SLEEPING BEAUTY (DIAMOND EDITION) – Blu-ray review

When Disney first brought “Sleeping Beauty” to DVD in 2003, they did so after a painstaking five-year restoration, and the result was breathtaking. Even in standard definition the colors were pristine, the picture free from grain or blemish, and a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound finally did justice to the Oscar-winning soundtrack, which incorporated music from Tchaikovsky’s famed Sleeping Beauty Ballet.

Then in 2008 the studio released “Sleeping Beauty” on a 2-Disc Platinum Blu-ray, and Movie Met’s John J. Puccio called the image quality “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” and “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)” the movie “couldn’t be more perfect.” Well, except for a juiced up DTS-HD MA 7.1 Surround Sound that is clear and pristine, but lacking the dynamic effects speaker presence that contemporary moviegoers are used to.

Now Disney is saying they’ve restored it again, yet my eyes and ears can’t tell the difference. But so what? It’s tough to perfect perfection (or near perfection), isn’t it?

Set in the 14th century and adapted from Charles Perrault’s version of the tale (Perrault also wrote the ballet which Tchaikovsky scored), “Sleeping Beauty” is closer in structure to one related by the Brothers Grimm, who inspired Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

“Sleeping Beauty” 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! Maleficent (voiced by Eleanor Audley), one of the most magnificent of the Disney villains, 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 in 1959, and she’s likely to do the same for another generation.

There’s less humor in “Sleeping Beauty” than today’s youngsters have grown accustomed to, but three good fairies provide a modicum of comic relief. To save the princess, the trio gives up their wands and raises the royal child deep in the forest, without magic, until she passes that 16th birthday. Just in case, one of them was able to alter Maleficent’s curse so that Aurora (whom they call Briar Rose) would only fall into a deep sleep and remain in a virtual coma until love’s first kiss brought her back to life. Aurora is just as charming as the prince in this film, but because the plot is simpler and the focus is on love (the princess sings several such songs), boys used to fast-talking Disney sidekicks and action throughout may fidget a bit until the big dragon-fighting finale.

Walt Disney once said, “Of all the stirring legends of the triumph of good over evil, none has ever been so inspirational to me as ‘Sleeping Beauty.’” The film may not be as rich and complex as “Beauty and the Beast,” nor does it have the epic pageantry of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”  But “Sleeping Beauty” does have the power of simple allegory.

“Sleeping Beauty” was the final entry in Disney’s original fairytale princess trilogy, which also included “Snow White” and “Cinderella.” A milestone in animation, it had the largest budget ($6 million) of any previous full-length animated feature, and it was the first animated feature filmed in widescreen. It was also the first time that Disney used a single artist’s vision for a film, and art director Eyvind Earle’s elongated, one-dimensional pre-Renaissance style marked the first time that highly detailed backgrounds were used in an animated feature.

Video:
Though this Diamond Edition seems to sport the same AVC/MPEG-4 transfer as the previous Blu-ray release, it’s still a great transfer. But if you already have the Platinum edition, then the only decision you have to make is whether you prefer bonus features or a DVD and Digital Copy. The film is presented in 2.55:1 aspect ratio and has the same brilliant colors and sharp edges and implied depth as the 2008 release. There’s no visible grain, but there’s also no evidence of excessive DNR.

Audio:
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 7.1 Surround that’s also probably the same one used on the 2008 transfer, which means that the only complaint, to quote John again, is that it’s not as immersive a soundtrack as Disney movies made in the digital age. The rear speakers aren’t as involved all the time, but when they do kick in the bass has enough presence and the mid-range drives the sound to complement heavily dramatic scenes—like that famous dragon sequence. Purists also get the original 4-channel stereophonic track, and though the 2008 release was short on language tracks this Diamond Edition features French DTS-HDHR 7.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1.

Extras:
Three new short bonus features are included: “The Art of Evil: Generations of Disney Villains” (10 min.) features two Disney animators talking about their favorite villains. Then Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”) gives us the rundown on Walt Disney World’s Festival of Fantasy Parade that is fairytale-themed, and “Beauty-Oke: Once Upon a Dream” is a three-minute sing-along. Then there are 13 minutes of previously unseen deleted scenes, showcased via vintage storyboards and contemporary voiceover narration.

Ported over from previous releases is a commentary with Leonard Maltin, supervising animator Andreas Deja and studio honcho John Lasseter who deliver an engaging and largely techo-nostalgic track. Then there are two features on the restoration: “Picture Perfect: The Making of Sleeping Beauty” (44 min.) and “The Sound of Sleeping Beauty: Restoring a Classic” (11 min.). You can really tell the difference with before/after comparisons in both featurettes. Finally, there’s “Eyvind Earle: A Man and His Art” (8 min.), that explores his unique vision for the film.

Missing, though, are a number of features from the Platinum Edition, and that’s where the decision gets tough. Gone are the games, the trivia tracks, most of the music shorts, still and publicity galleries, a 49-minute rendition of “The Peter Tchaikovsky Story,” an alternate opening, deleted songs, Disneyland attraction walk-throughs, and the Cine-Explore in-movie experience that conjures up many of those things as you watch.

But in this Diamond Edition you DO get a DVD and Digital Copy of the movie, and for some fans those will be more important than the missing extras.

Bottom line:
“Sleeping Beauty” was 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 herald of even greater things to come. If you care mostly about bonus features, then the previously released 2-Disc 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition is the one to have; if you are driven by a multi-format impulse, then this Diamond Edition (with its DVD and Digital Copy) is the one you’ll want.

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