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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Sleeping Beauty

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Sleeping Beauty

Year: 1959

Source materials: The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault and the the 1890 ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Another version was told by the Brothers Grimm

Budget: $6 million

Box office: initally $3.8 million; lifetime gross of $51.6 million


Plot: King Stefan and Queen Leah happily welcome the birth of their daughter, the Princess Aurora. They proclaim a holiday for their subjects to pay homage to the princess, and at the gathering for her christening she is betrothed to Prince Phillip, the young son of Stefan’s friend King Hubert.


Three fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, come to bless the child with gifts. Flora and Fauna give their gifts of beauty and song, respectively. Before Merryweather is able to give her blessing, the evil fairy Maleficent appears, she curses the princess, proclaiming that Aurora will grow in grace and beauty, but before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will use her finger to touch the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.


King Stefan and Queen Leah are horrified and beg the fairies to break the curse. Unfortunately, they are not strong enough to break it, but Merryweather uses her blessing to soften the curse so that instead of dying, Aurora will fall into a deep sleep from which she can only be awakened by true love’s kiss. King Stefan, orders all spinning wheels in the kingdom to be burned. The fairies hide Aurora in a woodcutter’s cottage in the forest until the day of her sixteenth birthday.


Years later, Aurora, renamed Briar Rose, has grown into a beautiful young woman. On the day of her sixteenth birthday, the three fairies ask Rose to gather berries in the forest so they can prepare a surprise party for her. Briar Rose befriends the animals of the forest and sings them a song, Once Upon a Dream. While singing in the forest, Briar Rose attracts the attention of Phillip, now a handsome young man. They instantly fall in love, unaware of being promised in marriage sixteen years ago. Briar Rose asks Phillip to come to her cottage that evening and meet her family.


Meanwhile, Flora and Merryweather argue over the color of Aurora’s ballgown, which attracts the attention of Maleficent’s raven and revealing the location of Aurora. The fairies finally tell Aurora the truth about her royalty heritage, that she is a princess and already betrothed at birth to a prince, and tell her she must never see the man she met again. Meanwhile, Phillip tells his father of a peasant girl he met and wishes to marry in spite of his prearranged marriage to Princess Aurora.


Later that night, the fairies take Aurora back to the castle. Maleficent appears and magically lures Aurora away from the fairies and tricks the princess into touching an enchanted spinning wheel. Aurora pricks her finger, completing the curse. The good fairies place Aurora on a bed in the highest tower and place a powerful spell on all the people in the kingdom, causing them to fall asleep until the spell on their princess is broken.


Prince Phillip is kidnapped by Maleficent who is waiting for him at the cottage in the woods. She shows Phillip the peasant girl he fell in love with is the now-sleeping princess. She tells him she plans to keep him locked away until he’s an old man on the verge of death, then release him to meet his love, who will not have aged a single day. The fairies find and release the prince, arming him with the magical Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue. Maleficent tries to stop Phillip by surrounding Aurora’s castle with thorns, but fails. She then transforms into a gigantic dragon. Eventually, Phillip throws the sword, blessed by the fairies’ magic, directly into Maleficent’s heart, causing her to fall to her death.


Phillip awakens Aurora with a kiss, breaking the spell and thereby wakes everyone in the palace. The royal couple descends to the ballroom, where Aurora is happily reunited with her parents. Flora and Merryweather resume their argument over the color of Aurora’s ball gown, magically changing it from blue to pink while the happy couple waltzes. Aurora and Phillip live happily ever after.


Background: Writing for Sleeping Beauty began in early 1951. Partial story elements came from discarded ideas for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs including Maleficent’s capture of Phillip. Director Wilfred Jackson, Ted Sears, and two story writers underwent a rewrite of the story, which received a lukewarm response from Walt. During the story rewriting process, the story writers decided to concentrate on the first half finding strength in the romance. It was written that Phillip and Aurora would meet in the forest by random chance while Aurora, renamed Briar Rose, was conversing with the forest animals.

Additionally, because the original Perrault tale had the curse last one hundred years, the writers decided to shorten it a few hours. The name given to the princess by her royal birth parents is “Aurora” (Latin for “dawn”), 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. The prince was given the princely name most familiar to Americans in the 1950s: Phillip, after Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

In December 1953, Jackson suffered a heart attack, and Eric Larson took over as director. Milt Kahl would blame Walt for the numerous release delays because “he wouldn’t have story meetings. He wouldn’t get the damn thing moving.” Of course, at this time, Walt was focused on creating the Disneyland park. Although George Bruns took much credit for the score, he derived most of his work from the themes and melodies in Tchaikovsky’s ballet.

Animation: John Hench showed reproductions of the unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters to Walt, who replied, “Yeah, we could use that style for Sleeping Beauty.” Walt felt that Mary Blair’s work on Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan would get watered down by the animators,  so he gave Eyvind Earle free reign and authority. Earle, who joined Walt Disney Productions in 1951 first employed as an assistant background painter for Peter Pan , said he “felt totally free to put my own style” into the paintings he based on Hench’s drawings stating “Where his trees might have curved, I straightened them out…. I took a Hench and took the same subject, and the composition he had, and just turned in into my style.”


As they did with Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan a live-action reference version was filmed. Milt Kahl objected to this method, calling it “a crutch, a stifling of the creative effort. Anyone worth his salt in this business ought to know how people move.” Helene Stanley was the live action reference for Aurora. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were assigned as directing animators over the three good fairies: Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.

John Lounsbery animated the Stephan and Hubert sequence. Chuck Jones, known for his work as an animation director with Warner Bros. Cartoons, was employed on the film for four months during its early conceptual stages when Warner Bros. Cartoons was closed when it was anticipated that 3-D film would replace animation as a box office draw. Sleeping Beauty was the first animated film to be photographed in the Super Technirama 70 widescreen process, as well as the second full-length animated feature film to be filmed in anamorphic widescreen, following Lady and the Tramp.

Voice Cast: Opera singer Mary Costa as Aurora. Costa went on to perform in 44 operatic roles on stages throughout the world, including Jules Massenet’s Manon at the Metropolitan Opera, and Violetta in La Traviata at the Royal Opera House in London and the Bolshoi in Moscow, and Cunegonde in the 1959 London premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide . In 1961, for RCA, she recorded Musetta in La Bohème. Bill Shirley played Phillip. He is also known for dubbing Jeremy Brett singing “On the Street Where You Live” in My Fair Lady.

Verna Felton returns as Flora. Barbara Jo Allen as Fauna was an actress also known as Vera Vague, the spinster character she created and portrayed on radio and in films during the 1940s and 1950s. Barbara Luddy returns as Merriweather. Eleanor Audley, the stepmother from Cinderella, returns as Maleficent. In addition to the voice, she was the live action model. She can also be heard in the Haunted Mansion as Madame Leota.


Taylor Holmes as King Stephan in his final role. He appeared in several films including Father of the Bride and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He passed away only a few months after the film was released at the age of 81.

Critical Reception: Upon its initial release, Sleeping Beauty received mixed to positive reviews from film critics. Bosley Crowther, writing in his review for The New York Times, complimented that “the colors are rich, the sounds are luscious and magic sparkles spurt charmingly from wands”, but criticized its familiarity with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.


Legacy: Maleficent, a live-action film told from the perspective of the antagonist, was released in 2014. Angelina Jolie played Maleficent and Elle Fanning played Princess Aurora. The movie was directed by Robert Stromberg. Maleficent, Aurora, Prince Phillip, and King Stefan appear on the television show Once Upon a Time. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather appear in Disney Channel/Disney Junior’s series Sofia the First.


The central hub of Disneyland is Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The structure a has path that can be traversed with dioramas from the movie. Aurora meets in the parks and she appears in the parades with Phillip and Maleficent. The daytime Festival of Fantasy parade features a steam-punk inspired Maleficent in dragon form that breathes fire.

My take: This is a gorgeous movie. It’s the most stylized and saturated with color of any of Disney’s films. One of the things that Belle noticed when watching the film, is not just the richness of the color, but also the combination of hues next to each other in unusual pairings.  The level of detail is astonishing throughout. Every frame is a fully formed painting. The singing is wonderful. The prince is actually interesting, and the plot is mostly driven by women. As you may know, Belle and I dressed as Aurora and Phillip for Halloween this year.

Next Week: One Hundred and One Dalmatians