Saturday, October 4, 2014

SLEEPING BEAUTY: Blu-ray (Walt Disney 1959) Disney Home Video

When it was released in 1959, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) was a $6,000,000.00 spectacle, billed as six years in the making. While the budgetary figures trumpeted by the PR department were fairly accurate; Sleeping Beauty’s gestation had actually begun in 1951 while Walt and his animators were still basking in the afterglow of Cinderella’s overwhelming critical and financial success. Alas, profit would not be so easily achieved on Sleeping Beauty; and not because it was a flop. On the contrary, Sleeping Beauty was the second highest-grossing movie of the year, surpassed only by the eleven-time Oscar-winner Ben-Hur (1959). Alas, Sleeping Beauty’s investment in both time and money would eventually prove too great to recoup. Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Sleeping Beauty is, in some ways, a throwback to Walt’s golden epoch before WWII; its traditional fairytale setting hallowed ground around the studio back lot; also very near and dear to Walt’s own heart. But Walt was personally invested in making certain the same ground would not be covered thrice as he had already done in Cinderella (1950) or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).  
We must, of course reconsider some of the facts that went into Sleeping Beauty’s monumental undertaking; chiefly, the awe-inspiring discipline put forth by all concerned – everyone, that is, except Walt Disney himself. Throughout the studios’ history, the animators had heavily relied on Walt’s innate abilities as a born storyteller to analyze early script developments, tweak the plot and cut the unnecessary fat. Walt was everyone’s favorite sounding board; coddling his staff with that light personal touch, capable of inspiring creativity. However, by the mid-1950’s Walt’s genius was being tugged in many directions. His foray into live action features and television was compounded by his daily involvements overseeing the construction of Anaheim’s Disneyland theme park. To suggest Walt abandoned Sleeping Beauty to providence is a bit much. But there is little to deny after early story sessions, he pretty much passed along the responsibilities for its completion to some of his most competent and trusted seconds in command. 
Perhaps well aware how familiar the territory of a princess in peril had become, Walt made a conscious executive decision early on; that Sleeping Beauty’s high-borne visual concept would be a dramatic departure - a ‘moving tapestry’ - a sort of modernist’s perspective on the famed unicorn tapestries with elements gleaned from Persian art. To this, artists John Hench – and later, Eyvind Earle, would infuse a sort of international gothic influence meets proto-renaissance revival, with a dash of the medieval. Walt appointed Eyvind Earle to helm the overall look of the background designs. Culling inspiration from the aforementioned periods, Earle’s contributions on Sleeping Beauty would ultimately come to dictate the look of the entire piece – not just its backgrounds; Earle adding his own mid-20th century linear graphic perspicuity.
Compelling the animators to adhere to his vision without fail was initially something of a challenge. Conventional Disney characters were more rounded, cuddly and soft. And the animators had, in fact, been a guarded species at the studio; their will backed by Walt’s authority. But no, Eyvind Earle insisted the integrity of his backgrounds be carried over into character design as well. The animators resisted. Earle insisted, and Walt – in a rare departure from his usual form – backed Earle instead of his classically trained ‘nine old men’. While no animated feature had ever been the extraordinary vision of single individual – save, perhaps Walt himself - Sleeping Beauty undeniably remains the ambitious manifestation of Eyvind Earle’s guiding principles, and this, in hindsight, is all to the good.
The other fascinating aspect about Sleeping Beauty is that there seems to have been a conscious effort on Walt’s part to tell a serious fable this time around; the movie almost entirely absent of the usual sight gags, one-line zingers and Broadway pop tunes – all hallmarks of the typical Disney animated feature. In its early stages, Walt had, in fact, hired Sammy Fain to write an original score. But somewhere along the way, Walt became enamored with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet. Separated by a span of more than 75 years, the composer’s symphonic melodies and Walt’s animation would discover their own intimate symbiosis. Indeed, when listening to Tchaikovsky’s ballet today it is inseparable from the memory of the film; the studio’s resident composer, George Bruns tackling and ever so slightly tweaking Tchaikovsky’s master craftsmanship to conform to the requirements of a much shorter movie.
Walt expertly ‘cast’ his tradesmen behind the scenes; Wolfgang Reitherman to helm the epic clash between the forces of good and evil; Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston to animate the three good, if slightly bumbling, fairies – Flora (Verna Felton), Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen) and Merriweather (Barbara Luddy); John Lounsbery, to provide girth and humor to the two kings, Stefan (Taylor Holmes) and Hubert (Bill Thompson), and, finally, two of his best draftsmen, Marc Davis and Milt Kahl, to oversee the design of the three most elemental characters in the story; the Princess Aurora (voiced by Mary Costa), her handsome royal suitor, Prince Philip (Bill Shirley) and the evil sorceress, Maleficent (Eleanor Audley). There is little to doubt animators Marc Davis and Milt Kahl would have preferred working on other characters; their technical proficiency in animating the human form chronically assigned the task of capturing an elemental realism. Davis’ in particular was always stuck with creating Disney’s old crones, wicked queens, maniacal stepmothers and so on.
Undeniably, Maleficent remains the pinnacle of Davis’ craftsmanship; a horn-headed, pointy-chinned, angular gargoyle with piercing yellow eyes and flowing robes of black and plum. At once, Maleficent suggests a regal cadence and demonic aplomb. While Davis would be hailed as the master several years later, for his design of the more dastardly and flamboyant, Cruella De Vil in One Hundred and one Dalmatians (1961), it is his finite sense of proportion, coupled with an awesome discipline for realistically restrained movement – suggesting ‘supernatural’ authority that remains Sleeping Beauty’s chef d'oeuvre; not the least, evolved during the movie’s climactic showdown between the prince and Maleficent, transformed by her black magic into a hideous, fire-breathing dragon. 
While few dispute this penultimate battle with the forces of evil as Sleeping Beauty’s most instantly recognizable, and as chilling screen moment, the most expensive became rather infamously known as ‘sequence 8’; the scene where Aurora first meets Philip in a regal forest as he serenades her with the only Sammy Fain song to survive; ‘Once Upon A Dream’. The final cost of these eight minutes of screen time is unknown. But cost overruns have been estimated as high as $10,000; more than the budget for an entire Mickey Mouse cartoon. Virtually every artist working on Sleeping Beauty eventually found themselves committing to this romantic pas deux. Entrusted to supervising animator, Eric Larson; Walt was initially unimpressed by the rough pencil tests, encouraging Larson’s team to add some cuddly forest creatures to the mix – also, some badly needed humor. It is rumored the finite clean-up on this sequence took roughly one hour per drawing. Do the math: that’s 8 drawings per day. It takes 24 to make a single second of film. That’s 3 days! As such, Sequence 8 went on and on; its lengthy gestation eventually surpassing a one year anniversary, its spiraling budget forcing Walt to relieve Larson of his responsibilities.
In the meantime, Walt turned his attentions to the technological aspects of Sleeping Beauty, electing to photograph it in Technirama 70, yielding an exemplary amount of razor sharp clarity guaranteed to show off Eyvind Earle’s artwork to its best advantage. Earle’s backgrounds were so meticulous the animators grumbled it made it difficult for their characters to stand out in relief. And Earle’s linear style took time to create. Some backgrounds seen on the screen for only a few seconds took as long as two weeks to meticulously paint. Character animation proved no less complicated, with each drawing transferred by hand from paper to animation cell, cleaned up, retraced and inked in anywhere between eighteen to twenty-eight different colors. In hindsight, Sleeping Beauty would be the last feature to exert such time-consuming principles; Walt introducing the Xerox process on One Hundred and one Dalmatians two years later; his ink and paint department officially retired for good. Lost in this transition was the human element; also the tremendous mastery of artisans who would suddenly find themselves out of a job.
For Sleeping Beauty, Walt endeavored to make a film that sounded as good as it looked. Dissatisfied with traditional recording facilities in Hollywood, Walt sent composer, George Bruns to Germany to conduct Sleeping Beauty’s score in state-of-the-art six track magnetic stereo. The fidelity achieved in these stereophonic stems is nothing short of remarkable. Even from today’s more discriminate vantage, Sleeping Beauty’s aural finesse is incomparable in both its spatial separation and dimensionality. The final coup for Walt - and the film - was the casting of Mary Costa as the voice of Princess Aurora. A mid-Atlantic beauty with a slightly southern drawl, Costa’s professional training as an operatic singer gave the Princess Aurora both warmth and dignity; Walt instructing his newly discovered protégé to use her well-placed vocal palette as an extension of her speaking voice.
Interestingly, apart from Costa and the aforementioned pop singer, Bill Shirley (with whom Costa readily admits to having a mild school girl’s crush), Walt chose to cast Sleeping Beauty’s vocal talents from a roster of time-honored personal favorites, the most easily identifiable, the great, Verna Felton. In her Disney internship, Felton had played everything from a haughty elephant in Dumbo (1941) to Cinderella’s benevolent fairy godmother.  Eleanor Audley too was one of Walt’s most readily employable; her clipped command of the English language, terrifying fit for the cruel Maleficent.  
Sleeping Beauty is one of those problematic fairy tales in that the entire legend is prophesied in about eight to ten paragraphs; Walt expanding on, and borrowing from Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant, the Tchaikovsky’s ballet, and the Brothers Grimm’s Little Briar Rose; the rest, pure fabrication on the part of Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, Milt Banta, and ‘story man’ par excellence, Bill Peet. Marvin Miller’s commanding voice narrates the opening sequence immediately following the main titles, set against a series of sumptuous tapestries. We are introduced to King Stefan (Taylor Holmes) and Queen Leah (also voiced by Verna Felton). After many fruitless years, the royals have been blessed with a child they have named Aurora, after the dawn. The proclamation of a holiday has all the regal courtiers and ladies in attendance for the christening. All, that is, except for Maleficent who has not been invited for obvious reasons. Also in attendance are King Hubert (Bill Thompson) and Prince Philip, a mere boy already betrothed to Aurora.
The three good fairies descend into the throne room from a shaft of sunlight, ready to bestow their magical gifts on the tiny babe. Flora grants Aurora her radiant beauty; Fauna, the skill of song. We are never quite certain of Merriweather’s original bequest. Before she can make it, an ill wind blows open the doors, tapestries strewn about as a single bolt of lightning reveals an apparition, soon taking form as the sorceress, Maleficent. Pretending to be unmoved by the obvious snub, Maleficent announces her own ‘gift’ for the child: that before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Stefan orders his guards to seize Maleficent. But they are powerless against her black magic, allowing her to disappear into the ether as a frightened assemblage looks on. Unable to break Maleficent’s curse, Merriweather alters it: “not in death, but just in sleep, this fateful prophecy you keep; and from it you shall awake, when true love’s kiss the spell shall break.”
Taking no chances, Stefan orders every spinning wheel in the kingdom destroyed. The fairies debate the futility of this royal proclamation, bouncing around alternative ideas to spare Aurora her fate. Flora suggests turning the child into a rose until she has passed her sixteenth birthday. As a flower has no finger to prick, Maleficent’s prophecy cannot be fulfilled. It sounds plausible, until Merriweather reminds everyone that Maleficent will likely send a frost. Flora then elects to do the unexpected; transform herself, Fauna and Merriweather into three peasant women who will take Aurora deep into the forest and raise her as a foundling inside a lonely wood cutter’s cottage. Reluctantly, Stefan and Leah agree to this separation. Fifteen long years pass, Maleficent’s forbidden mountain thundering with her wrath and frustration. Unable to learn the secret whereabouts of the young woman, Maleficent orders her trusted raven to go in search of a maiden with hair of sunshine gold and lips as red as the rose.
Meanwhile, in honor of her pending sixteenth birthday, the good fairies are planning to surprise Aurora with a cake and a dress; also with the realization she is not a peasant girl, but the heir apparent to the throne, and, with a handsome husband waiting in the wings. Sleeping Beauty’s middle act attests to a caliber of perfection in its mistaken identity scenario. Aurora is sent into the forest by the three fairies to pick some berries. However, without their magic wands, creating a dress and a cake fit for a princess proves something of an impossible challenge. After several disastrously comical attempts, Flora reluctantly agrees: magic will be necessary to achieve the best results. Alas, a row between Flora and Merriweather over the color of the garment to be worn by Aurora for her palace debut, draws undue attention to their whereabouts; Maleficent’s raven spying the fairies’ progress through an open door.
Left to her own accord, Aurora draws the animal kingdom to her side with melodious strains. She fantasizes about being in love with a prince, unaware of just how close she is to her dreams. For Prince Philip had been hunting in the forest all day with his trusty steed, Samson. The animals rejoice, exploiting their close proximity to draw the couple together. Philip serenades Aurora with a reprise of ‘Once Upon a Dream’; the two sharing a moment of blissful repose and Aurora momentarily forgetting what her three godmothers told her about talking to strangers. Rushing off without warning, Aurora promises to meet Philip at the cottage near the glen that very evening. Her dreams, however, are crushed when, upon returning home, the fairies surprise Aurora with their gifts and good news about her future. Not realizing her betrothed and the man she met in the forest this afternoon are one in the same, Aurora’s heart is broken. She retreats to her bedroom, tearstained and forlorn. That evening, the fairies escort Aurora to a secret chamber in the palace, bestowing upon her the crown she will soon wear for the rest of her days.
Still distraught over having surrendered the man with whom she has already fallen in love, Aurora is left alone to grieve for just a moment or two…long enough for Maleficent to materialize from the smoldering embers inside the fireplace. While the fairies debate what ought to be done about Aurora’s sadness, Maleficent provides a secret passage leading to a turret far above the rest of the palace. Under the sorceress’ power, Aurora hypnotically scales the attic stairs to a secluded room where Maleficent already has a spinning wheel waiting. The fairies are too late. Aurora is compelled to prick her finger on the spindle. The spell fulfilled, the three fairies plot to put to sleep the rest of the kingdom while they go in search of Philip. Unbeknownst to them, Philip has confided in his father he has fallen in love with a peasant girl whom he intends to marry. While Hubert nervously struggles to relay this disastrous news to Stefan and Leah, the kingdom falls under the three fairies’ sleeping spell.
Meanwhile, Philip arrives at the cottage. Unaware it is set for a trap he enters on Maleficent’s command expecting to find Aurora in her stead. Maleficent’s minions bind and gag the prince, taking him and Samson back to the forbidden mountain where Maleficent intends for him to remain until a ripe old age, after which she will allow Philip his release to seek out ‘love’s first kiss and prove ‘true love’ conquers all. Maleficent retires to her chamber for a rest. Flora, Fauna and Merriweather sneak into Maleficent’s domain. They free Philip from his chains, Flora providing him with a shield of virtue and sword of truth to protect on his perilous quest. Regrettably, the escape is found out by Maleficent’s raven who sounds the alarm, stirring the guards from their slumber.
Merriweather stubbornly pursues the ubiquitous bird, transforming it into a stone gargoyle. Realizing what has begun to happen, Maleficent retreats to her tower, attempting to strike the prince dead with bolts of lightning. He eludes these and makes his way toward Stefan’s castle, Maleficent sending an ominous black cloud ahead of him. This surrounds the castle with a forest of thorns. The penultimate battle between Maleficent’s penetrating black magic and Prince Philip’s courageousness and fortitude remains Sleeping Beauty’s exhilarating pièce de résistance. Arguably, nothing quite like it has been seen on the screen since. Certainly, nothing before; the protruding black-barked thorn bushes rising like wooded spires of death to obscure the castle and impale the prince, becoming, as Maleficent has predicted, Philip’s “…tomb, born through the skies on a fog of doom.”
Flora ensures Philip’s sword of truth is more than capable of hacking through these claustrophobic branches; Maleficent hissing “no, it cannot be” as she hurls herself as a burning comet onto the castle’s drawbridge. “Now shall you deal with me, oh prince,” Maleficent wildly declares, “…and all the powers of hell”; this last bit of dialogue mildly obscured as the sorceress is reincarnated before Philip’s eyes into a fire-breathing dragon. Part of the success of this final confrontation has to do with its sound effects; a flame thrower subbing in for the dragon’s bursts of hellish flames. Maleficent sets fire to the thorny forest. Philip scales a craggy ledge, assailed by the dragon. Forced to the edge, Philip’s shield of virtue is knocked from his grasp by a fireball; Maleficent’s triumphant cackle interrupted by Flora’s final prayer: “Oh, sword of truth, fly swift and sure, that evil die and good endure.”
The blade plunges deep into the dragon’s breast, the creature cast off the side of the cliff, narrowly missing Philip.  Maleficent destroyed; her wicked spells retreat into the underworld, the path made clear for Philip’s return to Stefan’s castle. Rushing to the turret with the three good fairies as his guide, Philip awakens Aurora with love’s true kiss; awakening the kingdom from its imposed slumber. Hubert attempts to explain to Stefan how his son intends to marry a peasant girl. But his misguided declaration is thwarted by royal trumpets heralding the arrival of Aurora and Philip, who proceed to dance together as the courtiers, Stefan, Leah and a very confused, though equally as pleased, King Hubert look on.
Sleeping Beauty really is the end of an era. Walt had lavished more time, care and money on this single production than any other in his studio’s history. Sleeping Beauty was not only a ‘return to form’, trodden on the hallowed – if familiar – grounds of the fairy tale; but it marked a colossal advancement in the art of animation; every department working overtime to create some of the highest quality with an unparalleled opulence. Perhaps only for the second time in the studio’s history (the first, being 1940’s Fantasia), here emerged a movie that unequivocally proclaims animation as art; exquisitely conceived and telescopically focused on achieving a level of mind-boggling precision and artistry. In the years that followed, the studio would continue to produce many ambitious movies of varying sophistication. But Sleeping Beauty unquestionably remains Walt’s crowning achievement.
Perfectly timed to take full advantage of the public's appetite for the pending Blu-ray release of Maleficent (2014); the abysmal live-action reinterpretation of this time-honored fable, starring Angelina Jolie, Walt Disney Home Video debuts Sleeping Beauty to Blu-ray for a second time. Predictably, the results are breathtaking. So why am I not excited about this reissue? 
Could it be the less than exhilarating cover art having replaced the absolutely gorgeous cardboard slipcase from their previous and still readily available Platinum Edition Blu-ray? Or is it because someone at the studio decided to compress both the feature and its special features onto a single Blu-ray, thus compromising the bit rate used for the actual feature (the ‘platinum’ edition was a 2-disc affair)? 
No, it must be because Disney Inc. has chosen to unceremoniously hack off a goodly amount of the extra features that accompanied the 50th anniversary, including the Cine-Explore, Grand Canyon short subject, Dragon Encounter, Princess Fun Facts, ‘Once Upon A Dream’ Music Video, Games & Activities, Original Disneyland Sleeping Beauty Walk-through Attraction, Sequence 8, alternate opening, art galleries, publicity, The Peter Tchaikovsky Story, and Four Artists Paint One Tree. Honestly, I don’t see the point of this reissue at all! Like Disney’s more recent release of the truncated Bedknobs and Broomsticks to hi-def, there’s NO good reason for anyone to want to double-dip for this slapped together ‘redux’ of Sleeping Beauty.
The good news is the movie looks as spectacular as ever in hi-def. The stellar remastering done for the aforementioned 50th appears to have been directly ported over for this reissue. Already owning the previous edition, I detected no visual discrepancies between these two transfers. Colors are eye-poppingly brilliant, allowing for the original artistry and fine details in Eyvind Earle’s artwork to shine through. Contrast is solid and there is a light smattering of grain accurately depicted. It all looks pristine actually, the Technirama 70mm elements given a meticulous restoration, as before. We get a pair of audio options; the original soundtrack mastered in 7.1 DTS or 4.0 Dolby Digital. Culled from recently discovered 35mm mag tracks, the 7.1 option is preferred; the soundstage robust with discrete channel effects effortlessly panning between channels.
I’ve already written my disdain over what’s not included this time around. So, what is? For starters, we get the same audio commentary from Disney aficionado and author, Leonard Maltin and Disney animation executives, John Lasseter and Andreas Deja. Also a direct port over from the 50th anniversary is the magnificent: Picture Perfect: The Making of Sleeping Beauty; forty plus minutes of vintage Disneyana with the likes of Brian Sibley, Mary Costa and Eyvind Earle affectionately waxing about Walt’s herculean project. This is the sort of feature-length extra that used to accompany every Disney release and it offers a wellspring of recent and vintage interviews. Also brought back for another round is Eyvind Earle: The Man and His Art. At only a little over seven minutes, it’s a much too short bio on one of the greatest artists ever to work in feature animation.
New to this release: three storyboarded ‘deleted scenes, eliminated during early preproduction and totaling just a few seconds over ten minutes.  The most inane extra has to be Once Upon a Parade; A PR junket with sugar-spun Sarah Hyland blathering about how a nimble-minded peasant girl (whom she plays) helped to save the Disneyland Festival of Fantasy Parade. Better, though hardly great, is The Art of Evil: Generations of Disney Villains. Again, at just under the ten minute mark it’s neither comprehensive nor engaging; just a diversion with Frozen’s animation supervisor, Lino DiSalvo and veteran Disney animator, Andreas Deja, who briefly discuss the arc of Disney villains and villainesses with particular praise lavished on Marc Davis’ Maleficent. Ho-hum and heigh-ho; a boring bit of blarney. Another bizarre extra: @DisneyAnimation: Artists in Motion. Visual development artist, Brittany Moon constructs a statuette of Maleficent completely out of paper: impressive but pointless. Finally, there’s Restoring the Soundtrack: by far the most interesting of the newly culled featurettes, briefly outlining the meticulous remixing of original audio stems for this new 7.1 track.
There are promos for Cinderella, Maleficent and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It seems Disney Inc. is finally getting around to releasing the latter to hi-def. Dirty little secret: it’s readily available in Europe on a ‘region free’ Blu-ray. Bottom line: if you don’t own the 50th Anniversary of Sleeping Beauty, then I suppose you’ll have to settle for this reissue… or shell out big bucks on Amazon for the 50th, still readily available from private sellers but, oh, at what a price!!!. Otherwise, this one gets a pass from me.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
50th Anniversary Platinum Edition Blu-ray 5+
Diamond Edition reissue - 3

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