Sleeping Beauty marks the end of an era for Walt Disney. The man who invented the animated feature was just about ready to be done with them. Sleeping Beauty was a make-or-break proposition intended to capture Walt’s animators working at the very top of their game. It was supposed to cement their reputation as the absolute best in the business. Instead, it very nearly spelled the end of Disney animation entirely.
Walt began developing Sleeping Beauty back in 1950. It would take him most of the decade to complete it. By Disney standards, story development went relatively quickly. This is a little surprising since Charles Perrault’s original fairy tale, the primary source for the adaptation, is only about 15 pages long, not counting illustrations. If Disney’s team was going to make a meal out of this meatless bone, they’d have to add a lot more ingredients.
Walt put Wilfred Jackson in charge of the film. The first order of business was fleshing out the villain. In Perrault’s original, she’s an unnamed wicked fairy who shows up just long enough to place a curse on the princess and is never seen or heard from again. Given an essentially blank slate to create a character from scratch, the Disney team came up with Maleficent, one of their most iconic villains.
The movie doesn’t really give us a whole lot of information about Maleficent. Unlike past villainesses like Snow White’s Queen and Cinderella’s stepmother, Maleficent doesn’t seem particularly threatened by or jealous of Princess Aurora. She’s just mad that King Stefan didn’t invite her to the christening. But no one ever questions why Maleficent does what she does. The character design and animation by Marc Davis and vocal performance by Eleanor Audley (also the voice of Cinderella’s nemesis, Lady Tremaine) are so singular that we don’t need any backstory.
Jackson and his story team also embellished the three Good Fairies, cut down from Perrault’s original seven, probably to downplay any comparisons to Snow White’s dwarfs. Weirdly, Walt wanted the thee Fairies to be virtually identical. Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston talked him out of that idea, thank goodness. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are ostensibly supporting characters but in a lot of ways, the movie’s really about them. They’re the ones who have to raise and protect Aurora. They’re the ones who end up defeating Maleficent (Prince Phillip may throw the sword but who knows what would have happened without their enchantment). Robbing them of their distinct personalities would have been a serious mistake.
When Jackson turned in his first pass at Sleeping Beauty, Walt was unimpressed and ordered him, Ted Sears and the rest of the story crew back to the drawing board. This was not unusual. What was unusual was that this seems to have been the extent of Walt’s concerns with the story. On Snow White, Walt had been involved with every last detail. There wasn’t a line of dialogue or a plot point in the entire picture that didn’t have Walt’s stamp of approval. But by Sleeping Beauty, Walt had checked out. Story meetings became a thing of the past. Walt’s mind was on Disneyland, television, and live-action features. By the middle of 1953, the script for Sleeping Beauty was considered good enough.
To the extent Walt did care about Sleeping Beauty, it was all about the movie’s look. Eyvind Earle had joined the studio in 1951 as a background painter. In 1953, he worked on the short subject Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom. This was a radical departure from the typical Disney house style, influenced by the modernist, angular style of the independent animation house UPA (United Productions of America). UPA had been formed in 1943 by a number of ex-Disney animators in the wake of the strike that bitterly divided the studio. The UPA style was unique, widely praised by critics, and a direct reaction against the rounded, formal Disney style.
For years, Walt resisted any change to his signature animation style. But the Oscar-winning success of Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom started to change that. Walt put Earle in charge of defining the look of Sleeping Beauty. He’d been using concept artists (or “inspirational sketch artists”) to help establish tone from the early days. Artists like Albert Hurter and Tyrus Wong had been hugely important in setting the right visual palette on films like Pinocchio and Bambi. But Walt had begun to feel that the elements that made, for example, the concept art of Mary Blair special was being lost in the finished animation on films like Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. Walt vowed to change that with Sleeping Beauty. Earle’s vision would be represented on screen no matter how long it took.
As it turned out, it took a very long time indeed. The animators struggled to reconcile the realistic figure movement Walt had been demanding for years with the hyper-stylized character designs. They disagreed with Earle’s color choices and fought against his overly detailed backgrounds. When they took their issues to Walt, he would take Earle’s side every time. Toward the end of 1953, Wilfred Jackson suffered a heart attack and was replaced as supervising director by Eric Larson. At the time, Sleeping Beauty was scheduled for release in February 1957.
Larson struggled mightily with the massive workload but Walt’s insistence on perfection in every frame kept progress to a snail’s pace. According to Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination, the animators took such meticulous care drawing Aurora that at one point, they were only producing a single cleaned-up image a day. The release date was pushed back to Christmas 1957. When it became clear they wouldn’t make that date either, Larson was taken off the project, replaced by Clyde Geronimi. Larson would later refer to Sleeping Beauty as his “downfall”.
With the help of Wolfgang Reitherman, Geronimi was able to get Sleeping Beauty over the finish line and into theaters by the end of January 1959, not Christmas 1958 as they’d hoped. What was meant to be Walt Disney’s crowning animated achievement landed with a bit of a thud. Reviews compared it unfavorably to earlier films like Snow White and Cinderella, exactly the reactions Walt had wanted to avoid. With a few exceptions, most critics disliked the animation style everyone had worked so hard to perfect. People seemed to enjoy the music (George Bruns’ score, adapting Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, received the film’s sole Oscar nomination) but that was about it. Since the movie had taken so long to produce, its budget had skyrocketed and its original theatrical released failed to earn it back.
Even today, Sleeping Beauty isn’t quite as beloved as some of Disney’s animated classics, although it has certainly undergone a critical re-evaluation. For instance, time has been very kind to Eyvind Earle’s singular design scheme. It bridges several gaps, from the Industrial Gothic Renaissance art that inspired Earle to his own modernist style. But it also connects the traditional Disney style of animation to the sleek, vertical style of UPA. The movie shows us not only where animation has been but where it’s headed.
Make no mistake, the animation in Sleeping Beauty is nothing short of breathtaking. Shot in Technirama, this is some of the most spectacular animation Disney ever produced. The animators learned quite a bit about shooting in widescreen thanks to Lady And The Tramp. They put those lessons to good use here. Every frame is perfectly staged, filling the eye with color and movement.
But while Walt was obsessing over the visual aspect, he really ought to have worried a bit more about the story. With a running time of only about 75 minutes, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t seem all that interested in letting us get to know its main characters. The opening sequence packs in a lot, establishing the baby Princess Aurora, her future betrothal to Prince Phillip, the three Good Fairies, Maleficent and her curse that Aurora will die on her 16th birthday, and the Fairies’ promise to raise Aurora under the name Briar Rose deep in the woods without using magic. That isn’t a story. That’s the set-up for the story.
However, the very next thing we know, it’s already Briar Rose’s sweet 16 and the Fairies are getting ready to say goodbye. We’ve been given no chance to get to know this girl. We don’t even get to see Flora, Fauna and Merryweather try to live a magic-free existence. Virtually the entire burden of getting the audience to care about Aurora is placed on the forest sequence where she meets Prince Phillip. It’s a nicely animated sequence and the song “Once Upon A Dream” is pretty good. But that’s a lot to ask of a single scene and song.
The movie doesn’t let up once Aurora falls into her sleep and Maleficent captures Phillip. Perrault’s original has our heroine cursed to sleep for one hundred years before she’s rescued. The story team was smart to realize that’s too long for a movie but they go too far in the opposite direction. Unable to face telling King Stefan that they’ve failed, the Fairies decide to put the whole kingdom to sleep until they can fix all this, then go straight to Phillip. Aurora’s plight doesn’t mean a whole lot if nobody even knows about it.
Freeing Phillip, the Fairies warn him that he’ll have to face the rest of these challenges on his own. This turns out to be a lie. They do nothing but help him, zapping Maleficent’s Goons and enchanting his sword for the death blow against Maleficent herself. This is not to take anything away from the power and beauty of this incredibly animated sequence. The arrival of Maleficent in dragon-form is legitimately awe-inspiring. None of it makes a lot of sense logically but that’s OK. The only problem is that it seems to take no time at all. By the time the curse is lifted and everyone wakes up, it feels more like Aurora was cursed to an afternoon nap.
Sleeping Beauty has a great big hole in its center where it heart should be. It’s just too difficult to become invested in the romance between Aurora and Phillip. We don’t spend enough time with either of them to care. But it’s easy to overlook that potentially fatal flaw because everything surrounding that hole is so great, beginning with Maleficent.
Visually, Disney has never created a more compelling villain (unless you want to count the demon Chernabog in Fantasia). The fact that we don’t know much about her apart from her commitment to pure evil makes her one of Disney’s most mysterious and sinister villains. It was also enough to justify expanding the character into the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent, automatically one of Disney’s more interesting live-action adaptations of an animated property simply by virtue of not being a shot-for-shot remake.
(Maleficent will presumably appear in this column eventually, assuming people are still reading this by the time we make it to the 2010s.)
Eleanor Audley, voicing her second and final Disney villainess, is absolutely perfect in the role. Apart from a couple episodes of The Swamp Fox miniseries on Walt Disney Presents, this would be Audley’s last Disney role. She went on to a prolific television career with recurring roles in shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and My Three Sons (alongside Fred MacMurray, someone we’ll soon start seeing a lot of in this column).
Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are equally well-cast, completely disproving Walt’s theory that they should have had identical personalities. Verna Felton was an old pro by now, having voiced characters in Dumbo, Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. She also provided the voice of Aunt Sarah in Lady And The Tramp, with Barbara Luddy (Merryweather) as Lady. Barbara Jo Allen (Fauna), a new voice at the studio, was better known as Vera Vague, a radio character she’d played that became so popular that she temporarily adopted it as her professional name. This column will hear from all three of these women again.
Felton, Allen and Luddy are so perfect as the Fairies that it’s hard to imagine other actresses in the roles. But other actresses did play the parts for the live-action reference footage that was shot. Frances Bavier (The Andy Griffith Show’s Aunt Bee), Madge Blake (Batman’s Aunt Harriet) and Spring Byington (an Academy Award nominee and presumably somebody’s aunt) were performance models, as was Hans Conried for King Stefan. The use of live-action reference footage was common at the Disney studio but there was usually more overlap between the vocal and live-action actors. This time, only Eleanor Audley performed both halves of her character.
I can’t find any explanation for why they chose to separate the voices from the live-action models this time around. Conried had provided both the voice and live-action reference for Hook in Peter Pan. Not to take anything away from Taylor Holmes but Conried would have made an excellent King Stefan. It may have simply boiled down to the film’s lengthy production schedule.
The long production had one very immediate effect at the studio: Walt would no longer commit the same kind of money and resources to animation. Following the financial failure of Sleeping Beauty, Walt was forced to institute wide-sweeping layoffs that hit the animation division especially hard. While they still produced occasional short films, they no longer had a separate department dedicated to their production. Animators would be forced to find cheaper, more efficient ways of making the features. Walt himself would only oversee three more animated features before his death in 1966 and they would be much different from those that came before.
The disappointment of Sleeping Beauty also scared the studio away from an entire genre. It would be years before Disney dared to tackle another fairy tale. That movie, The Little Mermaid, would come to represent the beginning of an era just as Sleeping Beauty marked the end of another. But that’s a tale for another column.
Sleeping Beauty didn’t receive its first theatrical re-release until 1970. Subsequent re-releases would restore the film to its 70mm Technirama glory. Those screenings would be a revelation for those of us who had never seen a Disney film of this size and scope before. For awhile in the 1980s, I would have considered Sleeping Beauty to be my favorite Disney movie. There simply wasn’t anything else quite like it.
Today, I’m a bit more reserved in my appreciation of the film. Its technical qualities are beyond reproach. The movie still has the ability to dazzle and amaze audiences. But its story flaws prevent it from being the masterpiece Walt wanted it to be. In his pursuit of technical perfection, he lost sight of the heart and soul that made his best movies truly special. Disney animation would never be the same again.
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