The best Disney movies involved great artistic risk. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a risk because an animated feature had never been attempted before in Hollywood. Pinocchio was a risk as it involved turning a dark tale into a film that had the lightness expected from Disney. And Fantasia was the ultimate risk for an innumerable number of reasons. After World War II, Walt Disney slowed down risky animation projects, aside from Alice In Wonderland, which didn’t turn out as well as he hoped. Cinderella, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp were all huge hits though and, unknown to the public, Disney was producing probably his riskiest picture since the war ended – Sleeping Beauty.
Lady and the Tramp came out in 1955 and it took four years before Sleeping Beauty was finally released. Filmed in the Super Technirama 70, the film nearly bankrupted the studio and likely would have had Disney not still been making live action hits at the time. Sleeping Beauty is a film that dispenses story for the sake of art and does not hide that fact. It may be dull and achingly slow, but by gosh does it look beautiful.
The loose story has a beautiful princess who is cursed to sleep until true love’s kiss comes around. Of course, that needs to be embellished to reach 75 minutes, so the Disney team created a wide variety of unique characters. However, they couldn’t fix one alarming fact – the two main characters are the most boring in Sleeping Beauty. Princess Aurora/Briar Rose is the most dull princess in the Disney fold and Prince Philip exists just to land that kiss. Even in his final battle with Maleficent, he has three fairies to help him out.
With that in mind, it is those supporting characters who make Sleeping Beauty easier to take as entertainment and not just a moving picture book. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather make up one of the best trios the Disney artists ever created (behind only Huey, Duey and Louie). They are three completely different characters, linked only by their passion for keeping Aurora safe. Then, there’s King Stefan and King Hubert who have get one of the lighthearted moments in the film. Their drinking song is surprisingly hilarious.
Still, it’s the villain in Sleeping Beauty that has kept audiences entranced for decades. Maleficent is one of the studio’s scariest creations, almost like the daughter of Chernabog from Fantasia‘s “Night on Bald Mountain” scene. She has no silly song or anything to make her remotely likeable. She is pure evil, with a wicked laugh to go with it. After all, her entire reason for cursing Aurora is because she didn’t get an invitation. Maleficent in human form is Marc Davis’ major achievement, while the dragon is among the best work from Wolfgang Reitherman.
To me though, the story of Sleeping Beauty isn’t remotely the reason why I watch it over and over again. It is the artwork that really makes it a risk. Sure, Lady and the Tramp proved that Disney’s team could work in the wide scope ratio, but Sleeping Beauty was a real challenge. Not only did they have to animate these complicated, flat characters, but they had to do that over Eyvind Earle’s intricate backgrounds. This is probably the first time that a single artist’s vision actually made it to the screen for a Disney movie. (Mary Blair’s designs for Alice didn’t quite make it all the way.) Every background was like a full painting, incredibly detailed even compared to Bambi‘s thanks to Earle. Sleeping Beauty, as we know it today, would be inconceivable without him.
Finally, Sleeping Beauty is the movie where Disney really went back to the importance of music. This isn’t just based on the classic fairy tale, but recalls Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet as well, with composer George Bruns adapting segments for the score. For the first time since Fantasia, music is as important as the characters. “Once Upon A Dream” is really one of the key songs in the Disney canon.
Sleeping Beauty is coming back in the forefront thanks to Maleficent, a special effects dazzler that gives Maleficent wings and somehow features giant armies fighting, as seen in the trailers. While this seems like a great monetary idea to exploit one of Disney’s greatest villains, it misses why the villain is so great. She is pure evil and I don’t care what made her that way. Disney didn’t ask that question in 1959 and we shouldn’t care 55 years later. Sleeping Beauty is made like a two-dimensional dream and it is still fresh thanks to that.