Home Entertainment Review: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959)Sleeping Beauty slipped out of the magic kingdom animation in the midst of a strange period for Disney. The company had started spreading its resources into television and live action feature production, while much of uncle Walt’s attention was focused on launching a certain theme park that would go on to do pretty well for him. Sleeping Beauty was supposed to be a comeback movie of sorts that would reintroduce audiences to the joys of feature length animation that made Disney legendary. No expense was spared on a production that featured the most ambitiously detailed animation ever attempted. Then the movie came out and underwhelmed at the box office to such an extent that the company completely changed their production model for more cost effective animation. Looking at it now decades later, the film is a technical knock-out and iconic, yet also undeniably the weakest of the classic Disney princess pictures.

The big problem with Sleeping Beauty is the aspect that most classic Disney pictures execute effortlessly: storytelling. The story involves the evil Maleficent showing up unannounced to out princess’ birth and cursing her. Then the baby hides in the woods under the watchful eyes of three fairies until she is 16. At that point, Maleficent tricks her into fulfilling the curse and she’s locked into seemingly eternal slumber until the good prince pops up to slay a dragon and plant a big sloppy wake up kiss on her face. That’s the entire story and even at a brief 75 minutes it feels dragged out, padded by cutesy animal slapstick and unnecessary songs.

There’s very little here; it’s shallow storytelling. However, it’s also easily the most beautiful bit of animation that Disney ever pulled off in feature length. Framed in cinemascope with individually hand-painted cells exploding in vintage technical collar, it’s an astounding technical accomplishment. Backgrounds are living paintings and character movement is extraordinarily smooth. The trouble is that the plot would better fill a short and the characters have drastically less dimension than the art. That is of course, except for Maleficent, one of the most fascinating, dark, and memorable villains in the Disney canon. In fact, Maleficent is so strong that you might wish the entire film could be about her instead. That is of course, unless you’ve seen the unfortunate attempt Disney made to do just that last summer.

It’s safe to say that the only reason that Sleeping Beauty has been freed from the clutches of the Disney is because Maleficent did so well at the box office last summer. The transfer is identical to the 50th anniversary disc released in 2008 and that’s far from a problem given it’s about as perfect as the film could ever look on Blu-ray. Colors are rich, details are deep, and even on a television the film looks massive. Each and every brushstroke the overworked 50s animators made is rendered in astounding clarity. The film looks amazing and given that the visuals are the best thing the movie has going for it, that’s a damn good thing.  Special features have also been slimmed back from the last release. New additions include 13 minutes of tiresome deleted scenes presented through storyboards, a 10-minute featurette on Disney villains, a 4-minute look at the construction of a paper sculpture of Maleficent (for some reason), a 10-minute promo of a Disneyland parade (yes, really), and a sing-along segment for “Once Upon A Dream.” So yeah, nothing much of note.

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Thankfully, a few of the old Blu-ray features return to pick up the slack including an interesting look into the film’s restoration and a pretty fantastic 45-minute documentary about the painstaking production. Best of all is an audio commentary by John Lasseter, Leonard Martin, and Andreas Deja which is filled with so many production details, insightful observations, personal impressions, and good old fashioned geek-outs that you can’t get help but smile your way through it. If you own the first Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray, there’s really no reason to pick this sucker up. However, if you don’t own it already, this is definitely the definitive presentation of a classic slice of Disney history. It might not be the company’s best movie, but it’s probably their most beautiful. So, Blu-ray is the really only way to watch this thing. (Phil Brown)

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