This year marks the 55th anniversary of the release of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which debuted in theaters in 1959. To mark the occasion, Disney has dipped not once but twice into Beauty territory this year, with mixed results. This summer saw the release of Maleficent, the big-budget re-imagining of the film’s iconic villain that left much to be desired; and this week brings the Blu-ray re-release of the original film in a sparkling new HD presentation.
Sleeping Beauty took nearly a decade and an unheard-of cost of six million dollars to make, but in many ways, it was time and money well spent. As related in Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (1999), Walt’s goal was for Beauty to look like “a moving illustration,” and it truly does. A stylized departure from the typical “Disney look” of the time period, Beauty remains one of the most gorgeously designed Disney features, marked by hand-inked animation with a distinctly medieval-inspired flavor that evokes a true “once upon a time” aura–an atmosphere greatly heightened by the simultaneous use of Tchaikovsky’s classic compositions for the Sleeping Beauty ballet (1890) in the musical score. The overall design of the film is largely credited to artist Eyvind Earle, who styled the exquisite, intricately-detailed backgrounds, resulting in a movie that, at times, has all the look and feel of a beautifully-woven tapestry.
It’s a lovely picture, to be sure. But the film suffers greatly from a rather lackluster story and the inexcusably bland characterization of the titular princess and her dashing prince. Aurora is good and sweet and kind and, yes, beautiful. She’s also boring as all hell–and for being the title character of the movie, she’s only seen onscreen for less than twenty minutes throughout the whole thing. And Prince Phillip is no better; though he does have his heroic moment at the end of the film as he defeats Maleficent (though not without some serious interceding from the trio of annoying and otherwise inept fairies), there is not much else to mention about the character. In the end, so little effort is put into building Aurora and Phillip that it becomes difficult to root for them against the movie’s undeniably effective villain.
Ah, Maleficent. One of the greatest characters in the Disney animated canon, she is (as her name suggests) the personification of pure evil. But unlike the two lovers, Maleficent is not a mere caricature; she is vital and engaging, so wrong and yet so deliciously right. We may not know the true motivations that drive her devilry–but do we really need to? There’s nothing this woman won’t do. Kill an innocent girl just because she wasn’t invited to the christening? Sure, why not? There’s something appealingly chilling about that kind of unchecked, deliberate wickedness. Silkily voiced by the great Eleanor Audley (who also voiced another memorable Disney villainess, Lady Tremaine in 1950’s Cinderella), and skillfully designed with an eerie beauty by the great animator Marc Davis, Maleficent is undoubtedly the best thing about Sleeping Beauty.
Upon its original release, Beauty was, comparatively speaking, something of a dud. Critical and audience reactions were mixed, with many feeling that the film did not meet the standard set by previous Disney releases like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella, and Lady and the Tramp (1955). Though ultimately successful at the box office–in 1959 ticket sales, it was second only to Ben-Hur–the movie did not quite recoup its extravagant budget, and that year, for the first time in nearly two decades of unchecked growth, the Disney studios saw a decline in profits. It was enough to scare the company away from the fairy-tale well; the Disney studios would not dip into that pool again for three decades, until the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid made the genre profitable once more. Still, in the fifty-five years since its debut, Sleeping Beauty has emerged as one of the more popular films from the classic Disney canon, one that, for all its admitted weaknesses of story and characterization, nonetheless has a unique artistic appeal–one that is particularly well-suited to high-definition.
Indeed, Sleeping Beauty looks spectacular on Blu-ray, making the new Diamond Edition Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo release a must-have for the movie’s legion of fans. And just to up the ante, the release boasts a number of special features that highlight the making of the film and its place within the storied Disney animated canon. Of especial interest are three deleted scenes from the film, which are related through storyboards and voice-overs: one depicts an expanded version of Aurora pricking her finger on the spinning wheel; another is a variation on Maleficent’s first appearance in the film; and the third inserts a new character, a vulture, into the story and takes the plot on an entirely different track. Other new extras include a look at Walt Disney World’s “Festival of Fantasy” parade, a “Beauty-Oke” singalong, and a fascinating bit on the legendary Disney villains, with emphasis on those crafted by Marc Davis. Also included are the special features from previous DVD releases: an examination of the restored soundtrack to the film, a look at Earle and his artistic contributions to Beauty, a behind-the-scenes “making-of” featurette, and audio commentary from animators John Lasseter and Andreas Deja and film historian/critic Leonard Maltin.
To celebrate the film’s re-release on Blu, we’re giving away a copy of the new Sleeping Beauty Diamond Edition to one lucky Retro Set reader!
Sleeping Beauty Diamond Edition Giveaway (U.S. Residents only)