Since beginning his career as an animator in the early 1920s, Walt Disney pursued an ideal that animation was not just a form of popular entertainment, but an art form worthy of admiration and respect. This ideal led him towards film projects now counted amongst the finest in animation, but each were a gamble that placed his Walt Disney Animation Studio in jeopardy, his pursuit of perfection only achievable with extraordinary cost. In 1959, the studio released their 16th animated film, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, a film that exemplifies Disney’s belief in the extraordinary artistry and with the dangerous risks, he was willing to go to prove it.
Sixty years later, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is regarded as one of the great masterpieces of animation, and one of the crown jewels of Walt Disney Animation. Many cite it as some of the most beautiful animated images ever captured on film, a level of graphic sophistication and beauty that has never been matched since. If Disney’s aim was to create a film to solidify animation as a legitimate art form, you could argue that no film achieved this more than ‘Sleeping Beauty’, and it has a stature and legacy few films other than ‘Fantasia’ possess. I’ve been hopelessly in love with this film for as long as I can remember (I’m not even sure when I first saw it), and even now, I still count it among my favourite animated films. There’s something beguiling and haunting about it, something that lingers in you after it finishes, and even though it only runs for 75 minutes, there are few animated films that feel as epic. This reputation has built over the last sixty years, overshadowing a complex and troubled production that pushed the studio to its financial and artistic limits.
Walt Disney Animation had found its feet following the Second World War with the release of ‘Cinderella’, a commercial and critical success, and the first Disney film to make a significant profit since ‘Snow White’ in 1938. It was followed by ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1951), ‘Peter Pan’ (1953) and ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (1955), but while all three were well-received, they weren’t nearly as successful as ‘Cinderella’. With development in full-swing on Disneyland, Disney decided to return to the princess-centric fairytales once more for a win, since his two biggest hits had been such tales. However, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, though similar in terms of narrative, would be significantly different in its execution, led by a number of key decisions that link to Disney’s ambitions and frustrations.
One of the key figures in shaping the post-war Disney style was conceptual artist Mary Blair, whose extraordinarily simply yet striking concept art for ‘Cinderella’, ‘Alice’ and ‘Peter Pan’ impressed Disney enormously. Disney was disappointed that her distinct style was watered down in the animation process, losing much of what made her work so special. This would influence his appointment of background and concept artist Eyvind Earle as the key artist on ‘Sleeping Beauty’ - Earle had developed a look for the film based on pre-Renaissance medieval gothic paintings and tapestries, a remarkable proposition for the look of an animated film, and Disney was determined that this style remained intact. As a result, Earle would oversee all aspects of the visual look of the film, making sure that the distinct colour palette and geometric shapes of gothic art permeated throughout the film.
'SLEEPING BEAUTY' TRAILER
This would influence not just the look of the film, but the tone. Such a strong graphic language could not accomodate the gags or slapstick that had been such a part of the studio’s language, demanding a more sophisticated approach to the storytelling and characterisation. While there are many Disney tropes in ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the film feels more classical, more adult and more considered. Its narrative is stripped bare, its characters simple and clear, and nothing could cloud any of that clarity. The consequence of Earle’s control throughout, with Disney’s full support, was conflict with the animation staff, many of whom unsure about such a radical change in approach, and most troubling, a drastic increase in hours required to do the work and the money it would cost. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ took six years to make, more than any animated film before, and some sequences took that entire six years to complete.
Another contribution to the enormous expense of the film was Disney’s fascination with technology. In order to make the film all the more singular, he made the extraordinary decision to shoot the film in Super Technirama 70mm Widescreen, an incredibly wide aspect ratio never used in animation before - in fact, it wasn’t until the Blu-ray release in 2008 that the full width of the image was actually seen by the public after the initial 70mm release in 1959, a huge visual shock to someone who had grown up watching full-screen VHS versions. This increased the work, not only because of more of the frame needing to be animated, but the level of detail required with the increased resolution. On top of that, the studio, after inventing stereo sound for ‘Fantasia’, went one step further by inventing six-track stereo sound for ‘Sleeping Beauty’, requiring the score to be recorded in special studios in Germany. There is not a single aspect of this film that wasn’t pushing its medium to breaking point, and with the costs mounting and the vision all the more uncompromising, the studio was being pushed towards bankruptcy. This wasn’t the first time the studio had been in this position - the commercial failures of ‘Pinocchio’ (1940), ‘Fantasia’ (1940) and ‘Bambi’ (1942) had done the same, though that was partly due to losing foreign markets during the war. In this case, the studio was about to be capsized by a single film.
That the film was such a risk, and a risk that, despite its enormous commercial success, never fully paid off because of its crippling budget, seems in hindsight such an obvious one to take. The results speak for themselves - ‘Sleeping Beauty’ really is a masterpiece, and for all the reasons that make it singular. You could take any frame of the film and put it on a wall in a gallery, so extraordinary are its visuals, a moving medieval tapestry where the stunning backgrounds and breathtaking character animation are in perfect harmony. The characters, as simple as they are, dazzle in that simplicity. Neither Princess Aurora or Prince Phillip are the most engaging characters, but the film compensates for that by making its focus be the secondary characters, especially the three protective fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. The push for sophistication resulted in maybe the finest of all the Disney villains, the hypnotic and terrifying Maleficent, a figure whose cold fury is as striking as her extraordinary silhouette. Many of the sequences are beyond description, such as the fairies putting the castle to sleep, Aurora and Phillip’s meeting in the forest, and the chilling sequence where Maleficent calls Aurora to the spinning wheel. Most spectacular of all though is the climactic dragon fight, an awe-inspiring action sequence that has never been bettered, and is often sighted as one of the great achievements in 70mm filmmaking. There might not be much to ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in terms of narrative or writing, but it does so much with its visuals that it hardly matters.
There is not a single aspect of this film that wasn’t pushing its medium to breaking point...
And completing the perfection of the film is its revolutionary score, again a radical departure for a Disney film. Songs had been written, but apart from the love ballad ‘Once Upon A Dream’, none fit the more gothic tone of the film. Instead, studio composer George Bruns completed an extraordinary adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet for the film, expansive and classical and enormous, and thanks to the conditions of its recording, shockingly rich in sound. It adds another dimension and more weight to the film, and the often inspired ways Bruns interprets Tchaikovsky’s music demonstrates a keen understanding of the original music and how it can be woven into the context of the film, a stroke of genius Clint Mansell would evoke decades later when he adapted Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ in his equally incredible score for ‘Black Swan’ (2010). Bruns’ score was subsequently released on LP, often sighted as the first ever commercial release of a film score.
While the decades have only added to the stature of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, it has also given cause for concern. As should be the case, there are many questions now around how we should view the Disney Princess films against our more developed understanding of female representation and the effect these films can have on young children in terms of their understanding of gender politics. In the case of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, you have a lead female character being awoken by a kiss, something she is not in a position to consent to, and while some might dismiss this concern as political correctness, there is an argument that this kind of trope could encourage a belief in young boys that kissing a girl without her permission is okay. The films of Walt Disney Animation are one of the great loves of my life, and have been a constant source of solace and inspiration, but it would be foolish not to acknowledge that, removed from their time and context, there are behaviours that would not seen acceptable now in these classics. At least in the case of Aurora and Phillip, a relationship is established beforehand so that she at least knows who he is, so that the lack of consent is not as problematic as in ‘Snow White’, but perhaps the gift that these films can give us now, being removed from the social understandings under which they were made, is that they can promote genuine discussions with children while watching them, engagement with the stories and ideas at their heart, so we can not only highlight that which is questionable in them, but also that which is to be celebrated.
Disney had raised the bar with ‘Sleeping Beauty’, but it was to be the end of an era for the famed animation studio. That level of rich and uncompromising detail was simply too expensive, and ways had to be found to cut costs. For their next film, ‘101 Dalmatians’ (1961), they developed a Xerox process where the animation was photocopied onto the animation cels, saving time and money but rendering the clean-up artists, who had transferred the animation to cels by hand, redundant, effectively ending the careers of many (mostly female) emerging artists. While many of the post-1959 films are wonderful (especially ‘The Jungle Book’ in 1967), that opulent classical look that had reached its zenith with ‘Sleeping Beauty’ would not be repeated again until ‘Beauty And The Beast’ in 1991. Disney was also further distracted, both by live action films like ‘Mary Poppins’ (1964), and the development of Disneyland. With his death in 1966, no animated film would receive his attention as much as this film had. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ had been the culmination of Disney animation up until that point, but it also represented the end of that era. Films like it were now simply too ambitious.
As I’m writing this, the soundtrack to ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is playing in the background, music I’ve listened to my whole life, bringing back images I’ve been looking at my whole life, and what becomes clearer the more I listen and the more I dream is that this isn’t a film any amount of words can possibly do justice. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a sensory experience, once where the act of viewing and listening create sensations where words are inadequate. This was something Walt Disney pursued most of his life, to create something that proved that animation possessed something unlike no other art form. In many ways, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is the most thunderous example of this. It is a masterpiece of beauty and wonder, danger and excitement, humour and heart, but foremost it is a complete work of art in every way. In the history of animation there had never been anything quite like it, and even after sixty years, there hasn’t been anything since.