‘Thou sword of truth, fly swift and sure, that evil die and good endure!’ – Flora
Ever since I can remember, I have loved watching Disney movies, be they animated, live-action, or even a mix of the two. I had watched so many of the films over and over again that I still to this day know them inside-out. One film however, that I never saw to the end was Sleeping Beauty. As a child, I was not usually particularly frightened by films or T.V shows, but this seemed different. Maybe it was Maleficent and her terrifying presence, or maybe it was the aura of the unknown that the film carried, however as soon as Aurora saw that green glow, I would turn the film off. Sounds crazy, but hence, I never saw to the end of the film. Fast-forward to 2008 when I bought the deluxe edition DVD (in a beautiful gold box made to look like a book); this would be the first time I saw the ending, and boy did I realise what I had been missing out on!
Nowadays of course, there is a Blu-ray release of the film, which is what I will be drawing this review from. I have split this review into sections to make it easier to read, as it is considerably longer than my other reviews.
After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ release in 1937, there was a large gap between fairytale movies at the Disney studio. The War had led Walt to make several propaganda cartoons, as well as Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, and many more features which were released in the 1940s. When Cinderella was released in 1950, this marked the return of the classic fairytale animated feature. Apparently, work had started on the story of Sleeping Beauty in 1951, merely a year after Cinderella’s release. The story, unlike many other Disney features, remained almost unchanged from the first idea to the finished product, which left more time for the other elements of the film to develop. It was decided that Sleeping Beauty would be filmed in Super Technirama 70mm, which is twice the size of a regular film. This was the first film to be shot this way, and the only other Disney film to use it since has been The Black Cauldron. It was not until the release of DVD and Blu-ray that regular audiences were able to see the film as it was intended, an expanded version of the film which makes the sides of the image visible as they weren’t before.
Sleeping Beauty was ahead of its time, mainly due to one element: its styling. Breaking tradition from the classic rounded, cartoony style used on the characters and environments of previous films and shorts, this feature took a completely new direction. Walt Disney had often admired the concept art created for many of his films, intending that certain styles which had been created by the artists would be apparent in the finished product. However this was not the case. For example, Mary Blair did numerous paintings for films such as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, but by the time the film was put into production and was animated, her style had been drastically watered-down, leaving only hints of her unique style visible. For Sleeping Beauty, Walt decided that this time the studio would find a style and stick with it, making sure that the final film would be very similar to its original sketches and paintings.
The man responsible for the styling of the film turned out to be Eyvind Earle, who had done freelance work on Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and a couple of Disney shorts. His work was strong, graphic, unusual yet realistic and controlled. Walt was so impressed with the look of Earle’s work and, against some of the wishes of other workers at the studio; he decided that everything from the backgrounds to the colours, and even the characters should be influenced by his creations. Earle had the idea that everything in each shot should be in focus and highly visible, rather than having a background slightly blurred, or something far in the background less colourful. Of course, the point may be argued that a background is exactly that, something which is a backdrop to the action in the foreground. This idea of the whole frame being in focus at once sailed boldly in the face of the multi-plane camera which had been used so many time before in other Disney films and shorts such as The Old Mill. The multi-plane had given a depth and reality to the picture, however it had been used several times over the years, and maybe the decision not to use it in Sleeping Beauty was a good one. To create depth without the multi-plane, the artists still had large objects in the foreground and small ones in the background, but each thing was in focus and coloured equally to the rest, giving a more flat look. This evenness gave the look of a moving painting, rather like a tapestry due to its medieval subject matter. Many of the things in the film such as the trees, the castle, crowds, and several of the characters, are all very elongated, as Earle’s work seemed to regularly contain many vertical objects. The characters in particular were changed from the more realistic and accurate to slightly more angular, with more ‘pointed parts’. This style of character animation would rear its head again in the production of Hercules decades later.
With the backgrounds being so clear to the audience, many of the character animators were concerned that their characters would get lost on the screen, however this does not come across in the final film. As the characters were also influenced by Earle’s style, they seem to fit perfectly in their own living painting.
The main thing that Walt was aware of was that the film should not be another Snow White or Cinderella. He told this to the team working on the film frequently, although he wasn’t around the studio often at this time. With Disneyland coming to fruition during the production of the film, as well as the Monorail, Matterhorn and Submarine Voyage all opening on June 14th 1959 (year of Sleeping Beauty release), Walt also had his T.V show and live action films in production at the same time. It is therefore understandable that much of the work was left to his employees who already had plenty experience working on previous features. As the fairytale stories that had already been made into films do not differ massively, this is where the style of Sleeping Beauty really freshened up the story.
The environments and character designs are not the only things that changed from the traditional Disney style. The personality of Aurora in particular is a departure from the former Disney princesses, as she seems smarter; more mature for a 16-year-old, and much less naive. She has a beautifully strong voice to match her persona, but it is also reserved and delicate. Mary Costa provided the voice, who was training as an opera singer; therefore she did the voice acting and the singing for Aurora. For the character, singing is merely an extension of her speech. The look of Aurora was based on Costa as well as the girl who did the live action reference for the character.
Maleficent is voiced by Eleanor Audley, who also voiced Lady Tremaine in Cinderella and is the voice of Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion in the Disney Parks. Audley’s voice is extremely powerful and frightening, perfect for a Disney villain. Her costume was originally designed to be red and black, however black and purple was ultimately chosen, which perfectly complemented the green fog she creates when she appears. In a way she is similar to the Wicked Queen from Snow White, as she is rather beautiful, just less human-like and sporting devilish horns on her head and bat wings on her shoulders. As Maleficent makes a lot of speeches throughout the film, it was decided that when nobody was around, she would need someone or something to address. This came in the form of a crow, which Disney fans often refer to as ‘Diablo’. While Diablo does not talk and nor is he a main character, he does serve the purpose of sidekick for Maleficent. You would certainly not like to meet Maleficent on a dark night!
While the princes in Cinderella and Snow White do not play the most inspiring roles in the film, Prince Philip seems like he possesses more of a personality. He is charming just like the next prince, but he shows a great deal of courage, particularly when attempting to rescue the princess from her tower, fighting through endless thorns and battling a dragon. He also seems much more human in his animation and facial expressions, maybe even more than Aurora herself.
While all the characters which have been mentioned already were affected by the styling of Earle, the three fairies do not demonstrate this style quite as much. They do have pointed elbows and the like, but their overall shapes are rounded and soft, giving them a feel of warmth and friendliness. Their names are Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. The three are good-natured, but not the brightest crayons in the box! Flora is the self-appointed leader of the group; Fauna is the ditzy one of the three, and Merryweather is the opinionated one. In a scene where the three fairies are trying to make a dress and a cake for the princess, their personalities come to the surface, and provide a humorous insight into their everyday lives. The magic that the fairies have comes in useful in a couple of instances in the film, particularly when Philip is trying to rescue Aurora.
There are some interesting things happening in Sleeping Beauty which you may or may not notice for yourself. When you see a large crowd, for example, in the christening scene, they do not move, only the lead characters do. Also, even though the title of the film is Sleeping Beauty, the leading lady is only on-screen for 18 minutes! The styling by Eyvind Earle, although gothic, is rather modern in terms of the colours used and the clarity of the lines. This was the last Disney film to be hand-inked, after this, the Xerox machine was used.
So as a basic outline of the story for those of you who are not familiar…
King Stefan and the Queen are blessed with a child whom they name Aurora. Although young, she is betrothed to Prince Philip, son of King Hubert. At her christening, three fairies bless the child with gifts. Flora gives her the gift of beauty and Fauna the gift of song, but before Merryweather can bestow her gift upon the princess, she is interrupted by an evil witch named Maleficent. The witch is angry as she was not invited to the christening, and so curses the princess, telling that before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Though the third fairy cannot break the spell, she weakens it, and declares that when Aurora pricks her finger she will simply fall into a deep sleep, only to be awakened by true love’s kiss.
The King orders all of the spinning wheels in the kingdom to be destroyed, but as a precaution, the fairies take Aurora away to live with them in the forest, change her name to Briar Rose, and disguise her as a peasant. Whilst in the forest one day she accidentally meets Prince Philip, though not knowing who he is, and falls in love with him. When she tells the fairies she has fallen in love, they reveal the truth about who she is, and that she has to return home to her parents.
As Aurora is taken to the castle in the dead of night, the film begins to take a dark turn. Aurora is entranced by a mystical green glow which she follows through the fireplace. The green glow, of course is Maleficent, who is planning to kill the princess, as per her original plan. The glow leads her to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep. The unfortunate Prince is captured by Maleficent, but the fairies break the chains which are holding him, and he rides off to rescue Aurora. Of course Maleficent does not make his journey an easy one, with her henchmen throwing all manner of obstacles in his way. Some wonderful ideas were put into practice for these scenes, as the boulders thrown are turned into bubbles by the fairies, the arrows to flowers, and what seems to be molten lava is turned into a rainbow. On reaching the castle he is greeted with a forest of thorns, but swiftly slashes his way through them, much to Maleficent’s dismay. At this point in the film, a sense of urgency becomes very much apparent, with the music becoming more dramatic, and the pace of the film increasing rapidly. After the prince has made his way through the thorns, we get to witness one of the most famous scenes in Disney animated history, (the part I missed as a child!) the battle of Prince Philip and the Dragon.
‘Now shall you deal with me oh prince, and all the powers of Hell!’
Then we witness her elongated body stretch high above the clouds, and as it does, it turns into an overwhelming nightmare; a gigantic black dragon with a purple stomach and glowing green eyes, breathing green fiery flames down upon the prince. The thorns are set ablaze with this green fire, as Philip relentlessly tries to kill the dragon with his sword, but he quickly ends up teetering on the edge of a cliff, confronted with the huge beast. With a spell cast upon his sword by Flora, he throws his weapon into Maleficent’s heart, and with a powerful scream, the dragon falls to her death.
Although the battle is relatively short, it is bursting with adrenaline, fabulous staging, effects and use of colours, as well as astounding animation and use of sound.
Another very famous scene of course, similar to that of Snow White, is the scene which gives the audience a happy ending: true love’s kiss. Suddenly the room turns from blue hues to warm pinks, as Aurora opens up her sparkling eyes and smiles, as though nothing has happened! The rest of the people in the kingdom also wake from their sleep, which was caused by a spell from the fairies.
Since I am reviewing this film from the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release, it would be wrong of me to not mention how good the transfer is. The DVD was wonderful, but this goes beyond that. It is hard to believe that an animated film could look this amazing after 50 years; you cannot help but admire it. As the backgrounds are so detailed, you may not have been able to appreciate them as much before, but now you can, and appreciated they should be! Every stone in the wall, every thorn, every leaf, every thread is in such high quality that it feels like you could reach out and touch Earle’s paintings.
The sound too, is beyond clear! The music was adapted by George Bruns from the Tchaikovsky ballet. Upon watching the film, it seems as though the music could have been written for it, since it fits so perfectly. The most recognisable song from the film has to be ‘Once Upon a Dream’, sung by Aurora and Prince Philip upon meeting each other in the forest.
The special features seem to go on forever, and having watched the majority of them, I have to say that I am very impressed. Of course I would not expect anything less for such a fantastic movie!
Walt also used Sleeping Beauty in Disneyland, naming and theming the castle around the film, and decades later in 1992, Disneyland Paris would acquire its own version of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, complete with Eyvind Earle’s square trees!
There has never been anything quite like Sleeping Beauty either before or after its release. Other features such as 101 Dalmatians and Sword in the Stone have shown a similarity in character design since the film, but nothing has ever come close to the elaborate and elegant Sleeping Beauty.
The images in this review are from the DVD, therefore are of a lower quality.