Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty – 1959

An Ambitious Time for Disney

The 1950s was a remarkably busy time for Disney. Walt Disney diverted his attentions, as well as many resources and his best creative minds, to the creation of Disneyland. To help fund this project, the film studio produced several big-budget live-action movies and ventured into the then-new medium of television.

Despite all these massive undertakings, the animation studio still created five films in that decade. Their ambitious vision for the last of these, Sleeping Beauty, cost them six years of work and six million dollars. The result is a dazzling masterpiece that may be more epic than you ever realized.

So Familiar a Gleam

You may remember the most notable turns of the story: a witch’s curse, a spinning wheel, an enchanted sleep, a battle with a dragon, and true love’s kiss. Sleeping Beauty is an ancient tale, and the film takes influence from French fairy tale writer Charles Perrault’s version (with plenty of changes and additions to make the story work as a Disney movie). The score adapted the ballet by Nutcracker composer Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, including the tune for the signature song, “Once Upon a Dream.”

The story begins with the christening of the Princess Aurora, which is interrupted by the self-proclaimed Mistress of All Evil, Maleficent. The wicked fairy curses the child to perish on her 16th birthday, when she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle. The child’s godmothers, the Three Good Fairies, soften the curse from death to a deep sleep, and they hide her from Maleficent’s forces in a forest cottage. However, a powerful curse is not so easily avoided.

Different From the Rest

Disney had already done two fairy tale films, Snow White and Cinderella, and Walt Disney wanted to make sure this one stood on its own. As film historian Leonard Maltin said, “Walt took this on, I think, as a personal challenge. He wanted to make this film as special and as different as he could.”

To this end, production designer Eyvind Earle created a distinct and gorgeous visual style for the movie. He took influence from hyper-detailed medieval illustrations and Persian gothic architecture, but still created something modern and fresh. The visuals are striking even today, from the gorgeously animated dance in the clouds to simple yet distinct details like the square-shaped trees. At least in this regard, Sleeping Beauty is one of Disney’s most beautiful and stylistically distinct movies.

A Disney Film on an Epic Scale

In addition to making something special and different, Maltin also said that Walt “wanted to make a film that he felt would be the pinnacle of achievement in animation.” This may have been for financial as much as for artistic reasons. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw studios releasing more “epics,” or large-scale films with sweeping stories and massive budgets. Studios feared that the rise of television would kill audience interest in movies, so they sought to provide a lavish experience that one could not find on the small screen.

The film’s epic scale extended to a technical level: Sleeping Beauty was the first animated feature shot on the prestigious 70mm. Its film aspect ratio is greater than any other Disney film: 2.55:1, or two-and-a-half times wider than the height. Earle and the artists took advantage of this incredible widescreen format, intended to resemble a moving medieval tapestry, to create richly detailed backgrounds and elaborate compositions.

A Story of Divine Forces

However, the movie also fits the genre with its story. A closer look reveals that Aurora and Prince Philip, despite being the main characters, are not the ones who most drive the action. That distinction goes to Maleficent, the villain, and the Three Good Fairies, the story’s true heroes. The four of them are the most powerful beings in the movie and guide everyone’s actions from the beginning, with Maleficent’s curse and the Fairies’ blessings shaping the fate of Aurora and her kingdom.

Ultimately, it is under the villain’s magical influence that Aurora touches the spindle and fulfills her destiny, and it is the Fairies who keep the prince safe during his fortress raid. They even magically guide his sword so that it slays the dragon-transformed Maleficent. It’s a fairy tale where the fairies control the tale.

Comparing a Disney Princess movie with Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments may seem strange, but they have something in common. These epics, and many others from the time, are all narratives of powerful forces guiding human events. Even Aurora and Philip’s romance is destiny; despite meeting each other through chance and falling in love on their own, their parents arranged their marriage as children.

However, that divine-human power dynamic is not a one-way street. Aurora and Philip, believing each other to be total strangers, resist their caretakers when they learn of their arranged marriage — unaware, of course, that they’re already engaged to each other. When the Fairies finally learn the truth, shortly after Aurora falls asleep, they realize how wrong they were to distrust a good-hearted girl they raised as their own child. This human touch gives them the impetus to have faith in Philip, which ultimately saves the day.

A Gorgeous Masterpiece

Whether you see it as an epic tale of godlike forces or a family-friendly fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty is the “pinnacle of animation” that Walt Disney hoped it would be. It has everything you’d hope for from a Disney movie: gorgeous animation, a beautiful romance, thrilling adventures, a fun sense of humor, and a terrific, terrifying villain. The effort that everyone involved poured into this project shows in the final product: even by Disney standards, Sleeping Beauty shines.

Sleeping Beauty Merchandise

Hail to the Princess Aurora with YourWDWStore’s massive selection of Sleeping Beauty merchandise. You can find all kinds of fun gifts based on the movie: pins, T-shirts, figurines, prints, headbands, satchels, and even a vinyl record with music from the film. You can find something special at our store today.