Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Genre: Fairy Tale Running Time: 1 hr. 15 min.

Release Date: January 29th, 1959 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Clyde Geronimi Actors: Mary Costa, Bill Shirley, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Taylor Holmes

 


 

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he ultimate traditionally-animated swords-and-sorcery film from Walt Disney, “Sleeping Beauty” brandishes gorgeous visuals, an amusing fantasy plot, and the unforgettable song “Once Upon A Dream.” Stylized, modernistic artwork by Eyvind Earle results in wondrous medieval backgrounds (photographed in 70mm widescreen) and a fresh new look for a feature cartoon, while villainess Maleficent sets a high bar for frightening antagonists, Disney or otherwise. It’s well-crafted and smartly paced, arriving during a streak of true winners in the fairy tale field, following the acclaimed likes of “Alice in Wonderland” (1951), “Peter Pan” (1953), and “Lady and the Tramp” (1955).

Having longed for a child for some time, King Stefan and his queen are finally granted a baby girl, Aurora. Three good fairies – Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen), Flora (Verna Felton), and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy) – are each able to grant the newborn a single wish (the first two being beauty and the gift of song). But just as Merryweather is about to bestow her enchantment, the fearsome Maleficent (Eleanor Audley), an outcast evil sorceress ostensibly resentful at not receiving an invitation to the ceremony, condemns the child with a terrifying curse: on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. As Maleficent vanishes in a flurry of smoke, Merryweather attempts to undo some of the damage by using her lone magical present to change the curse of death to sleep, which can in turn be broken by true love’s kiss.

Although the King commands all spinning wheels to be burned, Aurora is still not safe. The three fairies convince Stefan to let them raise the child in an isolated cottage in the forest, hoping that that will be enough to keep her out of sight from the Argus-eyed Maleficent and her minions. And so, using the name Briar Rose, Aurora is kept safe for sixteen years, looked after by the trio of sprites under the disguises of peasant women. But when the time comes for Aurora to return to the kingdom to fulfill her betrothal to Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley), old dangers resurface and new ones await.

Several of the plot elements are decidedly goofy – the three fays have limitless powers as demonstrated countless times in their aiding of Phillip, yet they are unable to counter Maleficent’s spell. They can put an entire castle to sleep, arm Phillip with magical weapons of righteousness, change arrows to flowers, and transform searing tar into a rainbow – but are helpless when it comes to actually lifting or usefully altering a simple curse. 15th century fairies they are not. However, the chivalry and adventure are routinely superb, counteracting the story devices that don’t add up and matching the classical musical orchestrations quite nicely. Based on Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” ballet, the stereophonic soundtrack is utterly mesmerizing – with the main song “Once Upon A Dream” catapulting the production to one of Disney’s greatest.

On the artistic front, shadows have become significantly better and details more noticeable; the illustrations in “Sleeping Beauty” top nearly everything preceding it. Maleficent’s menacing black dragon is breathtaking (the climactic battle is one of the best action sequences of any animated feature) and the movements of the human characters are entirely convincing – thanks to extensive live-action reference footage. But perhaps most impressive of all is the dark witch’s design and scripting – she’s unlike any Disney antagonist before her. She moves calmly and assuredly, laughs wickedly at the horror she causes, and even goes so far as to mentally torture Phillip in her dungeon. This is a baddie devised to effectively scare young children – and one that many later villainesses would aspire to equal, including in Disney’s own subsequent productions (such as “101 Dalmatians,” “The Rescuers,” and “The Little Mermaid”).

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10