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SLEEPING BEAUTY
Diamond Blu-ray Edition

Film review by Ed Nguyen
Technical specs by Michael Jacobson

Voices: Mary Costa, Bill Shirley, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Audio: DTS HD 7.1, Restored Theatrical Soundtrack
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.55:1
Studio: Disney
Features: See Review
Length: 75 minutes
Release Date: October 7, 2014

"Not in death, but just in sleep, this fateful prophecy you'll keep,

and from this slumber you shall wake, when true love's kiss the spell shall break."

Film ****

Walt Disney's greatest successes in animated features have always been tied to the world of fairy tales.  Disney's finest prewar triumph, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was a film based upon a famous fairy tale.  The film was not only the number one box office hit of its day but was also the first successful feature-length cartoon.  Disney, over the next several years, would enter his Golden Age, creating some of the finest animated features ever. 

However, the eventual entry of the U.S. into the world war sapped the resources available to Disney's animators.  Furthermore, the animation department was recruited by the military to create propaganda films.  As a result, production on feature-length cartoons dropped off almost completely, save for Donald Duck travelogues (Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros) or collections of short films or musical interludes (Make Mine Music, Fun & Fancy Free, etc.).  In fact, Disney did not attempt another true feature-length cartoon again until the release of his 1950 film Cinderella.  It was a successful return to the realm of fairy tales for the Disney company.

In 1950, bolstered and inspired by the success of Cinderella, Disney began to entertain plans for a new film based on another fairy tale.  It was around this time that Sleeping Beauty was first considered as a possible project.  As the decade wore on, Sleeping Beauty would eventually become envisioned as the grandest yet of Disney's postwar productions.  It was to make extensive use of Disney's multi-plane cameras, which had created some spectacular visual effects in his earlier animated films (particularly Fantasia).  With the rising popularity of the decade's new widescreen process (including in Disney's own Lady and the Tramp), it was also decided that Sleeping Beauty should be photographed in a new super-widescreen format, Disney's 70mm Technirama process.

Unfortunately, Sleeping Beauty's production history was filled with many delays and false starts.  This was partially due to Walt Disney's preoccupation with his two television series (The Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland, an early variant of the long-running Wonderful World of Disney TV show) and a third (Zorro) on the way.  In addition, there was the top priority of the construction work on his yet-to-be-opened Disneyland theme park.  Although completed storyboards for Sleeping Beauty were ready by 1952, work on the film inevitably slowed down.  It was not until 1956 that animation on the project was finally resumed in earnest until the film's eventual release in 1959.

However, once Walt Disney re-focused his attentions on Sleeping Beauty, he expected nothing less than perfection.  Disney even infamously demanded endless re-draw after re-draw to get the movements of Aurora and her Prince Charming absolutely perfect.  He insisted that the human characters on-screen in Sleeping Beauty should move as realistically as possible.  To this end, Sleeping Beauty used several live-action short films shot specifically as references for Disney's artists during the animation process.  Disney had done this before with previous animated films, plus he had even brought in real deer during production of Bambi!  No doubt such perfectionism ultimately contributed to Sleeping Beauty's enormous cost.  By the time of its premiere, the film had required more years to complete than any previous Disney film and, at the scandalous cost of six million dollars, was the most expensive animated film ever up to that point.  In comparison, consider that many 1950's musicals, which tended to be incredibly expensive as well, cost less than $5 million to make.

Happily, all the money spent on Sleeping Beauty is up on the screen to see, and the finished film is quite a wonder to behold.  From the visual splendor of its Technicolor images to the breath-taking power of the widescreen format to the pitch-perfect decision to use music by Tchaikovsky, Sleeping Beauty lived up to Walt Disney's vision of the definitive animated fairy tale.

Most everyone will know the general story of Sleeping Beauty.  After all, it is a classic story.  One of the earliest written versions, Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, was written by Charles Perrault (1628-1703) and first published in Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose (1697).  However, he drew his inspiration of tales passed on by the oral tradition and even from a fifteenth century story.  Nevertheless, Perrault's publication has generally been attributed with popularizing the relatively new literary genre of the fairy tale.

As in the case with many fairy tales, Perrault's original version of Sleeping Beauty is considerable darker than modern, water-downed versions.  In Perrault's version, after the birth of a baby daughter to a king and queen, the royal couple have a baptism celebration.  Seven fairy godmothers are invited, but no one has remembered to invite an eighth, older fairy.  The older fairy arrives unexpectedly and is quickly welcomed, though she feels scorned by the oversight of a formal invitation.  After six of the other fairies have granted gifts upon the baby princess, the old fairy declares her gift - that the princess will cut her finger on a spindle and die.  The seventh fairy, who had yet to grant her gift, alters the horrific prophecy somewhat, declaring that the princess will not die but will instead fall asleep for one hundred years before being awakened by a king's son.  Fifteen years later, the princess does indeed prick her finger on a spindle and falls into a deep sleep.  The seventh fairy re-appears once more and places an enchanted sleep spell over the princess's servants so that they may accompany her when she ultimately awakens.  One hundred years pass, by which point the princess's castle has become utterly over-grown by thickets and thorns.  A wandering young prince, hearing of the local legend of a sleeping princess, fights his way to her resting place and kisses her, awakening the sleeping beauty.  All the servants wake up as well in a grand celebration, and the prince and princess wed in a secret ceremony.

The typical re-telling ends at this point, but it is actually only half of the story.  In the original version, the prince and princess become king and queen and have two children - a daughter Aurora (after the dawn) and a son Day.  The young king's mother is a ogress by birth, and when he goes off to war, the ogress in his absence orders that the queen and her children be slaughtered and fed to her.  The royal cook attempts to deceive her by serving some farm animals instead and hiding away the Queen and her children.  The ogress mother eventually discovers the truth, and in her fury, she schemes to murder the royal family.  Fortunately, the young king arrives back home in time, and the ogress kills herself, instead.  Thus does Perrault's tale end.

Disney's film adaptation of the Perrault tale is not quite as graphic or disturbing.  Although it retains some of the dark themes of the original tale, the film favors a more contemporary version and probably more resembles the "Brier-Rose" variation of the story by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century.  Disney's version also concludes on the wedding ceremony of the prince and the princess.  In the film, instead of seven fairies, there are only three.  In place of an old fairy, there is Maleficent, an evil fairy Queen with a cold, reptilian aura.  Her prophecy is slightly different in that the princess will prick her finger on a spindle before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday and will die.  Also, instead of an evil ogress mother-in-law (ha ha), there is King Hubert, a cuddly, good-hearted ruler of a nearby kingdom who indulges in some royal matchmaking on his son's behalf with King Stefan, the princess's father.

In Disney's version, the princess is named Aurora.  The film starts in the classic manner of Snow White, with an ornate storybook opening as the tale unfolds.  There is an impressive display of animated virtuosity as a huge procession of people arrive at King Stefan's castle for the celebration of Aurora's birth.  The three good fairies arrive as well and begin to bestow their gifts upon Aurora before Maleficent suddenly appears.  Angered at having been overlooked, she proclaims her dreaded prophecy and laughs in triumph as she departs, to the horror of the King and Queen.  Merryweather, the third good fairy, attempts to lessen Maleficent's prophecy somewhat with her gift.  However, it is soon decided that for the safety of the princess, she must be hidden away until her sixteenth birthday, after which point she may return to her rightful parents as princess for an arranged royal wedding with Prince Phillip, the son of King Hubert.  So, that evening, the three good fairies take Aurora away with them to live in an isolated forest cottage.  There, she is raised in peaceful seclusion as the lovely peasant girl Briar-Rose.

Naturally, the fairies' well-intended plans go awry.  Briar-Rose, on her sixteenth birthday, has a love-at-first-sight encounter with Prince Phillip in the woods, and it is the film's musical highlight.  As fate would have it, however, neither of them knows who the other truly is!  When Briar-Rose describes the handsome stranger to the fairies afterwards, they insist that she never see him again.  They reveal her true name, Princess Aurora, to her and the nature of her betrothal since birth to a certain Prince Phillip.  Later that same evening, the fairies bring the melancholy princess back to King Stefan's castle in preparations for the upcoming ceremony.  But, when the princess is alone, Maleficent appears and bewitches her, beckoning her up a castle tower to a room where...a spinning spindle lies.

Aurora pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep.  The good fairies arrive too late to safe her.  Sadly, they decide to place the entire castle's company under the spell of sleep as well to spare them the heartache of such tragic news.  In the meantime, Maleficent ensnares Prince Phillip in a trap when he goes to visit the forest cottage in search of Briar-Rose, his mysterious peasant girl.  With the tides of events at their darkest, how will goodness prevail?  Only Prince Philip can defeat Maleficent and save the day.  But how will a defenseless and sword-less prince, now enslaved in Maleficent's own dungeon, find the means to escape his captivity and to awaken his beloved sleeping beauty?  Watch the film and find out!

Don't worry, it's a Disney cartoon, so there will be a happy ending.  Suffice it to say that this prophecy will not last one hundred years, as in Perrault's original version.

Oddly enough, Sleeping Beauty has long been the black sheep of the Disney animated family.  Its design was radically different from previous animated efforts, for the animation emphasized a more angular and formal style vaguely reminiscent of Renaissance art.  Many of the compositions were abstract juxtapositions of geometrical patterns, usually vertical and less so horizontal; perhaps the most illustrative example of this radical change in style can be seen in the trees, which are...square!  Not surprisingly, there is a marked absence of the soft rolly-pollyness of previous Disney films, with only a bare hint of the cute, fuzzy animals which tend to crowd the typical Disney animated film.  Sleeping Beauty has some animals but they are mute and of minor importance to the plot.  Likewise, the film lacks the strong comic supporting characters of previous Disney efforts.  There were no seven dwarfs, conscientious crickets, or talking mice.  The three good fairies provide some amusing moments but are not true comic relief.  In short, Sleeping Beauty, for all of its graceful beauty, has little "kiddy" factor to it and as such, may appeal more to adults than children.

Furthermore, more so than in previous animated efforts, the villains and supporting characters are better developed and more interesting than the central characters of Aurora or Prince Phillip.  Maleficent is one of the best Disney villainesses and every bit the equal of the Queen in Snow White.  The three good fairies (Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather) have more screen time than Aurora and are generally better developed.  To be fair, Aurora is quite charming but is asleep half the time, after all.  As for Prince Phillip, he is actually much more charismatic than his wooden counterparts in Snow White or Cinderella and participates in some tremendous action sequences in the latter half of the film.  But still, he doesn't receive much development time and in fact does not even utter a single line in the entire second half of the film.  Aurora doesn't speak in the second half, either, but again, she is asleep (compare this to Ariel, who doesn't speak for half of The Little Mermaid either yet dominates the film).

Even catchy tunes, a staple in many Disney animated features, are in short supply here.  Although Sleeping Beauty features great music by Tchaikovsky, other than the delightful "Once Upon a Dream" interlude which marks the initial encounter between Aurora and Prince Phillip, there are no significant songs in the film.

In the end, these are really minor quibbles.  They are only worth mentioning because of the general expectation of what a typical Disney animated film should be.  Sleeping Beauty is not that typical Disney film.  Its unique vision may have initially alienated fans accustomed to a certain style from Disney, but in the prevailing years, Sleeping Beauty has become recognized as a true animated film masterpiece.  There is not a single dull spot in the entire film, which has carefully balanced the elements of humor and drama, song and action throughout its 75 minutes running length.

Sleeping Beauty's greatest asset may be that it is ultimately a showcase for the awe-inspiring talents of the Disney animators and background artists.  Eyvind Earle's incredibly detailed background designs are gorgeous, each requiring a week up to ten days to complete.  By comparison, most backgrounds in conventional hand-drawn animated features may only require a day or so to complete.  Not even the great films from Disney's Golden Age possessed this level of detail in their background design.  Earle, who had contributed earlier to Disney's radical and Academy Award-winning short "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom," brought his style to Sleeping Beauty and was actually entrusted by Walt Disney himself with almost full artistic control over the design and look of the Sleeping Beauty.  To this end, it is the artistry of the film which provides its narrative drive and breath-taking magnificence.

Sadly, Sleeping Beauty marked the end of an era in Disney animated films.  The film made a respectable $5.3 million in its initial release, a solid box office performance but nonetheless not enough to re-coup its production costs.  After this film, the Disney animators would not venture into the realm of fairy-tales again for nearly thirty years.  Furthermore, after Sleeping Beauty, the company began to use a Xerox process for its animated films.  This new process preserved the original essence of the animators' drawings (previously, a virtual army of clean-up artists was used to re-trace the original drawings for a smoother appearance in the final product), but it also led to a disturbingly scratchy and thick-stroke style of animation.  This style worked splendidly in 101 Dalmatians but was ill-suited to most films after that.

Regardless, for many years, the Disney Company has unjustifiably treated Sleeping Beauty as one of its lesser films, even though it easily boasts some of the finest production values of any of their animated features.  Is it any coincidence that in recent years, Disney has rolled out mediocre sequels to most of their 50-60's era animated films (Cinderella, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, and Jungle Book) while ignoring Sleeping Beauty?

Still, in the end, the long wait was a true blessing in disguise.  As it turned out, the Disney folks were quietly restoring Sleeping Beauty to its original splendor and wanted to be certain the job was done right before releasing it at last on Blu-ray.  Plus, I'm happy that the folks at Disney have not chosen (yet) to regurgitate a vastly inferior and pointless sequel to Sleeping Beauty.  This film should stand alone as a timeless classic, much like Snow White.  Outside of the films of its Golden Age, Sleeping Beauty is truly Disney's crowning achievement.

Video ****

This may be the first time in my career as a reviewer that I've wished I had a higher rating to bestow than four stars.  Sleeping Beauty is a breathtakingly beautiful work of art come to life in high definition magic.  The efforts at restoring this classic and making it truly ready for a Blu-ray close up are almost beyond comprehension.  The colors and details are so vivid, crisp and true, you feel like you could freeze any frame and reproduce it and hang it on your wall.  The famed "Sequence 8" (more on that further down) is just one jaw-dropping sight after another.  Look at the colors and detail on those trees, or the fluidity of the multi-plane cameras in motion.  There may not be another Disney film where the marriage of camerawork, technology, character drawing and background painting have been so perfectly married.  Seriously, if you were wondering what a Disney classic on Blu-ray could be, you're in for the most unimaginable treat.  This presentation is so gorgeous it quite honestly nearly moved me to tears more than once.

Audio ****

What can you say about a 50s classic remastered for 7.1 HD sound?  Not enough, in my book.  Disney has been one of the better studios as far as not being afraid to open up older mixes for modern home theatres, and with Sleeping Beauty, they've established a new bar as to how well it can be done.  This is a true digital surround mix, with the beautiful classical music sounding rich, lush, and fully opened in orchestration.  The big action scenes, particularly the suspenseful climax, deliver dynamic range that far exceeds expectations.  The use of surround channels is full and creative.  Notice how when Maleficent casts a spell or works her magic, her voice moves from the front stage to the rear, for a more eerie listening experience.  You can listen to the original theatrical track if you prefer, but if you've invested in high definition home theater technology, you really owe it to yourself to hear what Disney has in store for you.

Features ****

There are a number of new features this go around, including 3 deleted scenes and a featurette on Disney villains.  Plus, there is a featurette on the new Festival of Fantasy Parade at Walt Disney World.

The classic Blu-ray features are also here, starting with a commentary with John Lasseter, Andreas Deja and Leonard Maltin.  You can listen to it, or access a picture-in-picture track that features them with other clips, drawings, and vintage interviews with some of Disney's creative team.  There's also a song selection feature, a new video for "Once Upon a Dream" sung by Disney Channel star Emily Osment. The Dragon Encounter is a cool experience that will really make the most of your high def video and sound system...it's quite loud!  Rounding out the disc is "Grand Canyon", a scope ratio Oscar winning live action short that accompanied Sleeping Beauty on its original theatrical run.

There is a making-of documentary, along with an alternate opening in storyboard form, "The Peter Tchaikovsky Story" (two versions, as one was prepared for a stereo simulcast), and looks at the original Sleeping Beauty castle as designed for Disneyland.  There are three deleted songs, a look at Eyvind Earle who did much of the design of the film, three trailers, a look at the sound restoration and remixing process for 7.1, two storyboard sequences, three clips of live action reference films, and "Sequence 8", which is a detailed look at Aurora and Prince Phillip in the forest; the movie's most elaborate and expensively crafted sequence!

Lastly, there are three games...one teaches you how to waltz with Princess Aurora, one is a language game with the fairies, and the third is kind of creepy.  Maleficent challenges you to think of any common object.  Answer a series of questions, and she will identify what you're thinking of.  It works more often than not...yikes!

Summary:

Sleeping Beauty ranks among the most beautiful animated films ever, and in my opinion, is unsurpassed by all subsequent Disney animated efforts since its original release.  Plus, it features a great score adaptation of music by Tchaikovsky, too! 

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