Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Directed by:
Supervising Director: Clyde Geronimi
Sequence Directors: Eric Larson/Wolfgang Reitherman/Les Clark

Written by: Erdman Penner/Joe Rinaldi/Winston Hibler/Bill Peet/Ted Sears/Ralph Wright/Milt Banta

Based on story by: Charles Perrault

My vote for the most beautiful Disney film goes to Sleeping Beauty. Inspired by the unicorn tapestries at The Cloisters in Washington Heights, the animation is some of the best Disney has ever released.

Story-wise…it’s complicated. Aurora is the long-awaited first daughter of the King and Queen. They hold a party for all of their subjects so that they can see the new baby. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, three good witches, are in the midst of giving the little girl their gifts when Maleficent shows up to give HER gift. She’s always had it in for the king and queen, so she gives Aurora a special gift: When she turns 16, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Merryweather isn’t strong enough to break the curse, but she’s able to change it to where Aurora will only fall asleep.

Sixteen years go by and Aurora (now Briar Rose) is living with the three good witches, hiding from Maleficent and her deadly spinning wheels. She goes out one day and meets a charming young man and, immediately, falls in love. But she knows that she shouldn’t because she’s betrothed to a prince. (Neither of them knows that HE’S the prince.)

She runs home, totally one-upping him in every way. She tells him to come to her house that night to meet her family.

Meanwhile, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather are trying to get ready for Aurora’s birthday party. They use magic and it attracts Maleficent. Then Aurora promptly pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and goes to sleep.

The three good witches put a spell on everyone in the kingdom to put them to sleep…except, apparently, the Kings. They figure out that the Prince (Philip…the first Disney prince to have a name) is the young man that Aurora fell in love with. He gets kidnapped, escapes, runs to Aurora to try to save her and is greeted by Maleficent, who has changed into a dragon. He kills her, kisses the girl and all is good in the world.

Aurora is actually a pretty strong woman. I liked her a lot. And she and Philip had a pretty good repartee the one time they met. What always disconcerts everyone is the fact that she’s a prize. Philip beats the witch and gets the girl…and kisses her while she’s asleep.

But, that’s the way Disney movies (and fairy tales in general) were back then. The women, while the main characters, have no agency and they just sort of get thrown around the story.

None of this takes away from the fact that this is an absolutely beautiful film. It’s the first animated film to be shot in 70mm and the backgrounds are so detailed that, at some points, they overpower the characters.

Two people worked on this film that you’ll recognize:

Chuck Jones worked for Disney for a few months while Warner Brothers Cartoons was closed. He did some work but wasn’t around long enough to get credit.

Don Bluth started out on this film as an assistant animator for two years. Then he quit, only to come back in the 70s.

Unfortunately, after all of the expense of making this amazing film, it just didn’t do very well. It would take a while for Disney to recover or even try anything semi-experimental again. It didn’t even get a rerelease until 1970.

BUT…over the years, it’s become the second most successful film of 1959, just behind Ben-Hur. So, good on them.

I love this movie. It’s pretty, funny, scary…everything that a Disney film should be. Aurora is great. The three witches are hilarious and silly. Maleficent is absolutely terrifying. And, for once, the Prince is actually charming.

I would love a 70mm rerelease of Sleeping Beauty. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but it’s a good dream. In the meantime, the blu-ray will have to do.