Sleeping Beauty: The Film That Woke Up Disney

Review: Sleeping Beauty 2 DVD

Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty: 50th Anniversary Edition

(Disney) (2 DVDs)

This week sees the release of Disney's Sleeping Beauty: The 50th Anniversary Edition. "So what?" You say?

Settle in...

The 1950’s were a critical decade for Walt Disney, both for the person and the studio.

There’s a very telling picture inside the extra content of this DVD collection. Background and character designs from the film Sleeping Beauty are hung from one end of a hallway to another. At the furthest end, sequence director and legendary Old Man Eric Larsen has his back pressed against one wall while Disney has one arm propped against the same wall with his tie seriously loosened and jacket hanging against his other arm. Both men look exhausted.

The reason for this? According to animator Andreas Deja, who studied under Larson, Disney had just told his trusted aide he might be closing down his feature animation department. Doing films like Sleeping Beauty was becoming too expensive. He’d just lost serious money making the it, about $3 million dollars, and it nearly bankrupted his company. Disney himself didn’t know what to do about it.

Now, a little history.

After the doldrums of the World War II years, both Disney and his studio began a series of experiments that would turn the once small, independent film producer into the major entertainment conglomerate it is today. In 1950, he produced his first all-live action film, Treasure Island. He also produced his first-ever TV special, One Hour in Wonderland. From there, Uncle Walt jumped into TV with a vengeance. By that we don’t mean just Disneyland/Wonderful World of Color, but also Davy Crockett, The Mickey Mouse Club and more. Don’t forget turning an Anaheim orange grove into Disneyland either.

Not that his record was perfect. There was one area that Disney was having difficulties in, and oddly enough it was in the field he was most closely identified in, animation. His shorts program wasn’t making the money it used to. Many of his most creative people had jumped ship to form the highly influential UPA in the late 40s. His feature length films were, as this DVD would point out, hit or miss at the box office. Yes, he had hits like Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955). Then there was an unheard of four-year gap between Tramp and his next animated feature film, Sleeping Beauty (1959).

One could say the pressure was on.

Part of this was Disney himself. He wanted Beauty to be his master statement. All of his Nine Old Men had a hand on the project. Among the uncredited animators were Don Bluth (who was a rookie inbetweener), Phil Roman…even Looney Tunes master Chuck Jones. Background designs were from incredible artists like Eyvind Earle and Mary Blair. The score was an adaptation of the ballet of the same name by Tchaikovsky. If that wasn’t enough, the soundtrack was recorded in the revolutionary process of 4-track stereo. The film itself was shot on a 70 mm process called Super Technirama.

Most important, Disney decreed every frame should be a work of art. He instructed no expense should be spared in the production of this film. This lead to an infamous tale about one sequence, called “Sequence 8.” Headed by Larson, it took four years to complete, costing the then princely amount of over $10,000.

Disney didn’t chintz on promotion either. He used his Disneyland series to produce biopics on Tchaikovsky, making sure snippets of the film were added at the end. He attempted to get the 4-track stereo sound out on the broadcast by convincing the viewing audience to simultaneously tune in the TV show, a specific AM radio station and and FM station during the broadcast. He lavished extensive advertising campaigns in theater and newspapers. He even built a special attraction inside Disneyland to coincide with the release.

The final result? As historian John Canemaker says in this film, it was the end of an era.

Sleeping Beauty, the last of Disney’s original “Princess Trilogy,” is now considered a measure by which all traditional animation is now measured by. It’s mix of medieval European and Persian art with Eisenhower Era designs is graphically stunning. The character designs, particularly that of main villain Maleficent, would become standard for the studio for years to come (just look at 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella DeVille). The music garnered Oscar consideration. The only film to make more money that year was Ben Hur.

And, as the old adage goes, you can see the money on the screen. Hit the pause button at any point of this film and the wealth of detail, color scheme and character design could pass for high level popular art. This is particularly eminent when one looks at this digitally restored version. The inking is so sharp it snaps. The animation lines are, as one of the artists on the project remembers, “architect” perfection. Turn the pause off and the scenes move with fluidity and grace only seen in the most well-rehearsed of ballets.

Yet the film still lost nearly $3 million dollars. The reasons for this are several-fold.

For starters, when you really get down to it, Princess Aurora and her eventual beau, Prince Phillip, are two of the least likeable characters to ever star in a Disney feature. Graphically they were some of the most human-looking characters the MouseWorks ever created. They also were some of the most shallow and, quite frankly, dull. Sleeping Beauty relies heavily on old tricks of the supporting cast to keep us involved, whether it’s Malificence, the various cute and cuddly woodland critters, or even the two parent kings of our prince and princess. Yes, Phillip is as dashing as all get out, but he’s so stiff a performer he made Charlton Heston look good. One could also say Aurora’s best appearances were when she was knocked out under the evil witch’s spells.

To top it, there are times when you just have to wonder if the Old Men were just cheating from past glories? The ultimate battle between Phillip and Malificence bears a striking resemblance to the “Night On Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia, especially when the old witch is casting thunderbolts down from one of the turrets of her castle while Phillip is trying to escape. Also, doesn’t Beauty’s three good fairies bare too much a resemblance to Cinderella’s one fairy godmother?

The music, usually a Disney hallmark, took Tchaikovsky and reduced it to Jeanette McDonald/Nelson Eddy schmaltz. If that wasn’t enough, as one other historian put it bluntly, the original Sleeping Beauty story was about five or so paragraphs long, and one can see the Disney storymen did a ton of padding to make this a feature film. As the extra content will show, the cute animals were actually a last-minute add-on as no less than Disney himself felt without them the film would be incredibly boring.

Again, on the plus side, Disney gives you your money’s worth in the extra content. The 45-minute “making of” doc includes rarely seen artifacts from the Disney vaults. There’s a completely different opening storyboard, another section on the trials and tribulations that went into “Sequence 8,” and interviews with those who worked on the film including Mary Costa, the voice of Aurora, Bluth, Earle and master animator Floyd Norman. It also includes a few of the Disneyland TV episodes Walt used to plug the movie and other bits of interesting trivia.

As it is, one must give the modern day Disney people their props. Even though they mainly focus on the technological and artistic merits of the movie, this two-disc set doesn’t deny the faults. If anything, it’s all the added attractions that are the real fascinating views here. Even the very girl-oriented game add-ons, that’s where the real magic is in this collection. And, of course, the restoration job the House the Mouse Built contains some true eye candy.

Returning to our history lesson, Disney did learn a lot from this project. His next feature film, 101 Dalmatians, went with a much more modern theme and a new technological process, xerography, that cut costs of inbetweening geometrically. The story goes that Uncle Walt never truly liked the film about the hundred-plus pups with its jazzy score, but it made enough money to put the feature film division back in the black. Yes, Sleeping Beauty hurt Disney’s pride, but 101 salved it considerably.

What’s interesting is the film did eventually make its money back, but after Uncle Walt’s death. In the early 70s Disney Studios began reissuing its films for further theatrical runs. Like another major money loser of its day, Fantasia, a wiser and more sophisticated audience appreciated the qualities of the film and Sleeping Beauty finally got on the black side of the ledger sheet.

So if you are a true fan of animation, this new “Golden Anniversary” edition of Beauty is a must-have, not only for the film’s incredible qualities, but also for its value as a historical document.

The full specs for the two disc set:

-2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 pan & scan presentations

-THX-Certified

-5.1 Dolby Digital

-Audio Commentary

-"Once Upon A Dream: The Making Of SLEEPING BEAUTY"

-SLEEPING BEAUTY 3-D Virtual Art Gallery

-Story Reel: "The Capture Of The Prince" -- View The Original Story Sequence In Which Maleficent Captures Prince Phillip

-Story Reel: "The Fairies Put The Castle To Sleep" -- View The Original Story Sequence In Which Flora, Fauna, And Merryweather Put Everyone In The Castle To Sleep.

-Widescreen-to-Fullscreen Comparison

-The Design -- Film Historian Leonard Maltin, Original SLEEPING BEAUTY Artists Eyvind Earle And Ollie Johnston, And POCAHONTAS Co-Director Eric Goldberg Share Their Thoughts On

-The Design Of The Film.

-Creating The Backgrounds

-Helene Stanley Dance Reference -- Live Action Reference Footage Featuring Helene Stanley Dancing As Princess Aurora While Disney Animators Sketch Her.

-Live Action Reference Of Prince Phillip

-The Music

-Original Trailers: (1) Original Theatrical Teaser, (2) Original Theatrical Trailer, (3) 1995 Trailer

-The Restoration -- A Highly Sophisticated Computer-Aided Restoration Of The Film Was Undertaken In 1998, Which Involved Meticulously Restoring 118,000 Frames Of Film.

-"The Peter Tchaikovsky Story" -- Originally Broadcast On The 1959 "Disneyland" TV Show

-"Grand Canyon" Film Short (Academy Award-Winner - Best Live-Action Short, 1959)

-Four Artists Paint One Tree -- Walt Disney Hosts This Special Look At The Techniques Used By Four Of The Artists Who Worked On SLEEPING BEAUTY.

-Rescue Aurora Set-Top Adventure Game

-SLEEPING BEAUTY Ink And Paint Game

-Princess Personality Game

-New Music Video: "Once Upon (Another) Dream" performed by No Secrets

-Collectible Packaging, Opens Like a Book

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