January 18, 2010

Movie Monday: Sleeping Beauty


Sleeping Beauty was released to theatres on January 29, 1959 by Buena Vista Distribution. The sixteenth animated feature in the Walt Disney Animated Classics series, it was the last fairy tale produced by Walt Disney. The film was based on the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, with additional story work by Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, and Milt Banta. The film's musical score and songs, featuring the work of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, are arrangements or adaptations of numbers from the 1890 Sleeping Beauty ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Lets take a quick look at the official 1959 theater trailer, before we start.

Set in the 14th century, the newborn Princess Aurora is named after the Roman goddess of the dawn because she fills the lives of her mother and father, King Stefan and Queen Leah, with sunshine. While still an infant, she is betrothed to the also-young Prince Phillip, son of King Hubert, so that the kingdoms of Stefan and Hubert will be forever united. At her christening, the Three Good Fairies Flora (dressed in red/pink), Fauna (in green), and Merryweather (in blue) arrive to bless her. Flora gives her the gift of beauty while Fauna gives her the gift of song. Before Merryweather can give her blessing, the Dark Fairy Maleficent appears, expressing disappointment in not being invited to Aurora's christening ceremony and curses the princess to die when she touches a spinning wheel's spindle before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday. Maleficent leaves, and Merryweather is able to use her blessing to weaken the curse so that instead of death, Aurora, will fall into a deep sleep until she is awakened by true love's kiss. Though King Stefan decrees all spinning wheels in the kingdom burned, the Three Good Fairies know Maleficent's curse cannot be stopped that easily and devise a plan to protect her. With the king and queen's consent, they disguise themselves as peasant women and sneak Aurora away with them to a woodland cottage until her sixteen birthday lapses, passing themselves off as her aunts and swearing off magic to conceal themselves.

Years later, Aurora, renamed Briar-Rose, had grown into a gorgeous young woman with the blessings that Flora and Fauna bestowed to her. Sweet and gentle, she dreams of falling in love one day. By that time, Maleficent is vexed at her minions' incompetence in locating the princess and sends her raven familiar, Diablo, to look for Aurora. On the day of her sixteenth birthday, the fairies attempt to make Aurora a gown and a cake. When their attempts end in disaster they decide to use their wands, resulting in a magical fight between Flora and Merryweather over the color of the gown—Flora insisting that it be pink and Merryweather insisting that it be blue—that catches Diablo's attention. Meanwhile, Aurora gathers berries while singing to her animal friends, attracting the attention of Prince Phillip, now a handsome young man, as he is out riding his horse in the woods. When they meet, they instantly fall in love, Phillip believing her to be a peasant girl. Realizing that she has to return home, Aurora flees from Phillip without ever learning his name. Despite promising to meet him again, the fairies, not knowing that the man Aurora met is the prince, reveal the truth of her birth to her and take her to her parents and her betrothed's family insisting that she never see him again, much to her dismay. Meanwhile, Phillip returns home telling his father of a peasant girl he met and wishes to marry in spite of his prearranged marriage to Princess Aurora.

In the castle, Maleficent uses her magic to lure Aurora away from her boudoir and up to a tower, where a spinning wheel awaits her. Fascinated by the wheel with Maleficent's will enforcing it, Aurora touches the spindle, pricking her finger and completing the curse. The good fairies place Aurora on a bed and place all in the kingdom in a deep ageless sleep until the spell is broken. While falling asleep, King Hubert tries to tell Stefan of his son being in love with a peasant girl, which makes Flora realize that Prince Phillip is the man Aurora has fallen in love with, and they fly back to the cottage for him. At that time, Prince Phillip arrives at the cottage, but is captured, bound and gagged by Maleficent's minions and taken to the dungeons of her lair, "The Forbidden Mountain", to prevent him from kissing Aurora until he is an old man and she remains as young as the day she pricked her finger—as previewed in a magical vision which the gloating Maleficent torments him with. However, the fairies sneak into Maleficent's stronghold and free the prince. Armed with the magical Sword of Truth and The Shield of Virtue, Phillip and the fairies escape from the Forbidden Mountain whilst being attacked by Maleficent's minions, which the fairies succeed in blocking. When Diablo tries to warn Maleficent, Merryweather chases him and eventually kills him by turning him into a stone statue, alerting Maleficent. The prince braves all obstacles Maleficent throws at him to reach the palace, including a large bush of thorns, before battling Maleficent herself when she transforms into a gigantic fire-breathing dragon. After a long fight in which his shield is destroyed, Phillip throws the sword, blessed by the fairies' magic, directly into Maleficent's heart, causing Maleficent to fall to her death from a cliff, leaving nothing but her robe and the sword now black.

Phillip climbs to Aurora's chamber, and removes the curse with a kiss. As the film ends, Phillip and Aurora both happily learn that their betrothed and their beloved are one and the same. They arrive at the ballroom, where Aurora is happily reunited with her parents, and she and Prince Phillip dance a waltz. They do not notice that as they dance, Merryweather and Flora have resumed their disagreement over the color of her dress and continue to change it from blue to pink with their magic. As the book closes, Aurora's gown continues to change colors until it stops on pink.

Sleeping Beauty was the first animated feature to be photographed in the Technirama widescreen process. The film was presented in Super Technirama 70 and 6-channel stereophonic sound in first-run engagements. Only one other animated film, Disney's The Black Cauldron, was shot in Technirama.


Sleeping Beauty spent nearly the entire decade of the 1950s in production: the story work began in 1951, voices were recorded in 1952, animation production took from 1953 until 1958, and the stereophonic musical score, partially based on Tchaikovsky's ballet of the same name, was recorded in 1957. The film holds a notable position in Disney animation as the last Disney feature to use hand-inked cels. Its art, which Walt Disney wanted to look like a living illustration and which was inspired by medieval art, was not in the typical Disney style. The movie eschewed the soft, rounded look of earlier Disney features for a more stylized one. Since Super Technirama 70 was used, it also meant the backgrounds could contain more detailed and complex artwork than ever used in an animated movie before.

While Disney's regular production designer, Ken Anderson was in charge of the film's overall look, Disney artist Eyvind Earle was made the film's color stylist and chief background designer, and Disney gave him a significant amount of freedom in designing the settings and selecting colors for the film. Earle also painted the majority of the backgrounds himself. The elaborate paintings usually took seven to ten days to paint; by contrast, a typical animation background took only one workday to complete. Disney's decision to give Earle so much artistic freedom was not popular among the Disney animators, who had until Sleeping Beauty exercised some influence over the style of their characters and settings.

It was also the first time the studio experimented with the Xerox process. Woolie Reitherman used it on the dragon as a way to enlarge and reduce its size, but due to the primitive equipment available in this early test, the Xerox lines were then replaced with traditional ink and paint.


The name of the Sleeping Beauty is Princess Aurora, Latin for ‘dawn’; this name occurred in Perrault's version, not as the princess's name, but as her daughter's. In hiding, she is called Briar Rose, the name of the princess in the Brothers Grimm variant. The prince was given the princely name most familiar to Americans in the 1950s: Prince Phillip, named after Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The evil fairy was aptly named Maleficent, meaning ‘Evil-doer’. 

Walt Disney had suggested that all three good fairies should look alike, but veteran animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston objected, saying that three identical fairies would not be exciting. Additionally, the idea originally included seven fairies instead of three, as there are seven fairies in the story's main reference, Perrault's version. In determining Maleficent's design, standard depictions of witches and hags were dismissed as animator Marc Davis opted for a more elegant look centered around the appearance of flames, ultimately crowning the villain with "the horns of the devil." In the event the individual character of the three good fairies and the elegant villain proved to be among the film's strongest points.


Several story points for this film came from discarded ideas for Disney's previous fairy tale involving a sleeping heroine: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They include Maleficent's capture of the Prince, as well as her mocking him and the Prince's daring escape from her castle. Disney discarded these ideas from Snow White because his artists were not able to draw a human male believably enough at the time. Also discarded from Snow White but used in this film were the ideas of the dance with the makeshift prince, and the fantasy sequence of the prince and princess dancing in the clouds, which was also considered but dropped from Cinderella.


Before animation production began, every shot in the film was done in a live-action reference version, with live actors in costume serving as models for the animators. The role of Prince Phillip was modeled by Ed Kemmer. For the final battle sequence, Kemmer was photographed on a wooden buck. Among the actresses who performed in reference footage for this film were Spring Byington, Frances Bavier, and Helene Stanley.

Helene Stanley was the live action reference for Princess Aurora. The only known surviving footage of Stanley as Aurora's live-action reference is a clip from the television program Disneyland, which consists of the artists sketching her dancing with the woodland animals. All the live actors' performances were screened for the animators' reference as Walt Disney insisted that much of Sleeping Beauty's character animation be as close to live action as possible.

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