One of the studios’ most elaborately conceived and lavishly produced animated features – if not the most elaborate of all time – in retrospect Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) was a $6,000,000.00 catastrophe 6 years in the making. Although Sleeping Beauty was the second most successful film release in 1959 (behind only MGM's Ben-Hur) its enormous production costs threatened to close the studio. Determined to top all previous efforts the animators dove headstrong and ink and pen first into the ornate artistic trappings of this delicate fairytale.
In spirit at least, the story favours previous Disney successes, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Cinderella (1950). Sleeping Beauty’s narrative is derives from another Charles Perrault fairytale; this one concerning the Princess Aurora (voice by Mary Costa) who, after pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel must await true love’s kiss to awaken her from deep sleep. Although the artistic conception of Sleeping Beauty proved superior to anything the animators had achieved on film, the fundamental failing on the project was Walt’s own lack of input during the film's lengthy gestation period.
One could hardly blame Walt. Throughout the 1950s he was increasingly embroiled in several groundbreaking ventures, not the least, his opening of Anaheim's ‘Disneyland’. His weekly television series (The Mickey Mouse Club, The Legend of Zorro, and Davey Crockett) required constant supervision. His foray into live action film making (20,000 Leagues, Swiss Family Robinson) had surprised the industry with an initial critical and financial success.
However, as with most situations where all pistons fire simultaneously, the strain proved too great. As a result, Sleeping Beauty was a film that Walt gallantly passed on – at least for the most part – to his trusted animators and director, Clyde Geronimi. It was Disney’s second widescreen feature to date; his first in Technirama (Technicolor’s patented response to Fox’s Cinemascope which Disney had licensed for Lady and the Tramp).
Today, the most impressive aspects of Sleeping Beauty are its linear character designs by Marc Davis and mind-boggling detailed backgrounds painted by scenarist Eyvind Earle, whose angular modernist approach is a startling departure from any animation attempted before or since. So too, is the film blessed with a terrifying villainess: the gargoyle/sorceress - Maleficent.
Yet, in the grandeur of 70mm Technirama, in every way Sleeping Beauty’s shortcomings become bigger rather than better. The three good fairies, Flora (Verna Felton), Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen) and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy) are featureless creations, easily interchangeable and only rarely engaging. Aurora and Prince Philip (Bill Shirley) are overshadowed, or perhaps even eclipsed by the need for big scenes with lots of stunningly beautiful artwork to ogle when the narrative lags or simply dissolves into the background.
The most spectacular sequence in the film is Philip’s escape from Maleficent’s castle and subsequent battle with a terrifying fire-breathing dragon. But this moment comes too late in the story to overpower all the passive entertainment that has gone before. In the final analysis, Sleeping Beauty was regarded as an expensive footnote rather than a penultimate triumph.
Disney's Blu-ray is breathtaking. Colors are vibrant and bright, allowing the original artistry to shine through. The image is exceptionally sharp, quite smooth and utterly captivating.The newly mastered DTS audio delivers a robust aural experience not to be missed – particularly during the climactic battle with the dragon.
Extras are memorable and plentiful. We get the previously released ‘Once Upon A Dream’ featurette and the all new 'making of' documentary as well as a picture-in-picture audio commentary, outtakes, extensive gallery of artwork, sketches, promotional materials and so on, the original theatrical trailer and other intros from Walt. Once again, the Disney organization has done an exemplary job of fleshing out the historical record on a classic Disney animated feature. This is a comprehensive package that will surely NOT disappoint!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)