Disney // 1959 // 75 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // February 14th, 2004
Something to charm every member of your family
When modern audiences are asked to name their all-time favorite Disney animated films, the responses routinely include The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, and Cinderella. Often lost in the shuffle is one of Walt's most ambitious, innovative, and inspired projects -- Sleeping Beauty. Leveraging the majesty of Tchaikovsky's ballet score, this classic fairy tale has been defined for generations to come, in what many animation historians believe is the pinnacle of Disney feature animation. You will be stunned by this meticulously restored presentation and amazed by a kingdom filled with bonus materials.
On a glorious morning in the 14th Century, a beautiful baby girl was born unto King Stefan (voiced by Taylor Holmes) and his Queen, and they bestowed upon her the name Aurora, for the sunlight she had brought into their lives. A celebration was ordered and proclaimed throughout the land, bringing forth well-wishers from far and near, including King Hubert (Bill Thompson) and his son Phillip (Bill Shirley), to whom Aurora (Mary Costa) would be betrothed.
Blessing the newborn babe, the kingdom's three good fairies (Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy) bestowed upon her the gifts of beauty and song. Yet before the third gift could be given, the ceremony was interrupted by the arrival of the kingdom's exiled, evil fairy, Maleficent (Eleanor Audley). Angered that she had been left off the guest list, Maleficent dramatically unveiled her gift to the child, sealing Aurora's fate, ensuring her death by pinprick at the tender age of 16. The royal family distraught, Merryweather -- the third good fairy -- bequeaths her gift to the baby. While powerless to undo Maleficent's curse, she is able to modify it such that Aurora would not die but merely fall into a deep sleep, one which could only be ended by true love's kiss. To further ensure Aurora's safety, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather secret the babe away deep into the woods, where she will be raised as a foundling peasant girl, known as Briar Rose, until her 16th birthday, when Maleficent's curse is made null and void.
Yet the best laid plans of fairies and men do often go astray, allowing Maleficent access to the princess and fulfilling her destiny. Not stopping there, the evil one kidnaps Prince Phillip and locks him away in her dungeon, thereby guaranteeing Aurora will never awaken. Now it is up to the good fairies to rescue Phillip and help him break the curse before the kingdom is plunged into eternal darkness and sorrow.
January 29, 1959, marked the release of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty and the culmination of nearly 10 years of production, demanding more resources than any other film in Disney history. In fact, staff writer Marty Sklar recalls that, as early as 1938, Walt had him researching story ideas for Sleeping Beauty, among other concepts. The story itself dates back to a 1528 collection of French tales entitled Anciennes Chroniques de Perce Forest, which in turn served as the inspiration for Charles Perrault's La Belle au Bois Dormant and ultimately the Brothers Grimm's 1812 tale Brier-Rose. The Disney version touches on elements of all three, but it is most closely linked to the Brothers Grimm story, in which the curse plays a pivotal role. Yet it was more than story development that kept this film in perpetual production.
Not wanting Sleeping Beauty to be seen as nothing more than a rehash of Snow White or Cinderella, Walt set out to create a truly visionary picture, pushing the boundaries of contemporary animation and creating what he called a "moving illustration." To achieve this feat, he hired noted painter Eyvind Earle, whose passion for Medieval and Gothic art would bring new life to the Disney palette. Much like the revolutionary work done for Fantasia, Earle gave Sleeping Beauty a world as yet unseen.
By emphasizing the use of horizontal and vertical planes, Earle and fellow designer Tom Oreb introduced us to a striking world nearly devoid of all angles. What this allowed them to do was utilize diagonal light sources to add a new level of dimensionality and depth to the backgrounds, further enhanced by Earle's use of deep clarity, bringing all elements into focus instead of just those in the foreground. While these restrictions created a myriad of problems for the principal animators, it also forced them to stretch their respective talents and in turn create some truly memorable characters.
Disney legend Marc Davis -- who later went on to create such Disney theme park attractions as "The Haunted Mansion" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" -- was the principal designer for both Briar Rose (Aurora) and Maleficent. Rose turns out to be the most feminine and engaging of all the classic Disney princesses. While still, like her animated contemporaries, a so-called damsel in distress requiring a man to save her, there is something more to this character than just an empty-headed beauty. Voiced by young Mary Costa (now a world-renowned opera star), she exhibits a sweet sense of sheltered independence, juxtaposed by the impending disaster of which she is completely unaware. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Maleficent, the reigning Queen of Disney Villains. Her calm, cool, devious nature is more frightening than any other Disney antagonist. She does not clamor for wealth and power like Jafar, Scar, or Frollo. Nor does she play out an end game like Ursula, Medusa, or Yzma. Maleficent is more akin to Hannibal Lecter -- each carefully chosen word and action oozing devilish self-confidence. The kingdom is her personal chessboard and she loves manipulating all of the pieces. Playing light to Maleficent's darkness is Phillip, who, for the first time, is a prince of character, courage, and valor. Unlike Snow White's Prince or Cinderella's Prince Charming, Phillip is no anonymous, second rate, namby pamby. Instead he risks life and limb to free the woman he loves...the woman of his dreams.
Sleeping Beauty has a pacing unlike any other Disney feature. At a tight 75-minute clip, directors Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reithman, Les Clark, and Clyde Geronimi masterfully throttle the story up and back, providing us with more action and danger than previous adventures, while balancing it out with well-placed, heartwarming humor. The audience link to the story's heart is through Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, created by Disney greats Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson. They are our empathic guides. We feel as they feel, fear as they fear, and root from the sidelines when unable to affect the game in play. Yet the unsung hero of the entire film is composer Pyotr Tchaikowsky. For it is through his music -- as adapted by George Bruns -- that these characters live and breathe. His score binds us to the emotional undercurrent of the story with each and every note. Sleeping Beauty is a case study for the powerful force music can play in filmmaking.
The convergence of these elements has blessed us with an animated masterpiece, one I believe to be the crowning achievement of Walt's time with the studio -- and his legacy to the world of animation.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, this is a transfer to beat all transfers. Painstakingly restored in a frame-by-frame digital process, the original Technirama 70mm print (a wonder in its own time) is only the second film to undergo this incredible re-evolution (the first being Snow White). This four-step process begins by scanning the original negative into the computer and subjecting the entire print to a deflickering procedure, evening out the worn images and creating a cohesive canvas upon which the restoration artists can work. This is followed by roto-scoping to extract the principal characters, dust-busting to create dirt and scuff-free backgrounds, and reinserting the characters before initiating a complete repainting of all 180,000 frames by 35 to 40 people in what amounts to nearly 48,000 hours of production time. Once complete, the final product is scanned onto a new negative to create the image we now see. As a result, this new print has colors and textures richer and more vibrant than 1950s technology would allow. It is truly a magnificent sight to behold.
Oh, before I forget, there is a 4:3 full screen version included as well, but I find it heretical to take a work of art and hack it up to fit into a third-rate, prefab frame...so don't even bother with it. In fact, there is a side-by-side comparison of the two formats, found in the supplemental materials on disc two, which beautifully illustrates just how ridiculous this format is. Nuff said.
The new Dolby 5.1 remix is also quite impressive, for a classic animated feature. One would expect the track to be front heavy, given the technology of the day. However, Walt insisted on recording the audio in stereophonic sound, to match the grandeur of the film, thus giving the remastering team much more to work with. This includes a fair amount of ambient sounds, most notably in the magical fight between Flora and Merryweather, and the climatic battle between Phillip and Maleficent. You'll find the entire score to be more vibrant than ever, and it truly enhances the overall presentation.
Disney is far and away the industry leader when it comes to bonus materials, and this release serves to reinforce that distinction...
Disc One contains an NPR-style Feature Commentary in which Disney historian and narrator Jeff Kurtti deftly pulls together interviews with members of the original cast, design team, and current Disney artists to recall fond memories, insights, and musical numbers cut during production. A must-listen for all Disney-philes.
Disc Two contains a King's ransom of material divided into two sections:
Games, Music, and Fun
Disney's Art Project -- Two craft projects for the kids.
Rescue Aurora Adventure Game -- A cursor-driven game in which the fairies guide you (as Prince Phillip) to save Princess Aurora.
Princess Personality Profile -- Which Disney Princess are you most like? Take the quiz and find out.
Once upon a Dream: Sing-Along -- Kiddie karaoke.
Once upon (Another) Dream -- Latest Disney girl group, No Secrets, performing a modern version of the film's title song.
Sleeping Beauty Ink and Paint Studio -- Digital coloring book.
History and Behind-the-Scenes
Making of Sleeping Beauty -- A wonderful featurette on what went into making the film.
Grand Canyon -- The 1958 Academy-Award-winning live-action short. One of Walt's remarkable nature films.
The Peter Tchaikovsky Story -- An episode of the Disneyland television series, depicting the life and times of the great Russian composer. Timed to coincide with the release of Sleeping Beauty.
Four Artists Paint One Tree -- Another Disneyland episode. This one took four of Walt's top animators out to interpret the same tree and educate the audience on artistic expression.
Story -- History, Original 1951 Outline, Storyboards.
Production -- Music, Design, Backgrounds, Live-Action Reference Footage, Photographs, Restoration, Widescreen vs. Pan-and-Scan.
Virtual Galleries -- Tons and tons of photos on everything from character concepts and layouts to posters and theme park tie-ins presented in impressive, but somewhat tedious, 3D art displays.
Publicity -- Original Teaser Trailer, 1959 Theatrical Trailer, and 1995 Re-Release Trailer.
Scrapbook -- More photos and press clippings covering Behind the Scenes, Publicity, Merchandising, and Theme Parks.
Disney and animation fans, rejoice! This is the essential version of Sleeping Beauty and a must-have addition to your collection. While this limited edition has already been sent back into the Disney vault, don't despair. There are still plenty of copies available. Make sure you get yours before it's too late!
This court would like to extend its sincerest thanks to the entire Disney family, both past and present, for the care and attention that has gone into crafting this legendary work of art -- a new standard by which all Special Editions should be judged. All charges are summarily dismissed and everyone is free to partake in the revelry. Skumps!
Review content copyright © 2004 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2003 Nominee
* Top 100 Discs: #70
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish, Full Screen Only)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Feature Commentary
* Featurette--Making of Sleeping Beauty
* Short Film--Grand Canyon
* Short Film--The Peter Tchaikovsky Story
* Short Film--Four Artists Paint One Tree
* Widescreen vs. Pan-and-Scan Comparison
* Live-Action Reference Footage
* Original 1951 Outline
* Virtual Galleries
* Original Teaser Trailer
* 1959 Theatrical Trailer
* 1995 Re-Release Trailer
* Game--Disney's Art Rescue Aurora Adventure
* Game--Princess Personality Profile
* Game--Sleeping Beauty Ink and Paint Studio
* Music Video--Once upon a Dream: Sing-Along
* Music Video--Once upon (Another) Dream
* Official Site