The story of Sleeping Beauty is ripe for reinterpretation, if only because of how simple and boring it can be. The title character, after all, is unconscious for the bulk of the narrative. Disney’s newest solution is Maleficent, in which the villain becomes the main character. Whether that was a successful call remains to be seen (our own critic wasn’t so impressed). For my money the best, most inspired feature-length twist on the story is that of Catherine Breillat, who countered the snoozing character’s complete lack of agency by giving her a rich and exciting dream life.
The prize for funniest adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, however, goes to the National Film Board of Canada. Claude Cloutier’s Sleeping Betty is a cartoon short film that takes the strategy of the Shrek series and turns it loose on a vast panoply of familiar images and cultural touchstones. It begins in a crowded room. The queen is distraught, hunched on a chair next to the bed of her dormant daughter. The king is next to the bed, trying to shake the princess out of her slumber. Around them is a strange cast of visitors which includes familiar images of Henry VIII and Queen Victoria, a court jester and a many-eyed extraterrestrial.
No amount of noise will do the job, unfortunately. A call is placed to a far-off rent-a-prince service and a valiant warrior is dispatched. While awaiting his arrival, the assembled dignitaries start throwing every idea they’ve got at the ears of the unconscious princess. Cloutier cuts between the hilarious errors of a witch and the rapidly approaching knight, whose wild ride is accompanied by the insistent melody of Dvorak’s 9th Symphony.
Sleeping Betty is loaded with as many jokes as will fit, and then some. Cloutier’s detail-oriented style of animation is especially suited to this constant barrage of humor. The film looks like a hand-drawn storybook. Each shot is packed with strokes of the pen, each element shaded with a frenetic commitment to detail. There are physical sight gags, most effective among them being the ever-sillier gait of prince charming’s deranged steed. There are also plenty of referential visual jokes, drawn from a wide variety of cultural nodes. Cloutier takes aim at the likes of John Wayne and Pablo Picasso, figures whose images will presumably last a bit longer than many of the more immediately relevant pop culture punchlines that plague so many animated features.
Like the best spoofs, moreover, Sleeping Betty pokes fun at more than single images and characters. It undermines the concept of seriousness itself. Following in the footsteps of Shrek, this is a satire of the common themes and tropes of fairy tales. The rent-a-prince service, the incompetence of the witch and the satyr, and the ludicrously lengthy journey taken by the prince to the bedside of the princess are all broad comic appropriations of the genre. This backdrop of playful humor seamlessly incorporates cultural nods like Wayne and Picasso. At the same time, absurd moments involving a moose, a a vacuum cleaner and an alarm clock are woven just as perfectly into the short’s mood.
In other words, the strength of the spoof is its ability to take different kinds of cultural material and different kinds of comedy and meld them all into an equalizing whirlwind of absurd humor. And as Cloutier proves with Sleeping Betty, animation is a particularly effective mode for this sort of leveling. Anything goes, from a witch’s half-broom/half-vacuum to a moose/dragon, using the limitless potential of the medium to let loose a baroque avalanche of jokes. You’ll probably want to watch it twice, not necessarily something one could say of Maleficent.