In the 14th century, the malevolent Maleficent (not dissimilar to the wicked queen in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) taunts a king that his infant Aurora will fatally prick her finger on a spinning wheel before sundown on her sixteenth birthday. This, of course, would deny her a happily-ever-after with her true love. Fortunately, some bubbly, bumbling fairies named Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are on hand to assist.
It's not really all that much about the title character--how interesting can someone in the middle of a long nap be, anyway? Instead, those fairies carry the day, as well as, of course, good Prince Phillip, whose battle with the malevolent Maleficent in the guise of a dragon has been co-opted by any number of animated films since. See it in its original glory here, alongside Maleficent's castle, which, filled with warthogs and demonic imps in a macabre dance celebrating their evil ways, manages a certain creepy grandeur. --David Kronke, Amazon.com
The story, of course, is the time-honored fairy tale. Princess Aurora is cursed at birth by the evil Maleficent, who declares that on her sixteenth birthday the princess shall prick her finger on a spinning wheel's spindle and die--but fortunately the powers of good are able to mute the effect of the curse; the princess shall not die, but shall instead fall into a deep sleep from which she can be only awakened by love's first kiss.
Earle's vision for the story is drawn from a host of sources, some of them more immediately apparent than others. The result is a curious mixture of flat illustration and meticulous detail that imparts both a modernist edge and the quality of an ancient illuminated manuscript--a truly remarkable concept that gives the film a visual style completely unlike any other among the Disney classics. The DVD offers the option of viewing the film in either its original widescreen ratio or pan-and-scan format--but why any one would elect pan-and-scan is completely beyond me; if ever there was a film that made good and full use of the widescreen ratio, this is it, and you'll want to see every inch of Earle's remarkable work.
Earle's style aside, SLEEPING BEAUTY has been influenced by a number of films that are worth noting. In terms of plot detail, it has been very clearly influenced by Disney's earlier SNOW WHITE, and the designs for the evil Maleficent and her "goons" are very clearly influenced by FANTASIA's "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence--and to magnificent effect; Maleficent is easily among the darkest characters ever created for film. Interestingly, many visual set-ups also seem to have been influenced by MGM's THE WIZARD OF OZ, most notably in the scenes in which the three good fairies rescue Prince Philip from Maleficent's nightmarish castle.
Unlike some animated films, the voices are beautifully matched to the characters, with Mary Costa as Princess Aurora and Eleanor Audley (who also performed the Wicked Stepmother in Disney's CINDERELLA) as Maleficent standouts among the cast. The score, which is based on the brilliant Tchaikovsky ballet score, is also extremely well handled and includes the memorable "Once Upon a Dream."
All of this has been lovingly, shining restored, and quite frankly even if you saw the film in its first release the result here will no doubt surpass it. There is not a blip, a glitch, or a sound-surge to be found. And as is usual with Disney "limited release" DVD editions, the package includes a host of extras, some designed to appeal to the younger set (there are two simple games, neither of which require a CD-ROM) for children and a host of interviews and documentaries. Fortunately, many of the people involved in SLEEPING BEAUTY are still with us--including Ervind Earle and Mary Costa--and their various contributions make the bonus package truly superior.
All of this said, it should be noted that like FANTASIA, SLEEPING BEAUTY is more likely to appeal to adults who can fully appreciate the visual charms of the film than to children, who may find the film's tendency to linger over visuals a bit too much for a limited attention span. But this is indeed a Disney masterpiece, and it belongs in your collection.
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