Sleeping Beauty – Arguably Disney’s Masterpiece

by Steve Collins

Sleeping Beauty was the sixteenth film in Walt Disney’s canon, following Lady and The Tramp and preceding One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It was the last feature to be based upon a fairy tale, written by Charles Perrault. Indeed, Disney Studios would not return to a fairy tale again until the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid. Moreover, this was the last feature to use hand-inked cells.

The film was supervised by Walt Disney himself, though he delegated the direction of the feature to his trusted animators Les Clark, Eric Larson, and Wolfgang Reitherman. The three animators, as well as six other colleagues, were known jointly as “The Nine Old Men.” The Nine Old Men were the key animators who had worked with Walt beginning with Snow White and ending with The Rescuers. The film’s score was performed by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, based on the 1890 Sleeping Beauty ballet composed by Pytor Tchaikovsky.

Production of Sleeping Beauty stretched nearly the entire decade of the 1950s. According to Wikipedia, the story was rewritten through 1951, the actor’s voices were recorded in 1952, the actual animation spanned from 1953 to 1958, and the stereophonic score was recorded in 1957. Walt Disney wanted the look of the film to mimic medieval art. This marked a decided break from the characteristically rounded and fluid animation style Disney had become famous for. Since the feature would be screened via the Super Technirama 70 format, Disney was keen on making Sleeping Beauty as complex and detailed as possible. The Super Technirama 70 format was a process that optically enlarged 35mm film stock to a 70mm print. The Black Cauldron is the only other Disney film to have been presented Super Technirama 70.

Disney charged Eyvind Earle, a background painter and artist, with the production design of the film. Earle was granted a great deal of freedom to push the boundaries. His opulent backgrounds often took seven to ten days to paint, whereas an average background painting took only one day to prepare. Earle’s artistic latitude was not popular among the animators as they had previously enjoyed a great deal of input with regards to their respective characters and background settings. Disney’s confidence in Earle was directly related to his winning an Academy Award for a Disney released short in 1953 entitled Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom.

Following its release, Sleeping Beauty only earned half of its $6 million budget. This deficit nearly bankrupted the Disney studio. The film was initially criticized for its pacing and alleged shallow character development. Many believed the drastic new look alienated a number of Disney fans. It has subsequently come to be hailed as a classic, most notably for its lush backgrounds, widescreen format, and stirring soundtrack.

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