Sleeping Beauty, from 1959, was the final fairy tale produced by Walt Disney himself and remains one of his studio’s most under-cherished works. Suffused with celestial metaphors and flights of visual fancy informed by pre-Renaissance art, the film’s economical story is played for cosmic pathos and staged as pagan ritual. Stylist Eyvind Earle and background artist Frank Armitage were more or less allowed autonomy over the production and their freedom is felt in the limber, giddy stylings of the film, a far superior work than its earlier kissing cousin Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Through the startlingly jagged animation and moving cutouts of the film, Earle and Armitage’s crew of animators and painters evoke an expressionistic netherworld influenced by numerous Gothic, Persian and Medieval sources. The familiar story concerns a 16-year-old beauty, Princess Aurora, who dies when she pricks her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel and is subsequently revived by the Prince Charming she was destined to marry. In her attack against Aurora, the ferocious Maleficent (Eleanor Audley) appears to take on the fairy-tale cliché itself. After the story’s three fairy godmothers bestow their cosmic gifts on the baby Aurora, Maleficent curses the child with death because she wasn’t invited to her über-Christening. Her bitchery is of the highest order, seductive and titanic, and she is almost postmodern for her time. (Dreamworks’s awful Shrek basically recycles the film’s close-to-meta premise, but to annoying effect.) Just as the film’s gorgeous backdrops suggest characters trapped in suspended animation, the many colorful balls of light that frequently circle their heads hauntingly convey the filmmakers’ idea of fate and love locked in a cosmic struggle.
How good does Sleeping Beauty look on this two-disc set? For a film that's almost 45 years old, Sleeping Beauty looks every bit as new (if not newer) than The Lion King. The vibrancy and cleanliness of the print is matched only by the pitch-perfect color reproduction and luscious black levels. This is a reference-quality transfer that does justice to a film whose radical aesthetic has long gone under appreciated. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix is also spot-on and any inconsistencies in the frequency department seem to have less to do with the actual
On the film's first disc, Disney historian Jeff Kurtti hosts a remarkable, erudite commentary track featuring the talents of stylist Eyvind Earle, background artist Frank Armitage, directing animators Ollie Johnston and Marc Davis, and voice artists Mike Gabriel, Michael Giaimo and Mary Costa. Fans of the film will most appreciate Armitage's revelation of the film's aesthetic influences (who knew that Diego Rivera's famous Mexican murals would have their own effect on the film?). The Sneak Peaks section that rounds out the first disc features promos for the upcoming Brother Bear, Finding Nemo, The Lion King (this disc is instantly outdated even before its release date, what with the film losing its place as the highest grossing animated film of all time to Finding Nemo), The Santa Clause 2, Kim Possible and plugs for something called Disney Princess and Disney Electronics Princess Style.
The second disc features a collection of fascinating behind-the-scenes featurettes and an assortment of strange but hysterical games for the young-ins. "Disney's Art Project" will allow boys and girls to "design a princess" or "build a dragon" (respectively, unless you have very special little boys and girls living in your house) using ordinary household items like aluminum paper and socks. "The Rescue Aurora Adventure Game" will test your knowledge of the film but proves once again that DVD technology is just not designed for games that require you to press the buttons on your DVD controller. My favorite feature is the "Princess Personality Profile Game," which will tell you which Disney heroine you're most like after asking you a series of strange questions. Be honest, but you may want to answer as weirdly as possible just to see which heroine might like to play in the forest with her friends and clean floors for fun. (According to my personality profile, I most resemble Snow White.)
After you try the "Ink and Paint Game" and "Once Upon a Dream" sing-along, be sure to check out the atrocious (read: brilliant) "Once Upon (Another) Dream" music video, which has tween girl group No Secrets running in Sleeping Beauty attires before the film's backdrops. And now that the adult fun is out of the way, kids should check out more fun stuff like: a making-of featurette; "The History of the Story" text essay (which observes the different incarnations of the Sleeping Beauty myth); the 1951 outline of the film with annoying female narration; storyboard-to-film comparisons; and a series of music, design and animation featurettes with animation expert Leonard Maltin occasionally popping in for a good scare. For the techies in the crowd, there's a great restoration piece included here and comparison of the full-screen and widescreen versions of the film. Rounding out the disc are three theatrical trailers, a scrapbook, numerous stills galleries, and three excellent vintage shorts: "4 Artists Paint One Tree," "The Peter Tchaikovsky Story" and the Oscar-winning "Grand Canyon."
Sleeping Beauty arrives on DVD and deserves a serious look from cineastes. For the more nostalgic average Joe, you couldn't have asked for anything more than the gorgeous transfer and generous amount of supplemental materials provided here.