1959's Sleeping Beauty might seem like a strange choice for Disney's first "classic" animated Blu-ray release. Despite taking almost a decade to complete, and costing a then unheard of sum of six million dollars to produce, Sleeping Beauty is generally not usually included in that top tier of Disney masterpieces which includes the at times very similar Snow White, or even the animated film that directly preceded Beauty, Lady and the Tramp. A lot of Sleeping Beauty can be seen as patently derivative of other Disney films (especially Snow White), and even at a brief 75 minutes the film can seem interminable at various points. And yet on deeper examination, Sleeping Beauty is an innovative, visually and aurally spectacular piece, perhaps the last great gasp of classic Disney animation before its renaissance decades later with efforts like The Little Mermaid.
Until Sleeping Beauty, Disney had developed and then increasingly refined its animation style, which tended toward cuddly, rounded characters, and generalized, if lovingly rendered, backgrounds. Sleeping Beauty radically reimagined this tradition, and it's something you'll notice immediately. Characters are now much more angular, a new concept that would be followed in virtually all of Disney's subsequent animated features, and the backgrounds here are as eye-catching as the characters who move in them, almost overpoweringly so at times (much to the consternation of the character animators, as is discussed in the excellent commentary track). If on a story level Sleeping Beauty seems bloated and padded to fill out even its short 75 minutes, visually this is one of the most consistently interesting Disney animated features in the long, storied line coming from the studio.
Scenarist Erdman Penner takes the bulk of his story from the Charles Perrault version of the Beauty story, while cribbing a plot point or two from Tchaikovsky's ballet version (as in Princess Aurora's name--in Perrault's version Aurora was one of Beauty's daughters after she awoke and married the prince). In fact, Tchaikovsky's music is adapted in this version for both the underscore and song score and was recorded in a then innovative six channel stereo format. Princess Aurora is born and at her christening three fairy godmothers arrive to gift her with beauty and music. Before the third fairy can offer her present, evil witch Maleficent arrives, angry that she hasn't been invited to the festivities. She curses the baby, saying that Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel when she turns 16 and will die. The third fairy godmother, unable to completely reverse Maleficent's curse, at least ameliorates it somewhat by casting a counter-spell whereby Aurora will only fall asleep until a true love's kiss awakens her. In order to head off the curse, Aurora's father has all spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed, and the three fairies secrete Aurora away to a wooded glen, where they will keep her until after her sixteenth birthday has passed. Of course you can guess that evil will rear its ugly head, but that good will triumph in the end. After all, this is a fairy tale (literally, as a matter of fact), and happily-ever-after is assured.
The distinctive look of Sleeping Beauty, based mostly on medieval tapestries and Persian art, is largely the work of unsung Disney animator Eyvind Earle. The backgrounds here are astoundingly full of detail, which this Blu-ray augments to an almost jaw-dropping degree at times. These are not the impressionistic water colored backgrounds of a Bambi, for example. Every detail is finely wrought, from wall hangings and pennants to the forested enclaves where Aurora traipses with her furry animal friends. You could spend hours on individual scenes simply reveling in the fine work, not to mention the gorgeous color palette, one of the most eye-popping in the Disney canon. It's fascinating to see this purposefully two-dimensional rendering combined with Disney's famous multi-plane camera techniques, which sought to approximate three-dimensionality (and did so brilliantly in such films as Pinnochio). Watching the various planes, all in perfect focus, move laterally with the images themselves seeming so flat and painting-like, gives Sleeping Beauty one of the most unique visual presentations of any animated feature ever, let alone a Disney feature.
Walt Disney himself was one of the most forward thinking filmmakers in his use of soundtrack music and recording technology. (As an aside, it's little wonder that the term "Mickey Mousing" has fallen into the popular nomenclature to describe an underscore that mimics the visual goings-on in any given film, whether animated or not, and that is one of Walt's great contributions--yes, contributions. Music as an augmenting, aural reinforcement to visual information may seem like a no-brainer nowadays, but it was Walt who saw (or heard, as the case may be) the possibilities inherent in the film medium, and underscoring has really never been the same since). Sleeping Beauty excels on both counts, with a stunning realization of Tchaikovsky's romantic melodies (including a Sammy Fain-Jack Lawrence pop reworking that became a minor hit, "Once Upon a Dream"). If the score seems old-fashioned to modern ears, it lovingly recreates the classic Leigh Harline choral work that made the early Disney animated classics so wonderful to listen to, and Mary Costa's astoundingly beautiful voice and vocal work as Aurora makes the character a true pleasure to listen to.
If there's a failing to Sleeping Beauty, it's simply that the story is so patently reminiscent of Snow White (Walt was busier than usual during production and did not lend his usually somewhat compulsive hand to story development, other than an oft-repeated pronouncement that Beauty needed to be different from Snow White). In fact, despite Walt's insistence to differentiate the projects, this might even be thought of as Snow White 2 for all intents and purposes. We have the evil stepmother character (Maleficent even looks like the wicked mom from Snow White), we have the sylvan setting with the nutty cohorts (three instead of seven this time), and the lovely, momentarily doomed heroine at the heart of the story (not to mention the sort of bland hero prince). What was pioneering in 1937 with Snow White, however, just seems a little old-hat and been-there-done-that by 1959, and Sleeping Beauty can seem awfully slow at times as a result. Luckily most of these qualms are overcome by the astonishing visual virtuosity on display, especially in the knock-'em-dead climax, where Maleficent transforms herself into a dragon.
If you approach Sleeping Beauty as a tipping point for Disney away from its classic 30s-50s style and toward the literally sharper style which would define its product for the next two decades, and simply relax with a bit of patience through some of the tired story elements, there is a wealth of gorgeous imagery and soundtrack to relish in here. This may not be top-tier Disney (though its ardent fans would probably argue with that), but, if not, it is certainly nothing more than just a slight step down from that lofty perch. It's old-fashioned, yes, in its story elements and music choices. Visually, however, it's as forward looking as any animated feature since the dawn of the motion picture, and that's a testament not only to Walt Disney himself, but to the legion of animators that slaved on this project for years.
This is an astoundingly brilliant Blu-ray, released for the first time in its production aspect ratio of 2.55:1, and in a simply stellar 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer. Don't clutch in the opening moments--there is some very minor and thankfully brief flicker, which, upon repeated viewing of both the Blu-ray and SD version, looks to me like it's relegated to one of the back plates of the multi-plane camera used throughout the film. You'll notice it particularly in the green banners on the left of the image right at the start of the film. After that, it's smooth sailing, with one of the crispest images I've seen in the Blu-ray format (there's one very brief anomalous soft moment with the Prince in the forest during a medium shot of him with his horse). Detail is impressively sharp, with incredible depth and unbelievably well saturated color. A real delight all around.
Disney has done itself proud by completely remastering this film in an uncompressed HD 7.1 mix that is a feast for the ears. For once the rear channels are not ignored and you'll especially notice their fine use in the forest scenes. Dialogue and singing are always clear (though Maleficent's voice, perhaps due to the high reverb levels, sounds just a bit "boxy" to my ears). There is also a 2.0 remastered mix of the film's original soundtrack.
This Blu-ray Platinum Edition is packed to the gills with extras, not the least of which is the inclusion of the SD version of the film on a separate disc (in fact I found it odd that the SD version includes French and Spanish 5.1 mixes as well as subtitles in all three soundtrack languages, while the BD only offers the HD 7.1 and original 2.0 soundtrack in English, with no subtitles whatsoever).
Disc One offers two versions of a very informative commentary with John Lasseter, Leonard Maltin and Disney animator Andreas Deja--you can either simply listen to the commentary while watching the film, or indulge in the really fascinating Cine-Explore version, which will fill your screen with pop-up pictures-in-picture to augment what's being discussed. If you're not a rabid appreciator of Sleeping Beauty, this commentary may help to enlighten you as to why it's so highly regarded by animation buffs. The other brilliant feature on Disc One is the Oscar-winning short (not so short at almost a half hour) "Grand Canyon," a visually spectacular trip through Arizona's wonder set to the charming music of Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite. I had to marvel again at Disney's genius at even attempting something like this. "Grand Canyon" was originally released as the tandem programming with Sleeping Beauty (I would imagine if for no other reason than for Beauty's relatively paltry running time), but, aside from that, would any other studio have released a wordless 30 minute piece set to classical, if popular classical, music? Can you imagine such a thing being released in this day and age? Kudos to Disney for upgrading this to a full 1080p AVC transfer and lossless 7.1 mix. Despite some occasional age issues, it looks and sounds incredible. There's also a fitfully fun Trivia Track, which provides pop-up factoids as you watch the film. Moving down the quality scale we get the aurally impressive "Dragon Encounter," a CGI trip through Maleficent's dungeon which serves mostly to show you what your home theater system is capable of providing, directionality-wise. The "Disney Song Selection" singles out the handful of sung moments in the film, and will also provide you with subtitled lyrics if you want to sing along. The nadir of the extras on Disc One is the beyond-hideous reworking of "Once Upon a Dream," by Haley Joel Osment's sister Emily. I can only say that upon sitting through this horror, all I could see was a dead music career. Emily, sweetheart, you're singing a classic based on the music of Tchaikovsky--not singing the melody correctly is simply unacceptable ("upon a" goes down a minor third to the leading tone, not a step--there are people out there in listener-land who will notice an atrocity like this). Let's not even get into the interpolated B section they've added. Where's Annette Funicello when you need her? Though BD Live content evidently is not yet fully available, I will tell you to pay attention to the main menu--even without BD Live, something magical happens. Rounding out the extras are several trailers.
Disc Two includes new bonus content as well as some extras ported over from the previous DVD release of this title. The best extra on this disc is the almost 45 minute long "Picture Perfect," a making of featurette (again, in HD) that goes into exceptional detail on the craft behind the film. Also getting some props in a separate piece is designer "Eyvind Earle," whose brilliant design work highlights the look of Sleeping Beauty. A great trip down memory lane is offered in the "Peter Tchaikovsky" episode from Disneyland (the precursor to Wonderful World of Color), again presented in a sterling HD transfer. This has two slightly different versions included, as Disney, ever at the forefront of technology, had this show simulcast to radio in markets that could handle it, allowing viewers/listeners to experience something akin to stereo. You'll get a little more Eyvind Earle, as well as a trio of his compatriots, in the fascinating "Four Artists Paint One Tree," which gives a lot of insight into the stylistic differences various artists brought to the Disney fold. Another really fascinating glimpse into the nuts and bolts (and dollars) of filmmaking is given in "Sequence 8," the forest segment of the movie that went wildly over budget and led to an animator being demoted (this is also discussed in the commentary). Two somewhat lesser extras explore the original Disneyland Sleeping Beauty Walkthrough attraction: one extra actually recreates the walkthrough via CGI, and another gives a history of the attraction itself. Two musical extras are offered with an alternate opening number as well as three deleted songs. A musically related featurette, "The Sound of Beauty," details the meticulous efforts to restore the sound elements of Sleeping Beauty for the new lossless track included on the Blu-ray. There are the usual, if unusually excellent, Galleries offered here, with literally hundreds of images, as well as trailers, from the film. The last of the new supplements fall under the Games category, and includes three pretty forgettable games that run the gamut from vocabulary building to memory tests. Ported over from the previous release are two storyboard sequences and a brief, if fascinating, live action reference film that the animators used (they did not rotoscope or trace, as is covered in some detail in the commentary).
Sleeping Beauty harkens back to another age in animation, one that was fast being eclipsed by then-new technologies like the Xerox machine (Beauty was the last hand-inked Disney feature). If you place it in its proper context you will be able to withstand its tired story elements. Visually and aurally this is about as sumptuous as they come, and even today almost 50 years after the film's original release, Sleeping Beauty has one of the most distinctive visual design aspects of any Disney feature. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet