As a work of visual artistry, Sleeping Beauty would be a staggering achievement for any era of Disney animation. That it came out of the Silver Age is almost a surprise; that it also ended it, a great and sorrowful shame.
Directed by Wilfred Jackson, Eric Larson, and Clyde Geronimi
Sleeping Beauty took forever: of all of Disney's animated features, it spent the longest in active development, almost eight years from the moment Walt gave the word "go" in March 1951 till it was finally unveiled in January 1959. Other films took longer to get made, but never without being put on official hiatus. No, somebody (not always and maybe not ever the same somebody, but somebody) was working on Sleeping Beauty, every day, the whole damn time. Thus through the lens of Sleeping Beauty one can view the entire history of Disney's Silver Age. It began at nearly the same moment it did, and with its release—and let's not sugarcoat it, its commercial failure—Sleeping Beauty also brought it to a close.
One can quibble about when one Disney era ends and another begins; there are folks who'd claim the Silver Age only truly ended when Walt died in 1966. That makes superficial sense, but I don't find it useful—not when one of the most instantly-recognizable shifts ever made to Disney's industrial practice and aesthetic sensibility was just around the corner. No: for all that animation fans and practicioners bemoan the near-extinction of "traditional" animation in the face of CGI, as far as the American industry is concerned the last genuinely handmade animated feature of any real scope was released sixty years ago. But at least the artform had a hell of a send-off. This final handmade animated film was of almost unprecedented scope—the most sophisticated and meticulous Disney feature since Bambi, if not Fantasia itself.
Though it says something that Fantasia, despite everything, wrapped in eighteen months, and Sleeping Beauty took five times that. Indeed, that's one of the several ways it encapsulated the technique and tenor of its era—even when it looked like it came from another era entirely. Like Cinderella, the film that inaugurated the Silver Age, Sleeping Beauty would be a princess-centered fairy tale, a conscious throwback to Disney's greatest success, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This was the side upon which Walt had at last understood his bread to be buttered, and a princess story doubtless seemed like a solid backstop against any possibility of the film's ambition outrunning its audience (as had happened, disastrously, with Fantasia). This new princess movie would, as with Cinderella, officially tip its hat to Charles Perrault, though in practice it was maybe the loosest adaptation of preexisting source material so far; and while Cinderella is a faithful adaptation of "Cendrillon" that simply fills out its 75 minute runtime with extra stuff, Sleeping Beauty overwrites the hell out of its attributed source—probably a good thing, considering the content of the source. Mainly, it only retains the basic premise of a girl doomed to eternal slumber, plus a number of fairies, albeit a more manageable number. It also leans as much on the Grimm Bros. version as the Perrault.
Furthermore, as with the other Silver Age films, but much moreso, it would utilize many of the same production practices that had made Cinderella such a fragile work of beauty (and slightly less expensive than it could've been). It would again use extensive live-action reference for its human characters; and Walt would again have a so-called "color stylist," this time with even more control over this film than Mary Blair had had over her three Silver Age films, Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, and Peter Pan. (What Sleeping Beauty's pair of actual, credited "production designers" did is a deep mystery.) Walt decreed that while Sleeping Beauty would fit comfortably enough within the still-coalescing studio formula, it would have to be different from (and better than) Snow White and Cinderella, which he never thought really fulfilled the artistic potential of his medium; effects animator and story artist John Hench, freshly returned from an expedition to New York, showed Walt a set of reproductions of the Unicorn Tapestries, and with that the man who'd once made Fantasia was back for one final engagement.
Whatever work designer Kay Nielsen had done early on in development was abandoned. Instead, Walt found himself taken with the tapestry-inspired concept art of a background painter who had, on his very first day of work, seen Blair's paintings and decided, then and there, that hers was the job he really wanted. He'd been impressive enough to earn Walt's attention previously, and, during the development of Sleeping Beauty, he got his chance. Blair was gone; now Eyvind Earle filled the void, and filled it with arguably the most personal expression of one artist's interests that any Disney feature, before or since, has ever borne. And this, in spite of the fact that Earle didn't even stay with Disney quite long enough to finish the film he was (effectively) in charge of.
It wouldn't be a reflection of the Silver Age if it had, you know, just worked out. Years passed, and Sleeping Beauty just kept getting made. Walt's initial interest didn't manifest in sustained attention. With Walt maintaining the same need for dictatorial control without the corresponding engagement that had previously made such control bearable and useful, the studio had suffered from Walt's wandering focus since the late 1940s. This was even more the case as Sleeping Beauty's development stretched itself across a decade, and Walt distracted himself with his theme park and TV (not to mention his various personal hobbies, like model trains, lawn bowling, and what would today be recognized as a pretty worrisome drinking problem). It's not clear Walt was ever particularly happy with the story of Sleeping Beauty—he repeatedly, if vaguely, called for changes, even as the film entered animation, and it must not have entered animation for a while—and, to some extent, Earle's work served as his chief point of continued interest in, and a proxy for actual command over, the film's development.
This was inevitably a source of friction: the animators had voiced complaints about being hemmed in by design before, but had nonetheless found Blair's friendly, simplified modernism to be congenial to the style they'd collectively developed over the years. Earle, on the other hand, inflicted upon them the least amenable parts of two different worlds, first the medievalism of tapestries (the absurd overdetail that comes from a relaxation of perspective and a lot of time on your hands; the flatness that eschews strict representationalism) and, second, Earle's own brand of modernism (the rigid linearity and strong vertical orientation that defines Sleeping Beauty's not-entirely-representational spaces). Earle's backgrounds demanded sharply angular characters, too, and staging mostly across flat planes, which seemed to go against the spirit of Disney animation's tack toward a certain kind of realism, its "illusion of life," and it grated on the animators who preferred cartoonier figures and more realistic action. Milt Kahl and Marc Davis, the most flexible draftsmen, were less resistant than, for example, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston; it's worth noting that Ward Kimball, the most idiosyncratic and cantankerous of Disney's Nine Old Men, didn't work on Sleeping Beauty at all.
Walt's own distant demands for perfection (with the definition of "perfection" evidently being delegated to Earle) didn't help matters. Then there was Technirama 70, the widescreen photographic process (wide like a tapestry, natch) which Walt had imposed upon it either in 1956 or 1957—it was invented five years after the film began development. It afforded a heretofore-unseen degree of clarity, meaning that clean-up and inking had to be accomplished under even stricter standards of care. And one wonders if Walt helped matters by putting Earle in control of the film's look, while appointing a succession of other people to serve as its supervising director. One presumes this was meant to reassure the animators. In practice, the director's job was to get bitched out by everybody while Walt engaged with the film, to the extent he engaged with it at all, mostly from the perspective of marketing it.
Wilfred Jackson, the film's first director, hatched a clever plan to escape; he had a heart attack in 1953. Eric Larson, the second—an animator of note himself, co-lead on Cinderella and another of Walt's Nine Old Men—held on until Walt demoted him for his refusal to change a key sequence in response to Walt's delayed critiques. (In fairness, if it's "Once Upon a Dream"—notable for being the one sequence with any significant staging along the z-axis, including a lovely multiplane shot that describes the leads' parallel paths—then Larson was right.)
In the end, directorial duties fell to veteran feature director Clyde Geronimi, who was already disliked by the animators, and who soon cultivated the dislike of Earle (Geronimi supplied the quote that forms the title of this review). Surprisingly, this was what seemed to smooth things out.
Things do not go according to plan, for one day—her sixteenth birthday—Rose meets the handsome Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley), the boy she'd been betrothed to years ago. Without knowing this, they nonetheless fall in love, which is why she's devastated to have the truth revealed to her, and be taken back to her real parents—just in time for Maleficent to find her, conjure a spinning wheel out of thin air, and put her into a coma. In the meantime, Phillip is captured, too, and the Good Fairies must risk open combat with their powerful nemesis to free him, for only he can revive their daughter. Plus: Maleficent turns into a fuckin' dragon, and conjures a wall of enormous black thorns to destroy Phillip, and, because I'd rather not bury the lede any further than I already have with all that production history talk, Sleeping Beauty is the single most objectively metal Disney movie until the Renaissance of the 1990s, and may indeed be more metal than them.
Well, that swashbuckling awesomeness is probably the thing that the kids for whom this film was not actually intended get the most excited about. I suspect we all have childhood memories of watching Sleeping Beauty and not being especially invested until the final fifteen or so minutes. Which I think is a totally fair reaction to have: as with its princess predecessors, Sleeping Beauty opens with a richly-illustrated storybook (in this case, one with revoltingly gaudy binding), but unlike Cinderella, it does not invite one to participate in its story. It's far too elemental, and of everything in the Disney canon to precede it, I think the thing it resembles the most is "The Pastoral Symphony" of Fantasia: bold visual presentation; a consciously mythic construction; and a totally featureless love story that is interrupted by the pique of titanic forces of nature, rendered as visually-arresting gods and/or monsters, whilst classical music constantly blares on the soundtrack. (Sleeping Beauty's score was adapted from Chaykovsky's ballet, and is thus by far the strongest score of the Silver Age. The original musical numbers are, well, adequate: something about them does work for the mood, particularly the Disney heavenly choir that was never so omnipresent before, and would never even be used again.)
The difference is "The Pastoral Symphony" is short and wordless. Sleeping Beauty demands a proper narrative, which it has, but largely without character: while Cinderella revolved around the identifiable psychology of its eponymous noblewoman, Sleeping Beauty truly comes off as a fairy tale, albeit one told at a length beyond the ordinary child's attention span. Its characters aren't even emotional vessels, but constructs representing various stark, yet still fairly vague, concepts—of good and evil, love and fate. And the film gets most of this across through color coding. Other than possibly Snow White, the sleeping beauty is the most limited of Disney's many princesses; for starters, consider the fact that officially she's "Aurora," when the only name she's ever known is "Rose," a concern that isn't even raised here. (Nor has she any particular reaction to the revelation that her guardians are, like, demigods.) Sleeping Beauty has a somewhat disjointed feel on this account. Notionally, we're supposed to invest in Rose, and for a moment this is possible ("Once Upon a Dream" in particular is a fantastic and involving sequence, almost as emotionally fulfilling as Cinderella's dance with her prince; but even this is accomplished primarily through the visual signifier of Phillip stepping into the empty idea of "the prince," represented by Rose's animal friends and his stolen cloak, rather than through any romantic specificity to speak of). Then she's no longer in the movie (after falling asleep, she literally doesn't get another line), and Phillip effectively becomes our point of identification.
Well, maybe not for all of us.
Structurally, the film makes a game attempt to impose the three Fairies as the protagonists—they're the only good guys active throughout the film, and we are offered a reasonably solid depiction of their dynamic, and invited to sympathize with their maternal love—but this serves to heighten rather than reduce the abstraction of the film, since they're metaphysical forces and one could incompletely, but not at all inaccurately, describe their personalities as "red," "blue," and "green." In fact, Flora and Merryweather get almost as angry with each other over the color of the dress they make for Rose as they do at Maleficent. For the record: pink is better, but Flora is an asshole and Merryweather deserved it more. Thus it makes me slightly sad that in the film's final gesture, it closes its storybook while it's still pink.
The Disney business of light comedy is performed by the Fairies, as well. (Mostly: there's some drunkard comedy between Rose and Phillip's respective fathers which is plainly filler.) The Fairies, of course, are inept at the most trivial human tasks—and while that makes perfectly good light comedy, it downright forces you to wonder how, in the absence of their wands, they possibly raised a child to adulthood without accidentally starving her to death or asphyxiating her with poorly-designed couture. In other words, Sleeping Beauty is unconcerned with the slightest offscreen reality for its characters, just like a fairy tale that kindly requests you not ask too many questions about its scenario.
Fortunately, Sleeping Beauty makes that pretty easy; moreso for an adult who understands the narrative conceit, but even as a kid, you've got one heck of an action sequence to look forward to—a sequence that represents effects animator Joshua Meador's own outstanding swan song, as well as the last time that the great Wolfgang Reitherman oversaw only a sequence rather than a whole film. Maleficent's draconic form, the last in a series of monsters for Reitherman, seals the deal for the animator as my very favorite of the Nine Old Men. (Just to get it out there, Marc Davis, Disney's feminine specialist—he co-animated Cinderella and led on Briar Rose—is a very close second.)
So: if Sleeping Beauty is content solely to present itself as the experience of being shown a storybook rather than getting viscerally involved in a storybook, then that is absolutely enough when the storybook is this beautiful. Sleeping Beauty is a nearly flawless work, with almost everything I register as a problem being pretty trivial, like the occasional inconsistency in coloration between shots (Rose's eyes, blue but usually not inked that way, are almost a medium-sized problem, especially since brown works better with her peasant ensemble). The only real issue is that I've always had the nagging feeling that Flora and Merryweather's duel of colors isn't nearly bold and aggressive enough, failing to apply its conflict of pinks and blues to the background, too.
But mostly: just damned flawless. Earle's backgrounds (and, amazingly, he did almost every single one personally over the course of several years) are extraordinary in their detail, and just endlessly fascinating in their reinterpretation of medieval art: from the blocks of earth and greenery to the individual stones in walls, Sleeping Beauty is one of the most rewarding Disney films to just stare at, and however much it might have annoyed the animators, Earle was right to dictate their staging along his highly-constrained lines. Fate is the theme of this tale, after all. The images reinforce this; the color coding, which sometimes exceeds character and encases whole scenes, completes the impression of a rigorously predetermined story that's less about a princess and her prince than it is about the building blocks of a certain mode of storytelling (good/bad, boy/girl, primaries/complementaries). Maleficent, in the meantime, explicitly describes her actions as those of the villain of a fairy tale, hinting at awareness of her own role.
But then again, Maleficent just about makes the movie; it's hard to say she's not the most vital part of the whole design. There's more than just one reason she tends to rank terribly high amongst the Disney villains. The easiest explanation is that she might be the most visually compelling of all: the lavender and chartreuse accents; the yellow eyes; the commanding void of darkness of her black robe that sucks all the goodness out of the world whenever she's on screen; Maleficent is a bleak joy to gaze upon, more than any other Disney antagonist. (Remarkably, Davis did Rose and Maleficent.) There is also the matter of her absurdly petty motivation, seeking revenge over a minor snub by her obvious inferiors—and I think this is easy to overlook. But it's important, because it tells you that she is immortal, and very bored, and in her boredom has grown incredibly eccentric and cruel. Hence it seems completely ordinary to her to devote a couple of decades of her life to killing a child by way of oddly-complicated means in order to avenge herself on the parents. (And there is something chilling about the implication that Maleficent is so powerful that she didn't need to do anything once her curse was laid down: the second-closest Sleeping Beauty gets to visceral involvement is when Aurora cannot help but walk the path laid out for her at her birth, step by agonizing step through darkness, toward a spinning wheel that only exists because her story says it must.)
But most of all it's in Aubley's gleefully wicked performance (as with her other great villainous performance, Lady Tremaine, she also did the live-action reference footage). The most genuinely affecting and coolest moment of Sleeping Beauty, despite all the visual majesty within it, arrives through what is mostly just a monologue. It comes when Maleficent explains her entirely superfluous revenge on poor Phillip, describing how she'll keep him prisoner until he's old and withered and impotent, whereupon he'll be totally free to go wake up his ageless paramour with his lover's kiss and just see how that all works out. It's a scheme that underlines her contempt for humanity and its limitations, that only a demon could devise.
Altogether, what you're left with is still a somewhat cold film—cold in the way that a succession of fine art paintings of staggering beauty and no humanity is cold—and it's even possible that this was best as a one-off, its very uniqueness within the Disney canon becoming a source of strength in its own right. (I cannot decide, on any given day, whether Sleeping Beauty is the apex of Disney's art in the Silver Age, or if it peaked prematurely with the far more emotionally-involving Cinderella.) But knowing what's to come, it must be counted as a pity that Sleeping Beauty could not return Walt's investment, nor renew his interest in the form he'd virtually perfected. In the run-up to Sleeping Beauty's release, Disney collaborated with Bob Thomas for his book, The Art of Animation (Walt saw it as publicity). Evidently, one of the photos captured more than it let on: an image of Walt and Eric Larson having a conversation in a hallway at the Burbank compound, which Larson said he remembered vividly. It was about how expensive Sleeping Beauty had become. Walt concluded by saying, "I don't think we can continue."
And, in the end, they didn't.