75 in x of animated feature film history
Release: Jan. 29th, 1959
Director: Clyde Geronimi, Les Clark, Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman
“Sleeping Beauty was the 16th film released from Walt Disney, and was the first animated film to be photographed in the Super Technirama 70 widescreen process.
Princess Aurora is cursed by the evil witch Maleficent, who declares that before the sun sets on Aurora’s 16th birthday she will die by pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. To try to prevent this, the king places her into hiding, in the care of three fairies. They raise Aurora as their own, calling her Briar Rose and letting her know nothing of her true identity. On the day of her 16th birthday, she unknowingly meets her betrothed prince, as well as reignites Maleficent’s wrath.
The name given to the princess by her royal birth parents is ‘Aurora’, as it was in the original Tchaikovsky ballet. In hiding, she is called Briar Rose, the name of the princess in the Brothers Grimm’s version. Prince Phillip has the distinction of being the first Disney prince to have a name.
Following the critical and commercial success of Cinderella, writing for Sleeping Beauty began in early 1951. Partial story elements originated from discarded ideas for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. By the middle of 1953, director Wilfred Jackson had recorded the dialogue, assembled a story reel, and was to commence for preliminary animation, but Walt Disney decided to throw out the meeting sequence between Briar Rose and Phillip, delaying the film from its initial 1955 release date.
In December 1953, Jackson suffered a heart attack, by which directing animator Eric Larson of Disney’s Nine Old Men took over as director. Disney instructed Larson that the picture was to be a ‘moving illustration, the ultimate in animation’ and added that he didn’t care how long it would take. Because of the delays, the release date was again pushed back many times. Milt Kahl would blame Walt because ‘he wouldn’t have story meetings. He wouldn’t get the damn thing moving.’ Relatively late in production, Disney removed Larson as the supervising director, and was replaced with Clyde Geronimi.
The artistic style originated when John Hench observed the famed unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
For Sleeping Beauty, Eyvind Earle said he ‘felt totally free to put my own style’ into the paintings he based on Hench’s drawings. Furthermore, Earle found inspiration in the Italian Renaissance as well as Persian art and Japanese prints. When Geronimi became the supervising director, Earle and Geronimi entered furious creative divisions. Geronimi commented that he felt Earle’s paintings ‘lacked the mood in a lot of things. All that beautiful detail in the trees, the bark, and all that, that’s all well and good, but who the hell’s going to look at that?’
Because of the artistic depth of Earle’s backgrounds, it was decided for the characters to be stylized so it can appropriately match. While the layout artists and animators were impressed with Earles’s paintings, they eventually grew depressed at working with a style that many of them regarded as too cold, too flat, and too modernist for a fairy tale. Nevertheless, Walt insisted on the visual design. Marc Davis drew from Czechoslovakian religious paintings when designing Maleficent.
In 1952, Mary Costa was approached by Walter Schumann who told her, ‘I don’t want to shock you, but I’ve been looking (for Aurora) for three years, and I want to set up an audition. Would you do it?’ Costa accepted the offer and landed the role. Marc Davis served as directing animator over the title character with the character’s figure and features based on those of Audrey Hepburn as well as her voice actress, Mary Costa. Helene Stanley was the live action reference.
During its original release in January 1959, Sleeping Beauty earned approximately $5.3 million, not reaching its production costs of $6 million. The high production costs, coupled with the underperformance of much of the rest of Disney’s 1959–1960 release slate, resulted in the company posting its first annual loss in a decade for fiscal year 1960, and there were massive lay-offs throughout the animation department.
At first, the film had mixed reviews from critics. Nevertheless, the film has sustained a strong following and is today hailed as one of the best animated films ever made. Like Alice in Wonderland, which was not initially successful either, Sleeping Beauty was never re-released theatrically in Walt Disney’s lifetime. However, it had many re-releases in theaters over the decades.
This was the last Disney adaptation of a fairy tale for some years due to its mixed critical reception and performance at the box office; the studio did not return to the genre until 30 years later, with the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989.”
Sleeping Beauty is available on YouTube.