“Sleeping Beauty,” 1959, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, Eric Larson, Clyde Geronimi and Les Clark, is the story of a princess named Aurora (Mary Costa) who is cursed to die by pricking her finger on a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday by an evil fairy named Maleficent (Eleanor Audley). The curse is partially lifted by the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather (Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen and Barbara Luddy). Instead of dying, the princess only falls into a sleep that only a true love’s kiss could wake her from — that true love, of course, being Prince Philip (Bill Shirley).
At the time, the film was quite different from the Disney films that came before it. For starters, it was one of the most expensive Disney films to date, costing $6 million to make. The film was so expensive for multiple reasons. For starters, it took much longer to make. It was also the first Disney film to be made in a widescreen format. While earlier films had aspect ratios of 1.37:1, “Sleeping Beauty” had an aspect ratio of 2.55:1. The art design for “Sleeping Beauty” is also vastly different than the films that came before. The backgrounds that the characters are in are extremely detailed. Background artist Eyvind Earle was heavily inspired by medieval art in making the film’s backgrounds, most notably the Unicorn Tapestries now at the Cloisters in New York. Despite Earle leaving the project due to creative differences with creative supervisor Clyde Geronimi, aspects of his original vision are still there. While watching the film, you can see every groove in each tree. Every leaf on a bush. Every crack on each castle brick. It’s quite beautiful.
Unfortunately, despite the beauty of the film, it didn’t break even during its initial release. While the film cost $6 million to make, it made back just above $5 million, making it Disney’s first box office loss in nearly a decade. The critics found the film too similar to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in plot and found it lacking in charm.
“Sleeping Beauty” is one of my favorite films of all time. Despite the simplicity in the plot and the lack of agency from the main heroine, I still love this film. Eyvide Earle’s artistic vision is absolutely stunning. I want to live in this film and be part of this art style. The fact that the backgrounds are so detailed is impressive, and the fact that the simplistically animated characters don’t look out of place is even more impressive. The music in this film is also extremely beautiful, both the lyrical and the instrumental pieces. I could listen to “Once Upon a Dream” all day, and I have.
Now, my favorite part of the film is Maleficent. Maleficent, played by the incredibly talented Eleanor Audley, is the villain of “Sleeping Beauty.” Despite being a drawing, she sucks all the energy out of the room and focuses it all on herself. From her first entrance in the opening scene to her final battle with Prince Philip, she steals the show. With a combination of her iconic character design, the way she is animated and the incredible voice performance by Eleanor Audley, Maleficent is easily the best character in the film.
Although one of the main criticisms critics had with “Sleeping Beauty” was its similarity to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, I think that “Sleeping Beauty” improved many of the problems with “Snow White,” the romance in particular. While the endings of both films are incredibly similar, with the prince kissing the princess to bring her back to life, the kiss in “Sleeping Beauty” feels a lot less predatory. In “Snow White,” Prince Florian stumbles onto Snow White’s corpse and wordlessly kisses her without consent, not knowing that the kiss would wake her up. Meanwhile, Prince Philip was guided by the three fairies who created the “true love’s kiss” solution during his entire quest to save Aurora. No doubt they told Philip that the only way to wake up Aurora was to kiss her. Philip and Aurora also knew each other for much longer than Snow White and Florian. Not by much longer but they’ve at least had a conversation and a romantic musical number in the woods. Meanwhile, Snow White runs away from her true love when she first meets him. While the criticism that “Sleeping Beauty” is too similar to “Snow White” is warranted due to the main female character still having no agency in the story, “Sleeping Beauty” is a vast improvement to Disney’s first hit.
This film is a classic in my mind, and I feel it is one of Disney’s best early works. The art style is absolutely gorgeous, and, in my opinion, it is the most beautiful Disney film. It has some flaws and Aurora could have more agency, but I can forgive all that because it’s so pretty to look at.