Sleeping Beauty review by Mike Long

Fans of Disney animation will have a full plate this fall, as the studio is bringing many of its most popular titles to DVD. The Lion King will arrive in October, followed by Finding Nemo in November. This run was kicked off with the recent release of the 1959 classic, Sleeping Beauty. How does this 50 year old film compete with the two modern masterpieces coming from Disney?

Sleeping Beauty is based on the classic fairy-tale of the same name. When Princess Aurora is born, a celebration is held. Three kind fairies, Flora (voiced by Verna Felton), Fauna (voiced by Barbara Jo Allen), and Merryweather (voiced by Barbara Luddy), arrive to bestow enchanted gifts upon the child. But, before they can complete this ceremony, the evil witch Maleficent (voiced by Eleanor Audley) appears. Furious that she wasn't invited to the proceedings, Maleficent places a curse on Aurora, which states that on the Princess' 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Merryweather uses her magic to alter the spell, so that Aurora will not die, but will instead fall into a deep sleep -- a sleep which can only be stopped by a kiss from her true love. Fearing for his daughter's life, King Stefan (voiced by Taylor Holmes) orders that all of the spinning wheels be destroyed. Feeling that this measure isn't enough to stop Maleficent's spell, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather take the girl into the forest to raise. They change her name to Briar Rose and don't tell her of her royal heritage.

The story then jumps ahead 16 years. Briar Rose (voiced by Mary Costa) is nearing her 16th birthday. The three fairies have succeeded in keeping the princess safe all this time, so they are preparing to return her to her parents. But, while walking in the forest, Briar meets Prince Phillip (voiced by Bill Shirley), the man of her dreams. This distraction causes the fairies to drop their guard, allowing Maleficent to renew her hunt for Aurora. As evil approaches, it will be up to Prince Phillip to save Aurora's life.

As with many of Disney's classic animated films, Sleeping Beauty is a triumph, but it may also be the ultimate example of style over substance. The above synopsis may seem detailed and involved, but in reality, it constitutes only about 15-minutes of true story-time. However, Sleeping Beauty is 75-minutes long. This means that the film contains a great deal of padding, and at times, seems very slow. Even with all of the free time that Sleeping Beauty has, there is still very little character development. We basically learn nothing about any of the characters. The Disney Store always has a huge display of items from its "Princess Collection", and I've never had a clue as to who Aurora was. Having now seen Sleeping Beauty, I know why. She is simply the female character that propels the story, but offers nothing to the story.

So, what makes Sleeping Beauty worth seeing? Simply put, the film is a visual feast. And when one factors in the fact that this was made completely by hand, without the aid of computers, it's even more impressive. The film was shot in the ultra-widescreen "Technirama 70" format, and this widescreen aspect elevates the sweeping grandeur of the film. The animation is highly-detailed, yet has a very stylized look as well. Each character has a very unique look and the colors used in the film are gorgeous. Even those who are bored to tears by the story and numbed by the antiquated choral music which inhabits all of the old Disney films, the look of Sleeping Beauty is enough to keep most viewers glued to the film, up until the climatic battle sequence at the end, which is actually exciting and very well done.

Sleeping Beauty comes to DVD from DisneyDVD. (Duh.) This Special Edition disc contains both the full-frame and widescreen versions of the film. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.40:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs, and is THX certified. Simply put, the movie looks amazing. The Disney folks have done an incredible job of restoring the film. There is no grain to be seen, but even more impressive, there are no defects from the source material. The colors look fantastic and the image has a great amount of depth. There are some rare moments of compression artifacting, but otherwise, the image looks great. The DVD carries a newly-created Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. This track provides clear dialogue and music, and some occasional surround-sound effects, but it's very clear that this is a remix, despite the fact that the source material was in stereo. The audio sounds very hollow at times, and there is very little bass. (There are Spanish and French tracks on the DVD, but they are only available on the full-screen version. What's up with that?)

This 2-disc Special Edition contains a ton of extra features. Disc 1 offers an audio commentary which features Eyvind Earle, art director, actress Mary Costa, Ollie Johnston, supervising animator, Marc Davis, supervising animator, Frank Armitage, background painter, Mike Gabriel, Disney Artist, Michael Giaimo, Disney artist, and Jeff Kurtti, Disney historian. Kurtti offers a nice introduction to the piece, giving a background for each participant. This isn't your traditional commentary, as its basically a series of quotes from (presumably) interviews which are inserted in-between set-ups by Kurtti. This removes any personality or spontaneity from the commentary, but it is full of information about the film.

The remainder of the extras are on Disc 2, which is divided into two main sections. "Games, Music, & Fun" is kicked off by "Disney's Art Project", which teaches young viewers how to make either a princess or a dragon using household items. Next, we have the very simplistic set-top "Rescue Aurora Adventure Game". The most interesting feature here is the "Princess Personality Profile Game", in which the viewer answers a series of questions and is told which Disney Princess they most resemble. (My wife and I were both Belle from Beauty and the Beast.) "Sleeping Beauty Ink & Paint Game" gives the viewer the opportunity to color each character and explains part of the animation process. Finally, there are two music videos -- one is a sing-along for "Once Upon a Dream", and the other is an updated version of the song, entitled "Once Upon (Another) Dream", performed by no secrets.

The other special feature section is called "History & Behind the Scenes", and it is divided into many subsections. "The Making of Sleeping Beauty" is a 16-minute featurette, which offers comments from Leonard Maltin (who had apparently just finished a bag of pistachios, as his lips are bright red), as well as many of the animators who worked on the film. Here, we learn how the project came about, that it took six years to complete, and are treated to some behind-the-scenes footage of the animators at work. The "Story" section contains "The History of the Story", a text-only overview of the original tale, "The 1951 Outline" (22 minutes), also text-only, but with narration, and Storyboard Sequences for two scenes.

The "Production" section offers mini-featurettes which examine The Music (3 minutes), The Design (3 minutes), Creating the Backgrounds (1 minute), each of which contain comments from the original animators. To create the animation for Sleeping Beauty, live actors were studied, and those sessions are offered here, in both moving film form and still photos. "The Restoration" (3 minutes) explores the painstaking process in which all 108,320 frames of the film were cleaned and restored using computers. One of the best aspects of the DVD is a section which compares the widescreen framing to the pan & scan presentation, demonstrating how much visual information is lost when the film is viewed full-frame. Finally, there are 7 still galleries.

The last section focuses on publicity and the film's release. Three different trailers for Sleeping Beauty are featured here. "Sleeping Beauty Scrapbook" features stills in four categories; behind-the-scenes, publicity, merchandise, and theme parks. "Four Artists Paint One Tree" is a 16-minute short which originally aired on Disney's "Disneyland" TV show. This is a great behind-the-scenes featurette which provides an overview of how the film was made. Also from the "Disneyland" show is "The Peter Tchaikovsky Story", a 30-minute live-action film which examines the life of the composer. Finally, we have "Grand Canyon", a live-action, widescreen (2.35:1) tour of the Grand Canyon, which originally played with Sleeping Beauty in theaters.

6 out of 10 Jackasses

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