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.
But what fans of the film want to know is how this two-disc 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition matches up to the previously released two-disc Special Edition. Well, bearing in mind that a Blu-ray is also soon to be released, and purists will gravitate toward 1080p, this digital restoration is really a noticeable improvement. While you might have to do a frame-by-frame comparison to see the greater detail, stronger blacks, and truer colors, there's no mistaking the aspect ratio. This new restoration includes a "never-before-seen expanded version of the film" which "unveils images that no one has ever seen in theaters or home entertainment!" That's because "Sleeping Beauty" was filmed in Technirama 70, which translated into what we'd now call a 2.55:1 aspect ratio, while most theaters at the time were equipped to show standard widescreen, which was 2.35:1. The difference is what's shown here, though my colleague, John J. Puccio, noted in his review that the gap could be even greater. John got out his measuring stick and gauged the Special Edition at 2.13:1 anamorphic widescreen. The Platinum Edition box lists the video presentation at 2.55:1, and you can really see the missing detail. On the older versions, tops of heads and bottoms of legs were chopped off. Not so here, and there's a wealth of detail to be discovered. It's a big upgrade, and so fans who already own the film will probably want to get this Platinum Edition and donate their old one to a friend, relative, or local school.
One caution: the Special Edition offered a full screen (1.33:1) option, whereas the Platinum Edition does not. And the bonus features are different.
The Special Edition featured a THX-certified Dolby Digital 5.1, while this one offers an "All-new 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix," which we'll be seeing a lot of since Disney is providing an acronym: DEHT (and hopefully we won't have to go into debt to keep upgrading). To my ears, the DEHT is more dynamic, with more rear-speaker effects than the old 5.1. Purists will appreciate that Disney restored the original theatrical soundtrack, and that's included here as an option. It's far less dynamic, but a classic like this deserves a full restoration. Additional options are French and Spanish 5.1 DEHT.
A ton--really too much to talk about in the brief space of a review. In addition to the all-new restoration, there are a number of all-new bonus features on Disc 2, all of which lead to a no-brainer decision to upgrade:
"Holiday" (3:28) is a musical number that celebrated Aurora's birth and was originally slated to open the film. Great decision to cut it, since the Broadway and pop-style song really doesn't jive with the medieval pageantry. The sequence is shown in rough animation.
"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. This feature alone will make fans want to buy the new Platinum Edition or (assuming it's also included) Blu-ray.
"Original Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough Attraction" takes 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.
"Once Upon a Dream" is a new music video, this time starring Emily Osment (a.k.a. Hannah Montana's sidekick).
"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 voiceover 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 2: "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, and four deleted songs that stand out as being absolutely wrong for the film.
Disc 1 features an audio commentary with John Lasseter, Andreas Deja, and Leonard Maltin. That's the only commentary, and so real fans of the film will want to retain their Special Editions, which had a commentary track that featured Earle and other Grand Old Men from Disney animation.
In addition to 30 scene selections there are five song selections. Rounding out the bonus features are a Princess Fun Facts trivia track (there they go again!), "The Peter Tchaikovsky Story" (from a 1959 Disneyland TV broadcast), and the short feature "Grand Canyon," which ran in theaters before the main feature, "Sleeping Beauty."
It's a worthwhile package, with some nice new features, but so much was omitted from the Special Edition features that it forces people to make a tough choice or else keep both versions . . . unless (and we can only hope) the Blu-ray, with its increased storage capacity, allows Disney to include both commentaries. That missing commentary is really the biggest loss.
"Sleeping Beauty" has been regarded as a minor classic for too long. This restored edition should reinforce that it's a classic, period. The animation is gorgeous, the story deftly told, and the villain as memorable as they come. Will you need to upgrade? Absolutely. But don't be so quick to get rid of your Special Edition. And if you're thinking of getting a Blu-ray in the future but want to watch the movie now, be advised that the 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition BLU-RAY will also contain a standard edition DVD copy of the restored film!