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Sleeping Beauty: Special Edition

Walt Disney Home Video

Starring the voices of Mary Costa, Eleanor Audley, Barbara Luddy,
Taylor Holmes, Bill Shirley, Verna Felton,
Barbara Jo Allen, and Bill Thompson

Written by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler,
Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright,
and Milt Banta

Produced by Walt Disney

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

As probably "the most successful and influential producer in the history of moviemaking" (this reasonable assessment courtesy of Leonard Maltin), it would follow that no single storyteller was more responsible for shaping American notions of Good and Evil than Walt Disney. For his pulpit was that of the cinema — "Truth at twenty-four frames per second"; "History written in lightning." Thanks to Uncle Walt, generations upon generations have flooded forth into the world with an unshakable, clear-eyed knowledge of what the bad guys look like, how they operate, and, even more importantly, why they must be vanquished. Sure, this is the same message hammered home in nearly every church of almost every denomination, but no minister or priest, regardless of their stentorian fury, could ever compete with Disney's indelible Technicolor moralizing.

In Sleeping Beauty, widely considered the grand finale to the golden age of the studio, if only because it was the last to be produced with hand-inked cels, Disney upped the ante. Literally. Six years in the making, and costing a then bank-breaking $6 million, this was an enormous undertaking meant to dwarf the past achievements in terms of scope — it was shot in the 70mm "Super Technirama 70" process — and design. Disney sent an unmistakable message to his veteran animators when he uncharacteristically appointed Eyvind Earle, a relatively recent arrival to the studio, to supervise the drawing of the backgrounds and the characters. This was to be, in every aspect, a Disney film without precedent, and, if all went according to plan, a testament to the confluent genius of his brilliant artists.

The problem, though, was that the story of Sleeping Beauty had nothing but precedent in the oeuvre of Disney feature animation — namely, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. And all the cosmetic enhancements technologically available could easily be rendered irrelevant by the audience's utter familiarity with the narrative. To avoid this potential calamity, Disney and his writers made a very odd choice, which was to have the three fairy godmothers — Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather — drive the story forward as, essentially, the film's protagonists, while the other key players, including the titular princess, are to exist only as generally bloodless archetypes going through the motions as dictated by firmly established narrative conventions.

This is made quite clear at the film's outset, where, on a holiday declared to celebrate the birth of Aurora, the kingdom's heir apparent, the godmothers arrive to bestow upon the baby three precious gifts. But their ceremony is interrupted by the frightening appearance of the evil witch Maleficent, who curses Aurora to live a charmed life until the eve of her sixteenth birthday, when she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Though Maleficent is apparently far more powerful than the godmothers, the feisty Merryweather still has her gift to give, which is that Aurora will not die, but fall into a slumber from which she can only be stirred by the kiss of her true love. But the King decides to take no chances, ordering the destruction of every spinning wheel in the land. As a further precaution, the godmothers convince the royals to allow them to raise Aurora outside of the castle as a commoner, where they will be better able to keep her hidden from Maleficent; however, to do so, the three sprites must also renounce their magic for those sixteen years until the princess is married off to her betrothed, Prince Phillip.

The story then leaps forward fifteen years, with Aurora, rechristened Briar Rose, nearing her fateful sixteenth birthday. It's at this point that the film strives to flesh out the princess's character, depicting her as a good-hearted heroine with a magically captivating singing voice (provided by opera star Mary Costa), but Disney and his collaborators fall back on the tried-and-true frolic in the forest, replete with prancing animals. Prince Phillip's characterization is similarly uninspired, as he's given little more than a stubborn horse with which to interact. It's in the middle of her woodland reverie that Aurora encounters Phillip, who conveniently fits the description of the dream lover she's just been warbling about. Admittedly, it's silly to complain about cliché in a fairy tale, but, compared to the wealth of imagination displayed in the look of the film, these moments prove enervating, and serve only to drag out the plot until the princess is finally imperiled, which doesn't happen for close to another twenty minutes — an eternity for a 75-minute film.

*          *          *

That's always been the problem with Sleeping Beauty, and is likely the reason it's rarely recalled with the same fond nostalgia as Pinocchio or Bambi. Admirers of the film tend to lavish most of their praise on its stand-out design; a blending of the Renaissance Era work of van Eyck with the shadowy environs of Gothic art that is frequently breathtaking when the movie is viewed in its intended medium (lovely as it is on this disc, it's so much more astounding on the big screen). Story lulls to the contrary, once Sleeping Beauty reaches its thrilling final battle between Maleficent and Phillip, undoubtedly the most masterfully choreographed and executed sequence in the entire Disney canon, the film roars to life. As the witch climbs to a perch atop her castle, firing spell after spell at the escaping Phillip, all of which the godmothers counteract in the knick of time, we're clearly bearing witness to the culmination of the collaborative visual genius assembled and, in his own peculiar way, nurtured by Disney. It's an iconic set piece that has been the template for many a thunderous showdown between good and evil as staged by filmmakers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and, most recently, Peter Jackson.

Due to such memorably vivid imagery, Sleeping Beauty endures as the piece de resistance of filmed animation that Disney intended it to be. Much of the credit for this triumph is rightfully placed at the feet of Earle, whose design scheme was truly revolutionary for its day, particularly in what was essentially high-priced corporate product. It's this kind of adventurousness that has been sorely lacking not only in present day Disney animation (the fluke transcendence of Lilo and Stitch notwithstanding), but, outside of Pixar and the work of Hayao Miyazaki, in mainstream animated features altogether. And Earle didn't do it on his own; he also happened to be collaborating with most of Disney's celebrated "Nine Old Men." Of this group, it's character designer Marc Davis whose contributions should be lauded in particular, since it's hard to imagine Sleeping Beauty being this influential without the fiery menace of Maleficent. From her startling entrance via a streak of lightning bolts to her sly manifestation from the smoldering embers in the godmothers' fireplace, and, finally, to her horrifying transmogrification into a fire-breathing dragon, Davis has probably accounted for more than his share of children's nightmares. In fact, Maleficent, with the arguable exception of the Headless Horseman in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," might very well be the most frightening character in the Disney universe. There's certainly no doubting that Davis had a knack for evil; his next gift to the pantheon of screen villains would be Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians.

Whether these simple parables are at all useful as primers on Good and Evil, and how it (or, depending on one's outlook, if it) exists in the world is a debate that will have legs so long as Disney's films are viewed by millions of children worldwide. In other words, it will never go away. Surely, though, there is an enormous value in their function as a "security blanket," depicting a world where such cynically discounted concepts as true love and the living happily ever after are valid. Because, in many ways, it is the basic human yearning for these impossible ideals that gives us everything else: comedy, horror, tragedy and so on. True, a good deal gets lost in the Disney translation, resulting, as David Thomson puts it, in a "pretty pabulum," and maybe it is this refusal to acknowledge the existence of darker elements that gets Americans in trouble. But as fantasies of indefatigable optimism, Uncle Walt, despite his myriad flaws as a human being, was our benevolent troubadour. And if we ultimately walk out of these films wanting to be better people — or, in the case of Sleeping Beauty, selflessly wanting for others' happiness — then what could possibly be the harm? Or is it simply the exportation of the "It's A Small World After All" attraction to foreign shores that has engendered this distaste for all things Disney?

*          *          *

Walt Disney Home Entertainment presents Sleeping Beauty in a two-disc special edition that should handily satiate the most rabid Disney-phile with its near-pristine anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer (there's a pan-and-scan version on board, too). The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is also fantastic, closely recapturing the awesome stereophonic sound in which the film was originally recorded.

On Disc One, the sole extra is a feature-length commentary moderated by Disney historian Jeff Kurtti, and supplemented by recollections from animators Eyvind Earle, Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis, background artist Frank Armitage, Mary Costa (the voice of Aurora), and current Disney animators Mike Gabriel and Michael Giaimo. Their comments are all taken from pre-existing interviews that turn up on Disc Two's featurettes, but they're seamlessly integrated here, and are complemented by two jettisoned music cues that have been placed back into the film (or as best they can be, since the sequences from which they were deleted have been significantly altered). It's a fantastic track that, unlike the film, never flags.

Disc Two is divided into two sections: "Games, Music and Fun" for the kids, and "History & Behind the Scenes" for the adults. First up in the former there's "Disney's Art Project" that instructs kids on how to make their very own princess (thankfully, not from a deceased human corpse), or a dragon (that does not at all resemble the brilliant creature as designed by Marc Davis). Next, there's the "Rescue Aurora Adventure Game", which is essentially a trivia challenge comprising questions drawn from the film. Meanwhile, the "Princess Personality Profile Game" seeks to match one up with the Disney princess they most resemble, while the "Once Upon a Dream" singalong is exactly what its title suggests. Closing out this section is a music video for "Once Upon a (Another) Dream" by Iggy Pop's side project No Secrets, and the "Sleeping Beauty Ink and Paint Game."

The "History & Behind the Scenes" section begins with "The Making of Sleeping Beauty" (16 min.), which gives a brief overview of this epic production and features some familiar-sounding interviews from the participants on the commentary track, as well as some historical context provided by Leonard Maltin. The "Story" section features a text history of the fairy tale, the 1951 outline for the film (annoyingly narrated, rather than presented simply as advanceable text), and two storyboard-to-film comparisons. "Production" is made up of brief featurettes detailing the music, the film's design, the creation of the backgrounds, and the restoration process. Most intriguingly, there are also glimpses at the live action reference films used by the animators, as well as a widescreen to pan-and-scan comparison. Probably the most valuable extras in this section are the three 1959 theatrical shorts: "Four Artists Paint One Tree," "The Peter Tchaikovsky Story," and the Academy Award Winning "Grand Canyon," which gives the viewer a transporting Technirama tour through the natural wonder. Rounding out this section are two photo galleries and a collection of three trailers, including the original teaser and theatrical spot, as well as the preview for the 1995 re-release.

— Clarence Beaks

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