Friday, June 27, 2014


RELEASE DATE: Thursday 29th January 1959

The 1950s saw Walt Disney extending the reach of his empire and building entirely new industries. He was quick to adapt into the world of television, which was fast becoming a global phenomenon. He also spent the bulk of the 1950s developing and building Disneyland. No longer just content to produce animated movies, the Walt Disney Company was now creating a number of live-action films as well, and by 1953 the company had begun distributing its own movies under the "Buena Vista" brand, no longer relying on RKO. In the early 1950s Walt had a golden era of animated movies with Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Lady & the Tramp. But as Walt's attention was being drawn elsewhere, there was one more classic that was constantly being worked on behind-the-scenes for eight years. It would finally see the light in January 1959 and would instantly become another timeless Disney classic.

Since Disney had created "princess" movies twice before (being Snow White and Cinderella) Walt was determined that this one needed to be different. While the classic Sleeping Beauty story shared similarities with the other two tales (especially the sleeping maiden being awoken with a kiss) the movie's creators would do everything in their power to make this one stand out as something new and exciting.

The main drawcard with Sleeping Beauty was its art style. It would look unlike anything Disney had produced before. Walt felt frustrated that he had amazing concept artists like Mary Blair working for him, but he'd never actually seen their artwork come directly to life on the screen. He was determined that was not going to happen with this picture, so he employed a very talented artist named Eyvind Earle to conceive and paint the film's backgrounds, and gave him complete creative control.

This caused some tension in the animation department, because Earle was very strict with what he wanted the film to look like, and spent days painting many of the backgrounds himself. The animators had a number of disagreements with him over the years, but Walt backed Earle 100% and told the animators to do what he said.

Earle's distinct style for the film was based on real Medieval and Gothic art styles, with highly detailed and lush backgrounds and an emphasis on tall vertical lines. Walt said he wanted the movie to look like a "beautiful moving tapestry." Since the film's style demanded that the backgrounds be completely in focus, one of the biggest challenges the animators faced was to make the characters stand out against all the amazing detail.

(Click the image to see all the detail in high-resolution)

Because of the 70mm print and the high level of detail in the paintings, everything had to be drawn, inked and painted on enormous sheets of paper (which animator Floyd Norman claims were "the size of a bedsheet") which made things difficult and more time-consuming, but since that was the direction the movie was taking, they had to suck it up and work with what they were given.
With the lengthy development time and the huge expense for the movie to come to life, this would be the last time Disney would use the traditional "ink and paint" method of animation for his major motion pictures. The development of the Xerox process would make animation a lot cheaper, but it lost a lot of the rich detail and clean lines from the older films. So not only was Sleeping Beauty extraordinarily beautiful to look at, it marked the end of a very long era.

As with all of the classic Disney fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty begins with the opening of a book. We can already see the tapestries in the background, signalling what the style of this movie will be like. More than just an opening, the book motif stays in the film longer than usual, with a narrator reading the story and returning to the book pages a number of times after the initial opening.

The story begins in a kingdom ruled by King Stefan and his queen. After years of wanting a child, they are finally blessed with a little daughter, and on her Christening day the whole kingdom comes to pay their respects.

Among the visitors are the three good fairies: Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. Each of them bestows a magical gift on the child. Flora gives the gift of beauty and Fauna gives the gift of song. But then just as Merryweather is about to give her gift, the hall darkens and the evil fairy Maleficent appears.

Upset at not being invited, Maleficent casts a curse on the child, claiming that before her 16th birthday is over she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. The best that Merryweather can do is "adjust" the curse, so that instead of dying the princess will simply fall into a deep sleep that can only be awoken by true love's kiss.

To ensure that Princess Aurora has the best chance of survival, the fairies disguise themselves as peasant women and take the child to live in a cottage in the forest until she is grown.

Years pass, and as Aurora's 16th birthday approaches Maleficent is furious that the girl has not been found. Realising that her reliance on imps and goblins is terribly misplaced, she tells her pet raven to find the girl before time runs out.

Meanwhile Aurora, who the fairies had renamed "Briar Rose," has grown to be a beautiful young lady, completely oblivious to her real royal heritage.

Her adoptive aunts send her outside to pick berries while they prepare a big birthday party for her. The only problem is... even after 16 years, the fairies are useless without their magic wands. Fauna's attempts to bake a cake and Flora's dressmaking skills are terrible to say the least.

As Briar Rose wanders through the forest singing to her animal friends, she meets someone she did not expect to meet... Prince Phillip himself! (Little does she know that the two of them were betrothed when she was a baby!) Phillip doesn't reveal himself to be a prince, but after listening to Briar Rose's beautiful singing falls instantly in love with her.

In true Disney tradition, a couple of minutes is all it takes for complete strangers to admit their true love. Side note: Prince Phillip is named after the real-life Prince Philip Duke of Edinburg (although the Disney version has an extra "L" in his name) who had married Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II about a decade before Sleeping Beauty's release.

Back at the cottage, things have not gone well. The cake and the dress are disasters and a grumpy Merryweather breaks out the wands to use magic. They create a perfect cake and dress, but Merryweather and Fauna have a disagreement on what colour the dress should be, which results in a fierce battle of magic, effectively alerting Maleficent's raven to their whereabouts.

When Briar Rose returns home to tell her aunts about the lovely young man she just fell in love with, they inform her that she is a princess and her life as a forest peasant is over. Heartbroken, Briar Rose races to her bedroom in tears. (Note: This is the last time the princess speaks in the entire movie!)

Meanwhile, back at the royal castle, King Stefan and his friend King Hubert are waiting nervously for Aurora to return home so that their children can at last be married.

The star of this scene is, of course, Hubert's minstrel, who might have a bit of an alcohol problem...

It's another case of a Disney character stealing a scene without saying a single word. When Phillip returns to the castle he informs his horrified father that he has fallen in love with a peasant girl and he's not going to honour his betrothal. This doesn't go down well with Hubert, who realises it will be up to him to tell Stefan that Phillip has done a runner.

As sunset approaches, the fairies sneak Aurora back into the castle. Unfortunately they decide to leave her alone for a minute, and a mysterious ball of light hypnotises the princess and bids her to follow it up a secret passage.

In a high chamber, the prophecy is finally fulfilled. Aurora touches the spindle and falls into a death-like sleep. After 16 years of hiding, the good fairies have failed in their mission to keep Aurora safe.

Having taken care of the princess, Maleficent visits the cottage in the woods and captures Prince Phillip, locking him up and ensuring he won't be waking the sleeping beauty up anytime soon.

Finally realising that Prince Phillip and Aurora are already in love, the fairies go on a rescue mission to save Prince Phillip and bring him to the castle. Only problem is, he's being held in Maleficent's dungeon at the Forbidden Mountain. They need to stage the kingdom's greatest jailbreak and avoid Maleficent in the process. So that he can defend himself, they create a magic sword and shield for him.

Once Maleficent realises her prisoner has been released, she creates a forest of thorns around the castle. Unfortuantely for her, Phillip hacks through the thorns with his new sword and continues on. With no alternative left, Maleficent flies to the castle herself and transforms into an enormous dragon. A fierce battle ensues until Phillip uses the Sword of Truth to stab the dragon in the heart, thereby killing Maleficent and undoing her evil spells.

His next job is, of course, to awaken the princess! He races to her chamber and greets her with true love's kiss.

With everything back to normal again, Phillip and Aurora present themselves to the kingdom as a couple and (presumably) live happily ever after.

IRVYNE: The story is very traditionally told. It doesn't feel like a whole lot of license was taken with the plot. There are a couple of funny characters like the minstrel, and there's the fact that she only sleeps for a few hours, instead of the 100 years in the original story. But the telling is very traditional. It doesn't have a massive "B" story like the mice in Cinderella, it's all centred on the main plot. I almost feel like in this film, the story is secondary. Gaping plot holes and leaps of faith for realism don't matter. It's there to be appreciated as a work of art.

MALEFICENT: The story is really easy to follow. Any little kid can easily understand what's happening. 

ANNA: I had to laugh when the fairies say, "He's being held at the Forbidden Mountain." "But we can't go there!" Aww, really??

HAKU: Yeah, the names are very generic. "The Forbidden Mountain." "The Sword of Truth." "The Shield of Virtue." I almost expected to see "The Bog of Eternal Stench!"

IRVYNE: But when you think about it, there are many leaps of faith you need to take to suspend your disbelief in this story. At the start of the film the fairies discuss that their magic can't be used to attack or harm. It can only be used for kindness and making people happy. Fast-forward to the end of the movie, and we see Merryweather turning a raven into a statue (effectively killing him) and the fairies casting a magic spell on the sword so that it will kill Maleficent! If the sword had that power, why didn't they send Phillip up to kill Maleficent while they were still at the Forbidden Mountain? In fact, why not give King Stefan a magic killing sword as soon as Maleficent appeared at the Christening? Anyway. Looking too much into it, I know. That's seeing the story through an adult's eyes. Through children's eyes, it's wonderful.

MERRYWEATHER: I think it's a bit unfair that the queen doesn't get a name. She's only ever referred to as "the queen."

MALEFICENT: Maleficent is amazing.

IRVYNE: Gee, I couldn't have predicted you saying THAT! Tell us more.

MALEFICENT: She's got to be the best Disney bad guy of them all! And Disney often paints her as the "main villain" with the different spin-offs that they do. She's the scariest, most evil villain.

HAKU: I don't know, I reckon the Horned King is pretty scary!

MALEFICENT: Disney don't really acknowledge that character much.

IRVYNE: They often like to pretend that movie never existed... But that's 1985, we'll get to that another time! As for Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent... as opposed to the "new" Angelina Jolie Maleficent... she just loves that she's evil. She even calls herself the "Mistress of All Evil!" She's not just some jilted lover.

NALA: In the new movie Maleficent's not really bad. And Aurora keeps meeting her as she grows up, believing that she's her fairy godmother!

HAKU: I can see why the new movie would want to give reasons for her actions, because no one is ever "just evil."

MALEFICENT: Maleficent is! It's a very modern concept that bad characters have to have a reason for being bad. Back when Care Bears were famous... Professor Coldheart just loved being evil.

IRVYNE: What the-?? Care Bears? LOL!

HAKU: Times have changed a lot since the Care Bears...

IRVYNE: It's true though. Society these days is much more scientific. People search for a reason behind everything. They can't just accept the fact that someone is simply a "baddy." Sometimes the pure baddies are the most fun though. Look at the Joker! "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

HAKU: The Joker is psychotic.

IRVYNE: Yeah. So is Maleficent!

MALEFICENT: She's a psycho with evil awesome magic powers!

MERRYWEATHER: And fantastic dress sense!

MALEFICENT: She's very elegant. She's so fantastic, she gets more screen time in this movie than the leading lady! The villain is more important than the hero. She's the best character in the whole film.

MERRYWEATHER: Well I'm fairly partial to Merryweather myself!

IRVYNE: Another surprise! ;-)

NALA: I wonder what Merryweather's gift to the baby would have been if Maleficent hadn't interrupted.

ANNA: I like the fairies. They're funny. When Merryweather brought the broom to life I thought she might have borrowed one from Mickey Mouse in Fantasia!

NALA: I like Fauna. The funniest bit is when she "folds" the eggs into the cake mixture.

BELLE: Yeah, that's the funniest scene when they don't have their wands and they're trying to prepare the birthday party... Epic fail. Although I actually like the look of the dress after it's been splashed with both pink and blue!

JOHN DARLING: When they were shooting those colour-changing spells around, I thought the crow should have changed colour when he got hit with the spells through the chimney.

IRVYNE: Yeah, I've always thought the same thing. Maybe Maleficent cast a shielding charm on him.

MALEFICENT: And I also like the fairies' "Lumos" spell to turn their wands into torches.

ANNA: Even though she didn't know she was a princess yet, Aurora needed better clothes when she was a peasant. She looked too drab.

MALEFICENT: I think she looked hot. She's the best-looking Disney princess.

IRVYNE: I may have to agree there. I love Aurora. I've met her at Disneyland twice! Although she doesn't have much personality, to be honest. Neither she or Phillip speak at all in the second half of the movie. Haku, who's your favourite princess?

HAKU: The Frozen girl's not bad.

IRVYNE: Anna or Elsa?

HAKU: Either.

IRVYNE: I think their eyes are a bit too massive to be "hot." Although I must admit, I'm quite partial to Rapunzel. She's quite gorgeous. ANYWAY. A bit off topic!

BELLE: Aurora is beautiful.

MERRYWEATHER: I think she might have got a bit sunburned. Look at how red her legs are in the forest scene!

IRVYNE: I think you're right! I've never noticed that before.

ANNA: She might just be wearing stockings.

IRVYNE: That would be awkward walking through the woods in stockings with no shoes on!

MALEFICENT: The red legs were probably just an extra part of Maleficent's curse. "When she is 16, she will die!... And before that, she will have terrible eczema all over her legs!" I will say this for Aurora, she has a beautiful voice. Some of the princesses have annoying voices. Like little helium Snow White.

NALA: Aurora and Phillip are main characters, but you barely hear them talk at all. The fairies talk a lot.

JOHN DARLING: We figured out that there were three voices that had been in other Disney movies. Merryweather was Lady from Lady & the Tramp. Maleficent was the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. And King Hubert also played the Dodo in Alice In Wonderland.

IRVYNE: Here's another one you might have missed: The voice actress who played Flora, Verna Felton, was the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, and she also played the Queen of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland.

MICHAEL DARLING: I liked it when Prince Phillip got the silver sword and stabbed the dragon!

HAKU: I felt like that "final boss" needed a health bar.

IRVYNE: Maleficent also seems to be privy to the "wildfire" techniques of Westeros!

MICHAEL DARLING: It was funny how the dress was still changing colour as the book was being closed.

Oh wow, doesn't this film look amazing?! It's quite possibly the most stunning animated film the Walt Disney company has ever produced. Eyvind Earle's artwork lifts the fairy tale to an entirely new level, and Walt's concept of it looking like a moving tapestry really did come to pass. With the highly detailed backgrounds, the angular, stylised designs of the foreground characters, and some extraordinarily subtle and expressive animation (assisted by the live-action reference footage taken during development) Sleeping Beauty is an absolute feast for the eyes. In this case, it feels to me like the story is there to support the visuals, not the other way around.

IRVYNE: Let's talk about the backgrounds. They are extraordinarily beautiful.

ANNA: I like the way the trees in the woods are made to look 3D as the camera moves forwards.

SHENZI: It all looks amazing.

MERRYWEATHER: The backgrounds have a lot more detail than the characters.

IRVYNE: Did you notice that all of the non-main-characters don't even move most of the time? They're just part of the decoration. I'm sure that was a conscious decision, but that's the only part of this film's visual style that I don't like.

MALEFICENT: The artwork is the main reason this is my favourite Disney film. The whole movie is designed to look like one of Eyvind Earle's paintings, with everything tall and pointy, and the square shaped trees...

HAKU: The widescreen format works really nicely in this film.

IRVYNE: Yeah, with the huge canvas, the composition of every shot is beautifully designed. It's like you could press "Pause" at any moment and you'd have a painting you could hang on your wall. Every shot is that good.

HAKU: I wonder how they made those spinning "galaxy" disc designs in the gift-granting scene at the beginning.

SHENZI: Those sections look awesome. Abstract and Fantasia-ish.

IRVYNE: They would always come up with new techniques to get particular effects. I have a feeling those discs were probably rotoscoped from live-action footage. These film makers were very, very clever. These days of course, anyone can get a computer to make special effects. But back then everything had to be done manually.

SHENZI: So they actually worked a lot harder back then!

HAKU: Did you see when the raven turned into a stone gargoyle, he became part of the background? He didn't just turn into a cel-painted statue.

IRVYNE: In terms of visuals, this film is at the top of the Disney pile. Every time I see it I notice new details.

Originally, Sleeping Beauty was planned to be a Broadway-style musical like its forebears. But somewhere along the line, someone decided that it would make the film seem a lot more "classical" and timeless if it was set to Tchaikovsky's ballet music. Disney music man George Bruns took the ballet score and arranged it to fit the movie. The results are wonderful.

As far as songs go, there are only a few, but each one is set directly to Tchaikovsky's score. The main "Sleeping Beauty Waltz" became, of course, "Once Upon A Dream," which has gone on to become a genuine Disney classic.

Continuing to push the technological envelope, Sleeping Beauty was recorded with brand new technology and presented in 6-channel stereophonic sound, making the orchestra seem even closer to the audience.

MALEFICENT: The soundtrack is just beautiful.

IRVYNE: I do love me some Tchaikovsky.


MALEFICENT: I have seen the Sleeping Beauty ballet a number of times, and Disney didn't stay perfectly faithful to the music; the tunes didn't necessarily accompany the parts of the story they were written for. But it doesn't matter! It's beautiful music, and it fits every scene in the movie.

Sleeping Beauty is timeless. It is just as enjoyable to watch today as it was in 1959. Although it took a very long time to make and an extraordinary amount of money, it all paid off in the film's quality and lasting legacy.

Sadly, the film did not do particularly well at the box office. It did not even recoup the costs of its creation during its initial run. Only in the decades following has it developed the real following it deserves.

Sleeping Beauty is one of my favourite Disney movies. Aside from its thin plot and characterisations, the movie is beautiful to look at, glorious to listen to, and it's bursting with imagination and Disney magic.

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