Sleeping Beauty was unleashed onto the viewing public in 1959, however it had been in production for some eight years, the first drafts of the story being written in 1951. The costs spiralled to some 6 million dollars, at that time understandably a huge amount, and almost bankrupted the company. Unfortunately though at that time Sleeping Beauty never made its money back, such were the enormous costs it took to take from printed page to silver screen. It wasn't a flop, it was in fact the second best feature watched that year behind Ben Hurr, but over the years it has managed to more than break even with reissues, video and now disc sales.
It was an important film in the Disney fold, being the last that was hand inked, the first that went ultra widescreen (at 2.55:1) and another which furthered Walt's investigation of new technology insofar as it had 6 track stereo sound, something that wasn't even considered for premium live action releases of that era. It heralded the start of visitor attractions at Disneyland and with new Xerox technologies appearing removing the time intensive inking process the last of its kind.
The story is the simple Sleeping Beauty that has been read to children as a fairy tale for centuries. Princess Aurora is born then cursed to die by pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, this curse though is weakened somewhat so instead of dying she only falls asleep for a hundred years to be awoken with love's first kiss. Our Princess Aurora is taken into the forest to be cared for by three kind fairies and in 16 years she avoids all contact with civilisation and spinning wheels. The inevitable happens though, she returns to her parents the King and Queen and on that day she is lured to one of the furthest towers in the castle by Maleficent, the evil witch. There she fulfills her destiny falling into that fateful sleep.
It rests now on the shoulders of Prince Philip to rescue his eternal love, battle through twisted thorns and evil forces to rescue his beauty from her eternal slumber.
Prior to this feature appearing Disney's feature films followed standard formula and this really is no different. It did though go out on a limb with its animation techniques and it is for this reason that Sleeping Beauty stands head and shoulders over some of its counterparts and has stood the test of time even through some 50 years. The story is nothing new and in all honesty took the best parts from Snow White and Cinderella, from a story point of view Sleeping Beauty is enjoyable but rather weak, a little thin with a story you can really recount in a few basic lines. The theme of the princess being shunned by the wicked witch and destined to fall asleep was of course done to great effect in Snow White. The loving Prince rescuing the day, finding the princess and fulfilling her life's desires is of course Cinderella; the three good fairies here just clones of Cinderella's fairy Godmother. What set this apart is the not just the animation but the whole style that was taken from the mind of one person, Eyvind Earle.
Prior films such as Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland used the multi plane camera to achieve a sense of depth to their productions and this system works incredibly well, resulting in layered animation which gives up close pin sharp animations with softer focused backgrounds. All of this went out of the window with Earle though when he demanded that every item on screen should be as sharp as possible. The multi layered technique was still used, and to great effect with in the opening scenes and the woodland later on, it's just that every frame of Sleeping Beauty is focused from front to rear with the viewer able to pause at any point and examine for some time the individual detail in some scenes.
Earle's art is influenced by gothic Pre-Renaissance imagery and out of all of Disney's films this certainly has the best imagining of that style, nothing has ever come close to it before or since. Fairy stories that have been told to children for generations have always had a gothic feel to them, all being set in a medieval period, so why not transpose this to the big screen. For a background artist he took the reigns of this film and had so much influence over the entire production it ruffled a few feathers at Disney with the lead animators eventually rebelling to a certain degree, going to Walt himself to complain of the colour schemes being dictated by Earle. In the end though they lost their case, Walt standing by the man he had chosen to bring a new look to his latest venture. By sticking to his guns the studio finally released a stunning piece of work onto our large screens. Television was beating at the studio's doors, feature films had to be better, grander, more of an experience and Sleeping Beauty contributed to bringing that experience to the general public.
Second only to those glorious visuals is the background track; again most other Disney features had to have a number of sickly sweet songs to keep the viewing public entertained but apart from the lead track “Once upon a Dream” this film again breaks the mould. It goes back to the early days of Fantasia and uses an orchestral score. This was of course Tchaikovsky's ballet “Sleeping Beauty”, the animation flows around it and was a perfect choice for the whole theme of this film. This score was padded out somewhat by George Bruns, extending certain elements, joining two or more passages together and Bruns did a sterling job on adding additional weight to this momentous achievement.
As well as the backgrounds taking some considerable time to produce then integrate into the film the standard animation of characters, animals and associated effects took an enormous amount of time and money. The majority of the major scenes were shot live enabling the animators to examine that footage, using it as the basis for the characters movements on screen. This was not just a simple matter of rotoscoping though (essentially tracing) because Walt and his animators looked down upon this technique somewhat considering it almost cheating. They used this footage to base their own drawings on, to study them, the movement of the characters, their clothing, the artefacts they were carrying at the time. Not only did this add considerable time to the production but as you can imagine the costs took a beating because of it too.
Finally the characters of Sleeping Beauty are pure Disney, the beautiful princess, the soft and cuddly three good fairies, the drunken court jester; we have seen before and we would see again at some point. All of these characters are enjoyable engaging affairs, especially the three fairies all of whom have their own individual traits; it is though the evil witch Maleficent who is the best character within this feature, the one with the deepest traits. She obviously has history of which we are not aware but can only guess at as she appears in a flame of envious green; shunned and ostracised by society she embodied the gothic evil needed for this film; it's only a shame that she wasn't on screen for longer periods of time. When watching as a child she comes across as an incredibly scary figure and as for the finale and her dragon, well there's hardly been a better piece of adventure and derring-do from any Disney character previously or since that time almost 50 years ago.
So there we have it, a love story and a great action adventure piece towards the end. But this story in itself is nothing to speak of really, a little weak but that is not what Sleeping Beauty is all about. Sleeping Beauty is about the visuals you see up there on your big screen and since that time many years ago nothing has had the styling that this brought. A superb visual feast for the eyes.
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