Walt Disney consciously planned for SLEEPING BEAUTY to be his masterpiece. He wanted the film to look like a "moving illustration" based on the style of renaissance art. For the music, nothing less than themes from Peter Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet would be good enough. Six channel stereo, 70mm widescreen, six years in the making, at a cost of six million dollars... and a box office failure.
Although it took decades, the story of SLEEPING BEAUTY does have a happy ending. A financial failure when it was first released, leading to cutbacks at the studio that heralded a brand new style of Disney movies in the 1960s, SLEEPING BEAUTY has emerged, these many years later, as the masterpiece Walt Disney envisioned. The stylized backgrounds and character design make this look like no other Disney film. The music... well, if Peter Tchaikovsky was good enough for Disney, he should be good enough for you, even if some of his timeless themes are Hollywoodized into songs for everybody to sing. "Once Upon a Dream" emerges as the film's major song, beaten to death nearly as much as "When My Dreams Come True" from The Marx Brothers'. (Hey. you don't want Marx Brothers references in every review, go to another site, okay?). Luckily, the melody, provided by Mr. Tchaikovsky, is gorgeous and the lyrics do no harm to it and are actual rather nice, the phrase "Once Upon a Dream" summing up the spirit of Walt Disney's entire empire in four simple words. The animation ranges from standard Disney (meaning "excellent") to "I think I'm going to cry" stunning, and the story flows like a gentle river from beginning to end. It would not be until BEAUTY AND THE BEAST that the Disney company would make an animated film this classy again.
Ah, but there are caveats. Despite some welcome light comedy relief by the film's three good fairies, SLEEPING BEAUTY is not a whole lot of fun. The film may represent the artistic pinnacle of the trio of "Princess" films Walt made in his lifetime, but SNOW WHITE and CINDERELLA are better bets for pure entertainment. The Princess herself, known as Aurora (aka Rose) ranks among the most beautiful of animated heroines, but she is never developed into much of a character. Although it wouldn't be until Ariel from THE LITTLE MERMAID or Belle from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST that Disney princesses would really begin to have more than rudimentary "gee, ain't I pretty?" personalities, even the relatively two-dimensional Cinderella and Alice are easier to care about than Aurora. However, compared to Prince Philip, Aurora is Scarlett O'Hara at a barbecue with bells on. Philip is bland in both character and design, his only purpose in the film being to beat the villain and be the lucky SOB who gets to smooch Aurora awake just in time for the reprise of "Once Upon a Dream". It's as if Disney saw the Prince from the Fleischers GULLIVER'S TRAVELS and said "Gee, I'd like ta get a character that forgettable into one of my films one day!". And Prince Philip defeats the villain in that annoying 'swords and sorcery" way that mars many a fantasy - magic spells, rather than his own brains and brawn. So at the heart of this beautiful film is a romance that is about as interesting as... well, do I really want to mention THE COCOANUTS again? (There's an Al Jolson anecdote I could relate right here, but who am I, Joe Franklin?)
Oh, yes, I mentioned a villain above. Maleficent by name, evil by game. You could call her the greatest of all Disney villains and I wouldn't argue, although I could counter with The Evil Queen from SNOW WHITE or Cruella de Vil from 101 DALMATIANS. Maleficent's look resembles the Evil Queen's, while her personality is clearly influenced by Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch from THE WIZARD OF OZ. She even screams like Margaret Hamilton when she dies. (Oops.. sorry... Spoiler! She dies). Voiced by Eleanor Audley, Maleficent is the only Disney villain I know of that admits an allegiance with the minions of Hell. The other Disney villains may be nasty pieces of work, but Maleficent seems to have backing from Satan himself. She's evil, she knows it and she loves every minute of it. She basically decides to destroy Princess Aurora because she wasn't invited to the kid's first party. Jeez, Louise, that's evil! Gotta love it! Maleficent and her evil ways are the glue that holds SLEEPING BEAUTY together.
SLEEPING BEAUTY ended Disney's Silver Age of the Fifties with a magnificent bang, and served as a huge, booming "let's see anybody top that!" exclamation point that capped off a two-decade period where Disney made ten full-length cartoons that are still discussed, studied and above all loved today. Unappreciated in its time, SLEEPING BEAUTY has taken its place among the most impressive animated classics, and thanks to several reissues over the decades, it has managed to make back its six million and then some, standing only behindas the highest grossing film from 1959.
But overall, I'd still rather watch CINDERELLA. ½ - JB