Sleeping Beauty is a unique production in the Disney canon. The first time a single artist was given total control over the look and feel of the entire production, the angular lines, static backgrounds and minimalist dialogue are inspirations from medieval art, and would never be repeated again by the studio, despite their success.
Briar Rose, or Princess Aurora, is barely present through most of the film. Her first line in the film is spoken at the 19 minute mark, and 20 minutes later she speaks her last line. In fact, she’s second only to Dumbo for fewest lines spoken by a title character. Instead, despite the film’s title, the vast majority of the story centres around the three fairies trying to protect the young woman and in so doing undo the curse of a vicious sorceress.
For the time, this is a remarkably woman-centered film. Women hold every ounce of power in this story and the men are but pawns in their games. Maleficent (possibly the most irrationally evil of all Disney villains) places her curse on the newborn princess when she is denied an invitation to the party. Then it is up to three more women, the good fairies, to cast their own protective spells and figure out a way to undo Maleficent’s curse. The two kings, meanwhile, get drunk and boast about how their two mighty kingdoms will merge into one mightier-than-mighty kingdom when their children marry. Then Prince Phillip, the brash warrior, finds himself captured in Maleficent’s castle and it’s up to the good fairies to rescue him. Even towards the end of the film, when Prince Phillip does epic battle with Maleficent in her dragon form, he is useless without the fairies’ help.
But those are just some of the qualities that make Sleeping Beauty one of the more interesting of the Disney classics. This is the last of the Disney feature films to have the individual animation cels inked by hand, and it was Eyvind Earle who directed the ink on every single one of them. Earle was a background artist on Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, but always had very modernist leanings in his artwork. When Walt gave him the go ahead to manage the art direction on Sleeping Beauty, he decided that a story set in medieval fantasy Europe should be styled that way. The influences can be seen most easily in the backgrounds, so this style becomes this animation. The style would be copied, to a certain extent, in The Sword in the Stone three years later, but Earle was not involved in the project and only backgrounds adopted the influence to denote their “medievalness.”
The public reception of the film was almost universally positive. Audiences couldn’t help but compare it to Snow White. After all, how many times can a beautiful young princess draw the ire of a fearsome witch, fall in love and live happily ever after? The New York Times, in its review, noted coyly that the three good fairies “whose operations are conducted largely with wands, do everything but dig diamonds and whistle while they work.” But the comparisons are favourable and good-humoured. The review concluded that “it all comes out nicely in a crisply stylized fairyland, where the colors are rich, the sounds are luscious and magic sparkles spurt charmingly from wands.”
The reviewer did warn that the dragon fight would make youngsters squirm with fear in their seats. Indeed, Maleficent does hold the dubious title of being the first Disney villain to die on screen. Eleanor Audley, who voiced Maleficent and previously Cinderella‘s evil stepmother, ended her Disney career with Maleficent’s death, though continued acting well into the 1980s.
Sleeping Beauty took almost a decade to produce and cost $6-million. But in its initial 1959 run, the film earned $7.7-million back for the studio. Re-releases in 1970, 1979, 1986, 1993 and 1995, plus assorted VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray releases have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars. But in 1959, poor earnings in other areas of the company meant that Sleeping Beauty‘s success wasn’t enough to stave off massive layoffs in the animation department. Many of the youngest artists and animators were cut from the studio, and the older, more experienced survivors went on to produce 101 Dalmatians on a tight schedule and tighter budget.
Floyd Norman, who survived that round of cuts even though many of his friends did not, later wrote:
All us young kids in my Disney “class” thought we had a lifetime job. The pixie dust was suddenly brushed from our eyes as the first round of “pink slips” were handed out. The old timers took it in stride — but we were devastated.
Norman left Disney later in his career, but returned to work on Robin Hood, Toy Story 2, Mulan and others.
Sleeping Beauty marked a turning point in Disney history. The company was growing at an enormous pace: theme parks, television shows, comic strips, feature live action films, feature animation films, distribution companies and dozens of side projects employed thousands of people. But with such rapid growth and enormous ambition, even good box office numbers weren’t enough sometimes. A single setback could wreak havoc on a department. Sleeping Beauty marks the point in Disney history where the company finished growing up. It officially graduated from plucky young start-up to behemoth of corporate America. But through it all, Walt never stopped smiling. As Sleeping Beauty was making its way into theatres, he was ushering then-Vice-President Richard Nixon on to Disneyland’s brand new monorail.
Disney, in many respects, is a fairy tale: more idyllic and more perfect on the outside than any reality on the inside could ever be. But after Sleeping Beauty, the studio didn’t touch fairy tales again for 30 years. Almost to mirror it, the company did a lot of growing up of its own in that time. Only The Little Mermaid, in 1989, finally broke the streak as the company sought to rediscover its roots. But more on that later.