Based on Charles Perrault’s enduring fairy tale, this was Disney’s most expensive cartoon to date, costing $6 million and taking ten years to make. Disney told his artists not to hurry and to make what they did beautiful. The effort and expense do show on the screen and Sleeping Beauty is unquestionably Disney’s most elaborate cartoon film.
Furious at not being invited to the christening of Princess Aurora, King Stefan’s daughter, the evil Maleficent brings this curse as her gift: “Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel – and die!”.
But one of three good fairies is able to alter the curse: “Not in death, but just in sleep/The fateful prophecy you’ll keep/And from this slumber you shall wake/When true love’s kiss the spell shall break”.
In an effort to thwart the curse entirely, the good fairies – Flora, Fauna and Merryweather – disguise themselves as mortal parents and raise the princess in secret, re-naming her Briar Rose. But on the evening of her 16th birthday, Maleficent tricks Aurora into touching a spindle, then kidnaps Prince Phillip, Aurora’s newly met true love.
The fairies arrange Phillip’s escape. He battles Maleficent’s evil henchmen, then slays the witch herself when she takes the guise of the dragon. Phillip then awakens Aurora, who has slept not the 100 years of the original story, but only a single night.
It was an ambitious project that made use of the latest technology and state-of-the-art rotoscoping (that is, creating the character by tracing the filmed actions of real people), and the score, based on Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet, was Oscar-nominated.
Technical wizardry apart, it’s the supporting characters that make the difference, in this case, the trio of plump guardians Flora, Fauna and Merryweather who provide gentle comic relief, and iconic villainess Maleficent the wicked fairy.
Highlights include the suspenseful scene in which Aurora is led in a trance to the fateful spinning wheel, plus the battle royal between Maleficent and Prince Phillip – one of Disney’s best climaxes.
Taking its inspiration from medieval art and printed on 70mm film for its release, few animated features fill the screen quite like Sleeping Beauty.
Despite its many charms and technical mastery it barely made its money back at the box office in 1959. That same year a modest comedy called The Shaggy Dog, produced for less than $1 million, earned back an astounding $8 million. It proved to Disney that times had indeed changed since Snow White and the fairy tale was no longer a viable format.
Taking his cue from public response (as always), Sleeping Beauty marked the end of an era for the Walt Disney studio.
Princess Aurora (Briar Rose)
Barbara Jo Allen