In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.
Sleeping Beauty is a marvel of a picture. It possesses that intangible "magic" that made the first five Disney features so invigorating and unique. In that respect it could be looked upon as a return to form, as the studio once again put all of its money and might at the expense of one monolithic project. The hallmarks of these earlier triumphs show up time and again in Sleeping Beauty (the multi plane camera is back!) and yet the film also looks forward, expanding the filmmakers palette and providing audiences with new thrills and deeper dimensions.
Much of Sleeping Beauty's singularity can be contributed to one man, Eyvind Earle. Earle, an accomplished classical painter, was chosen to create the backgrounds of the film. He wanted the film to resemble tapestries and stained glass befitting the fairy tale's setting. While the films that preceded Sleeping Beauty had talented and original artists guiding the production style - Alice in Wonderland had Mary Blair's pastel whimsy, while Lady and the Tramp benefitted from Claude Coats's fanatical attention to detail - no person's vision made it to the screen more intact than that of Earle. This was by decree, as Walt, whose involvement with the film was minor, told the animators to do everything Earle's way. This caused more than a little consternation, as the lead animators thought that their drawings were getting lost in Earle's meticulously composed backgrounds. The thing is, they're right, but that is what makes Sleeping Beauty so exhilarating. There is a tension onscreen at times, particularly in scenes taking place at Stefan's castle, that provide a stimulating visual jolt. The widescreen process, presented here in Technirama, only manages to consume the characters even more. Every shot is framable, a deep tableaux of multiple perspectives and intricate design.
It can be argued that the film is just another retread of the formula that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made so successful. Like Cinderella before it, Sleeping Beauty takes the basic elements of Disney's first feature as a template. Unlike that vastly inferior rehash, Sleeping Beauty manages to take the triumphs of Disney's first feature and make it its own. Here, like Snow White, a beautiful woman is destined to be princess but finds herself thwarted by a vain, nefarious individual. The princess hides in the forest and is taken care of by little, whimsical creatures. A dashing prince saves her from her fate and restores her to her rightful destiny.
While all of these Snow White comparisons are apt, I find them to be for the most part, entirely superficial. From a different perspective, the film that Sleeping Beauty reminds me of the most is Walt's experimental masterpiece, Fantasia. There are specific special effects that harken back to moments in Disney's third feature. For example, as the fairies bestow their gifts upon the infant Aurora, the screen is filled with a spinning magical nebula, using the same process that created the primordial galaxy at the beginning of Fantasia's "Rite of Spring" sequence. The jagged craggy castle of Maleficent bears striking resemblance to Bald Mountain and to drive the comparison home, the film cuts to the interior where her minions dance around a spooky green fire as if they were possessed by the demonic Chernabog.
And of course, both Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty share an affinity for classical music. In fact they both share a composer. Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" accompanied many of Fantasia's most beautiful images. Here the score he composed for the ballet of Sleeping Beauty is used in a novel fashion. Walt commissioned a series of songs to be built around Tchaikovsky's music. Bits were broken up and vocal lines were recorded atop the passages. The most prominent song in the film is "Once Upon a Dream" which uses a lilting melody to great effect. For my money though, the best use of music in the entire film does not involve lyrics. Late in the film, the score provides an insidious and creepy accompaniment to images of a possessed Aurora, who - led by Maleficent's green glow - walks through dark castle corridors toward the dreaded spindle. The music here is haunting and gorgeous, eerie and seductive.
What sets Sleeping Beauty apart from a lot of its fairy tale predecessors is that every character is well-rounded, or at least more fully defined than usual. For example, Prince Phillip is the first Disney prince to be given any opportunity to carve out a personality. He gets to meet-cute with Aurora, defy his father, become imprisoned at the hands of the scheming Maleficent, and ultimately destroy her by stabbing her in the heart and throwing her off a cliff. Speaking of Maleficent, she is by far the greatest of all Disney villains. Her cruelty and hatred knows no bounds. At one point in the picture she even proclaims herself "the Mistress of All Evil". It has been pointed out elsewhere that the only reason she curses a newborn baby to death is that she wasn't invited to a party. Now that's cold. Oh, and when Phillip finally vanquishes her with his sword? She's a goddamn fire-breathing dragon at the time.
If anyone gets short shrift in the picture it is our titular star, Aurora/Briar Rose, who only gets one big scene to herself. This is her introduction where the three fairies send her off to pick berries and she pines away for her dream lover, ultimately dancing with a menagerie in Phillip's borrowed clothes. Other than that she has a brief falling out with the fairies and then becomes entranced and falls asleep. From my calculations she's only onscreen for about a fourth of the picture, and for part of that she is unconscious. In a way, this could be construed as nit-picking since one doesn't really notice as the film unfolds, and the elements that take her place are on the whole engaging and endearing.
As with many of the studio's most enduring films, Sleeping Beauty was initially a failure. Critics and audiences were indifferent, if not dismissive of the film. The lavish production set the studio back some $6 million and it only turned a slight profit. Audiences of 1959 were flocking instead to Walt Disney's live-action family film The Shaggy Dog, which cost a fraction of Sleeping Beauty's production and went on to become the highest-grossing film in the studio's history. This disparity pushed Walt Disney ever further away from animation. His own personal attentions had been almost entirely consumed since the mid-1950s by his greatest achievement, Disneyland, and now he would be gone for good. Walt laid off several animators after Sleeping Beauty, turning the department back into a small unit, in a way returning the division to its original tight-knit workings. Except now the group had no charismatic, passionate leader who could instill the artists with purpose. That man had moved on.