons Amelia Jones, TylerFG and Sam Flemming for their contributions. Those who join the Patreon party get special perks such as sneak previews of reviews, requests and more!
* – The Perrault and Grimm versions change the Queen from the Prince’s first wife misdirecting her anger to the Prince’s evil stepmother who also happens to be an ogress. She orders the Princess and her children to be cooked so she can eat them, but the chef hides them and serves her animals instead. When she discovers the ruse she tries to shove the Princess into a pit of vipers only for the Prince to show up, and she throws herself in instead. I think you can guess why this was left out of most adaptations.