Disney: Looking Back At SLEEPING BEAUTY - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Disney: Looking Back At SLEEPING BEAUTY

Martin Rayburn is beloved by all who know him.
Close to a decade in the making, Sleeping Beauty was envisioned by Walt Disney as his new masterpiece. A feature-length cartoon par excellence. Today it's easy to dismiss the film as just another from the Disney Princess canon, but that really does Sleeping Beauty no justice at all. In my humble opinion, it surpasses much of Disney's other animated features from the same era, like Cinderella for example, by adding some elements that the company had not included to any such degree within one of their animated films before. This means that despite the technological advancements across the last 70 years and the changing preferences toward storytelling, Sleeping Beauty is, perhaps surprisingly, more watchable today than you may think.

A then-record budget of $6 million dollars was the largest ever for an animated motion picture, and the widescreen Technirama 70 process had never been used for this type of feature either. The six-track magnetic stereo sound was a improvement on Disney's already more than impressive Fantasound system developed for Fantasia, and a more realistic, geometric design was employed within the animation process. A technological and cinematic feat, with unprecedented leaps in production techniques. In many ways Walt achieved his new masterpiece, surpassing the one he had delivered 20 years earlier with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Surely Sleeping Beauty would be the hit of the year when it arrived to much fanfare in 1959?
Surprisingly, Sleeping Beauty left many critics and audiences cold. Often compared to Walt's first animated feature, and not favourably so, the darker aspects of Sleeping Beauty were noted by many with some reviews saying it's too scary for children but not containing anything new for the grown-up audience that had propelled Snow White to box office success. The extra expense needed to showcase the widescreen film properly, together with the lukewarm reviews, prevented Sleeping Beauty from turning a profit on its initial release, and led to Disney not adapting another fairy-tale for 30 years (returning to the genre in 1989 with The Little Mermaid). But subsequent reissues have put the film firmly and very strongly in the profit margin, with latter viewers and critics beginning to appreciate it for the beautiful fantasy it had always been.

Like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney's Sleeping Beauty strays from it's origins. While the Charles Perrault version of the tale is given as the source, there are new variations. The original story is as follows: When a baby girl is born to a King and Queen, they invite seven (or, in the Grimm version, twelve) Fairies to the christening. Uninvited is an evil fairy, who shows up anyway, and curses the child with death on her 16th birthday. Although a good fairy is able to alter the spell, the princess is doomed to sleep (along with the court) for 100 years. Despite the precautions taken, the curse is fulfilled (accidentally, in most versions of the story) and the princess does indeed sleep for a century, after which a prince awakens her.
The Disney version of the tale whittles the number of good fairies down to three, giving them the appearance and personalities of elderly women. Meanwhile, the evil fairy, dubbed Maleficent, is a cold, flamboyant villainess who, for better or worse, overshadows everyone else in the film (just as any good villain should). Disney's telling also departs from Perrault's version, as in the original the King and Queen are the sole members of the court who do not succumb to the sleeping spell, and so they eventually die of old age. Walt, though, dispenses with the heroine's 100 year sleep which here lasts merely one night.

The film puts much more emphasis on the three fairies who secretly, in the guise of peasants, raise the baby princess Aurora, (whom they dub Briar Rose, which was the name given to the Princess in the Grimm retelling) and unwittingly make it possible for Maleficent to execute her curse. Also new, is the introduction at the beginning of the film of Prince Phillip who is immediately betrothed to Aurora. The climatic battle he has with the evil fairy, here transformed into a dragon, has become one of the most memorable parts of Sleeping Beauty, and was purely Disney's invention. That climax did not sit well with some reviewers, with Time magazine comparing it to something out of a decade old B-movie. Harsh and, in my opinion, quite unfair.
What Sleeping Beauty is not then, is a faithful adaptation of a classic fairy-tale. All fairy-tales are dark, perhaps audiences didn't appreciate that at the time and wanted their animated danger with a sprinkling of singing woodland creatures and dwarfs, but as some latter-day critics have pointed out and subsequent audiences discovered is that Sleeping Beauty fits somewhere between the fun and cutesy safe fairy-tale of Snow White, with a beautiful princess, handsome prince and evil witch, and the darker sword & sorcery legends like Excalibur. Disney would of course go on to produce some very dark pictures; The Black Cauldron springs to mind, and knowing the company's trajectory toward that style of feature it's interesting to note they were more than capable of channeling the darker vibe several decades earlier.

Production wise, every penny of Sleeping Beauty's then-unprecedented budget is on the screen, and one marvels at the intricate design of the animation all accomplished well before the advent of computers, and which the Technirama process showcases to full effect. The voice talent is perfect. Mary Costa, who went on to an estimable opera career, is a lovely and expressive Aurora, while Bill Shirley is an ingratiating Prince Phillip. Eleanor Audley (so deliciously cold as the stepmother in Disney's Cinderella) is the embodiment of majestic evil as Maleficent. Verna Felton (another Cinderella alum, she voiced the Fairy Godmother), Barbara Jo Allen and Barbara Luddy are the delightful, and all too human, fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. Aurora's father, King Stefan, is voiced by Taylor Holmes, with Bill Thompson as Phillip's father King Hubert. It's not just the vocal talent, the sounds made by Maleficent's goons are wonderfully realised, and the decision to use Tchaikovsky ballet score to provide both the background music and melodies used for the new songs was an inspired one.
Sleeping Beauty is such an ambitious production. One that was not fully appreciated in its time but has gone on to be loved by generation after generation since. It's an epic blend of adventure and fantasy seldom experienced on screen, and one with enough heart, suspense and excitement to capture the most cynical viewer even in the 21st Century.

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