Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, Jim and John provide their views on both the film and the Extras, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to Jim:
I saw "Sleeping Beauty" in the theaters when it first came out in 1959, and I'll confess that this nine year old had a cherished Princess Aurora jelly glass that he drank out of. If a kid did that today, he'd be the subject of ridicule. That's because Disney has aimed its Princess marketing so hard at young girls that any boy now who sees a princess in a movie automatically rolls his eyes and launches into ridicule mode.
I think that's an unfortunate by-product of the marketing campaign, because a film like "Sleeping Beauty" should just appeal to girls. There's a prince, too, and great pageantry and color in this cartoon version of the medieval films that were popular at the time--films like "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1949), "Ivanhoe" (1952), and "Knights of the Round Table" (1953). Plus, at the time it offered the most frightening Disney villain ever seen in Maleficent (voiced by Eleanor Audley, who also gave voice to the stepmother in "Cinderella"). And the dragon scene? It was an achievement in animated special effects. It was exciting, pure and simple.
"Sleeping Beauty" was Disney's return to fairy tales, and an enormous undertaking. At the time, it was the most expensive animated film ever produced, advertised as taking "six years and six million dollars to make." But we learn in bonus features that work on the film actually began as early as 1951, the year after "Cinderella" dazzled filmgoers, and Disney's hand is ever-present. "Of all the stirring legends of the triumph of good over evil, none has ever been so inspirational to me as Sleeping Beauty," Disney said. And it's true. "Sleeping Beauty" has the power that comes from simple allegory, and Disney's insistence that they strive for a completely new look resulted in a production dominated by artist Eyvind Earle's elongated one-dimensional pre-Renaissance style, which marked the first time that highly detailed backgrounds were used in an animated feature. "Sleeping Beauty" was also the last of the Disney films to use hand-inked cells, and the last film that Disney personally supervised. Which is to say, "Sleeping Beauty" was both the last great film from the classic era of Disney animation, and a hint of even greater things to come.
Set in the 14th century and adapted from Charles Perrault's version of the tale (Perrault also wrote the ballet that Tchaikovsky scored), "Sleeping Beauty" is probably closer in structure to the version related by the Brothers Grimm, who inspired Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937). It tells the story of a king and queen whose baby is cursed by a malevolent witch with the promise that before the child's 16th birthday she'll prick her finger on a spinning wheel . . . and die! And so three good fairies--Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather (Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy)--vow to put away their wands and secretly raise the child in the forest until the chance of her being killed has passed. On the day before the fairies are to bring her back to the castle for a grand celebration of her birthday, Aurora (Mary Costa) meets a man in the forest and falls in love. But things fall apart after the fairies bring Aurora back to the castle. Here too is where Disney really departs from the legend, compressing 100 years of sleep into a next-day battle that rages when Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley) tries to rescue her while the rest of the castle-including the fathers of the betrothed, King Stefan (Taylor Holmes) and King Hubert (Bill Thompson) sleep, "victims" of a spell cast by the fairies, who also arm the prince with a magical sword and shield.
And the prince needs it. Maleficent is a sorceress with spiral-horned headgear and flowing black gown who can vanish into thin air, transform herself into fire or a fire-breathing dragon, and send minions scurrying with jolts of lightning from her staff. She both frightened and captivated children when the film first showed, and she's likely to do the same for another generation. As you watch this film, you see plenty of times when Maleficent's henchmen and castle will remind you of "The Wizard of Oz," and Earle's striking backgrounds stand out in just about every scene. In fact, for adults, the breathtaking artwork is the real star. Almost every frame offers realistic-looking backgrounds from medieval times, the most striking of which are a pair of chalices that are the main props in a scene where the fairies reduce themselves and forge their secret plan.
There's less humor in Sleeping Beauty than today's youngsters have grown accustomed to, but the three good fairies provide some comic relief, with the rotund Merryweather and the bossy Flora dueling over their favorite colors, pink and blue. But director Clyde Geronimi ("Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland," "Peter Pan," "Lady and the Tramp") does his usual excellent job of letting characters tell the story so that the charm of their personalities provides as much warmth as any humorous interlude.
What stands out, though, 50 years later, is that "Sleeping Beauty" is like the tapestries and medieval art that inspired it: an artistic triumph. Just about every scene is worthy of hanging on a wall, and that's a credit to Walt Disney as much as it is to artist Eyvind Earle.
For most of my adult life I've always gotten "Sleeping Beauty" and "Cinderella" mixed up. I saw them in my youth when they first came out, "Cinderella" in 1950 and "Sleeping Beauty" in 1959, but then they began to merge in memory, not helped by the fact that both of them seemed to borrow a good deal from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." In any case, now that "Sleeping Beauty" is here in a beautifully restored new digital transfer, it's good to have, even if it doesn't measure up in my mind to some of the Disney studio's better animated work before and since.
The movie has several things going for it that are probably more important than its plot or characters. To start, it was the last film personally supervised by Uncle Walt himself. Next, it was the costliest animated feature Disney had produced up until that time. Third, its artwork is based on illustrations from medieval literature. Fourth, it features the music of Peter Tchaikovsky. And fifth, like most of Disney's animated classics, women play the leading roles, both as the heroines and as the villainess. This nod to feminism and women's rights long before it became fashionable in Hollywood is no small matter.
Disney's version of the fable is loosely adapted from the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty on the Woods," collected by Charles Perrault and published in his "Tales of Mother Goose" (1697). However, it's sometimes hard to tell that there was another story under all of Disney's cutesy trappings and climactic good-vs-evil confrontation. Even the three good fairies are made to look and act more affected than Perrault describes them. But it's Disney, so understand the license taken.
The tale begins with the birth of the Princess Aurora. Three good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, and one very bad lady, Maleficent, provide the baby with gifts. Maleficent's gift is a curse on the child; she tells everyone the Princess will prick her finger on a spinning wheel before her sixteenth birthday and die! Fortunately, the third good fairy hadn't provided her gift yet and casts a counter spell that says if the Princess does prick her finger, she will only sleep, not die, until awakened by love's first kiss.
To protect her from malicious spinning wheels, the fairies take Aurora into the woods to a secret place, where they raise her themselves until her sixteen years of danger have passed. Needless to say, sixteen years later while in the woods Aurora meets a handsome prince, Phillip by name, who falls in love with her, thinking her a mere commoner. But before anything more can come of the romance, the evil Maleficent finds the girl, tricks her into pricking her finger, and she falls into a fast sleep. The Prince must find her, battle Maleficent (as a dragon) to get to her, and then awaken her with a kiss. I kept picturing Shrek, so the whole business lost some of its charm.
Jim's film rating: 8/10
The Film According to John:
I hate to admit this, given the stature of "Sleeping Beauty" as a Disney classic, but after all these years I still don't care that much for the movie. Call me a curmudgeon and hang me from the nearest castle turret. I'll concede that the movie looks gorgeous in its new Blu-ray transfer, yet there remains much about it I simply don't like. Good thing you've already gotten a more balanced and reasoned viewpoint from Jim.
First of all, there's the art work, which most viewers admire and which Jim has already pointed out is worthy enough for some people to hang on their wall. However, even though it represents to a certain degree the one-dimensional illuminations and drawings of the late Middle Ages (Disney himself called them "moving illustrations"), I find the art looking too consciously flat, too blocky, and too simplistic for it to make much of an impression on me. In fact, it looks too much like the rest of the cartoon vogue of the fifties in its modern, stylized vertical and horizontal lines. While there are some fine background paintings, true, which in their exquisite detail remind one of vintage Disney, much of the artwork in "Sleeping Beauty" seems plain and direct to a fault. Except for a couple of surrealistic forest scenes and, of course, the radiant colors, there's not a lot more that's terribly magical about it. Anyway, maybe that just says something about my limited aesthetic sense.
Second, I didn't care much for Princess Aurora (Mary Costa) or Prince Philip (Bill Shirley). Even though she is quite beautiful and he quite masculine, their voice characterizations are rather bland and uninspired, and their attitudes are rather pedestrian, especially Aurora, who is really too Disney sweet for my taste. Now that I think about it, even the Prince seems drippy. I also didn't care as much for Maleficent (Eleanor Audley) as I should have, because she reminded me too much of Snow White's evil stepmother, the Queen, and seemed redundant; besides which I couldn't figure out what Maleficent's motivations were for cursing the baby princess. Maleficent just shows up and casts her wicked spell on the kid, no questions asked. I guess she was ticked off that she wasn't invited to the kid's party, or maybe she's just evil incarnate and doesn't care who knows it. The Disney studios themselves parodied all three of these characters to good effect in 2007's "Enchanted." Heck, I didn't even find the narrator (the usually reliable Marvin Miller, uncredited) very effective, his voice sounding too much like an ordinary television newscaster. Finally, I didn't care for the three little-old-biddy fairy godmothers (voiced by Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy). They seemed like annoying, dim-witted busybodies to me, "Arsenic and Old Lace" types, for all their goodness and virtue.
Moreover, I didn't care much for the mundane lyrics the Disney people put to Tchaikovsky's sublime orchestral music. I would have been content if Disney had merely presented the composer's music in its purely balletic form (which they do to some extent). Nor did I care for the overly precious little forest animals that Disney seemed determined to include in all of his productions. And I didn't care for most of the film's prosaic action--the old ladies baking cakes and making dresses, the lovers frolicking in the meadow, the two father kings quarreling. It's only in the last fifteen minutes that the movie shows any signs of life, and by then it's almost over.
I know all of this sounds blasphemous because most other critics consider "Sleeping Beauty" one of Disney's masterpieces. Maybe it is. Maybe it remains entertaining for most other adults and children, I don't know. When the Wife-O-Meter watched the movie for the first time in ages a few years ago on DVD, she walked out on it at the halfway point; this time, she stayed the course but remarked when it was over that she thought the only character with any personality was Maleficent. Well, I guess the villains always upstage the heroes and heroines, even a villain as stereotypical as Maleficent.
OK, I'm probably overreacting to what is still a fine family film. Yes, this particular cranky adult found the characters and action in "Sleeping Beauty" somewhat dull; yet I cannot deny I greatly admired the background art and color and the glorious BD picture and sound, so I find it hard not to recommend.
One trivia note: Once you see Maleficent's goons, you'll understand where George Lucas probably got his inspiration for Jabba the Hut's guards in "The Return of the Jedi." It might not bring much joy, but I thought I'd mention it.
John's film rating: 6/10
The Blu-ray image quality is resplendent, to say the least. Originally presented in Technirama 70 and Technicolor, Disney painstakingly restored the entire movie to its former glory frame by frame a few years ago, much as the studio did earlier with "Snow White." Disney claims that they cleaned and polished over 118,000 individual cells to give us the product we now have. It shows. Presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio (rather than the 2.35:1 ratio on the previous DVD) on a dual-layer BD50 disc and using an MPEG-4/AVC codec, the video quality is glorious. The colors are deep and brilliant, often dazzling, and definition is razor-sharp. The transfer is clean and clear, with zero artifacts and the kind of deep colors and precise detailing that all of us dream about when we think of high definition. It couldn't be more perfect.
Disney has remastered the sound, too, this time as an Enhanced Home Theater Mix in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. The sonics are very smooth, but there is not much to hear in the surround speakers beyond some pleasant ambient musical bloom and a few rear-channel effects. There is a fairly wide front-channel stereo spread, though, and a decent, if somewhat subdued, dynamic response. Although you'd hardly know this was a fifty-year-old movie soundtrack, you should not expect anything like today's state-of-the-art sound.
This is one of Disney's Platinum Editions, so the Blu-ray set is beautifully packaged in a two-disc box, further enclosed in a fancy, colorful, embossed cardboard slipcase. Also of interest, the set includes a third, bonus disc--a DVD of the movie in standard definition. Disney thought of everything.
Disc one contains the feature film plus a flock of bonus materials. First up is "Cine-Explore," a picture-in-picture commentary with filmmaker John Lasseter, film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, and animator Andreas Deja. Next up is what appears to be the same commentary but in audio only along with the film. After that is "Dragon Encounter," a five-minute exploration of Maleficent's dungeon, with plenty of surround sound; and that's followed by "Grand Canyon," a twenty-eight-minute, 1958 pictorial interpretation of Ferde Grofe's musical suite in CinemaScope that ran before "Sleeping Beauty" in movie theaters of the day. Then, we get a music video, "Once Upon a Dream," and a "Disney Song Selection" of five tunes from the movie. Additionally, there are "Princess Fun Facts," pop-up bits of trivia, and BD-Live, where you can connect to the Disney Network.
Finally, disc one contains a series of "Sneak Peeks" at other Disney titles (at start-up and in the main menu); thirty scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two contains the rest of the extras, and I'll let Jim tell you about them:
"Picture Perfect: The Making of Sleeping Beauty" (43:32) covers every aspect of the film's conception, pre-production, production, and legacy. There are rare shots of live-action models juxtaposed against their cartoon doubles, and a treasure trove of anecdotes and factoids that are brought to life by talking heads whose love for the project is still very evident. Chief among them is Costa, who helps us understand the whole relationship between the animators and live-action models, and who tells wonderful stories about her interaction with Disney.
The "Original Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough Attraction" and "History of the Walkthrough Attraction" take viewers on a virtual tour of the park attraction, with a behind-the-scenes look at how the special effects were created and used in the castle. It's a nice bit of Disneyland history.
"Enchanted Dance Game" lets you choose whether to learn how to waltz via footstep patterns or click on an icon to dance with the woodland animals. This game wouldn't activate on my dvd player, but it played on my Mac. The woodland dance asks viewers to watch a waltz sequence with four animals and repeat the pattern. There's not much dancing and not much waltzing--just the bare minimum of movement. The waltz lesson encourages kids to get up, and they can dance as the prince or princess (yeah, like boys are going to do this). Kids are to follow the footsteps to get a basic box pattern down.
A "Fun with Language Game" offers instructions that are so slow I almost fell asleep trying to pay attention, and there's no way of by-passing it. You choose from a mop game, dress game, and cake game, where the s-l-o-w voice-over continues. It's obviously geared for pre-schoolers, and it shows an object with a word and repeats it so kids can learn basic words. And as I "played" this on my computer, it wouldn't allow me to close out until the lesson ended.
Also on disc two: "Eyvind Earle: The Man and His Art" (7:33), a feature on the man behind the backgrounds, and "Four Artists Paint One Tree" (16:08), that shows how he taught his style and how it was incorporated into the production. In the first one, it's fascinating to hear how Earle bicycled from L.A. to New York in 42 days and painted a painting a day, then sold them at an art show. There are also plenty of art galleries that cover all aspects of the production and publicity, four deleted songs that stand out as being absolutely wrong for the film, storyboard sequences, "Malificent's Challenge," and "The Peter Tchaikovsky Story" (from a 1959 Disneyland TV broadcast).
It's John again, and pay no attention to my comments on the film. Listen to Jim instead; he's far more sensible than this old grump. As I say, "Sleeping Beauty" should still work for most viewers, even though I was more disappointed in it than I thought I would be when I saw it again after a four-decades lapse. I found the story so modest and straightforward, the action so commonplace and derivative, and much of the art work so rigid and direct that the movie made little impression on me beyond its excellent restoration and its superb Blu-ray reproduction. Still, the beauty of the picture and sound can go a long way toward making one forget any of the film's possible drawbacks, so high-def lovers can rejoice.
The 7/10 film value listed below is an average of Jim's 8/10 and my 6/10.