"Sleeping Beauty," which has been revived by the holiday season by the Disney organization, proved to be the company's greatest disappointment since "Fantasia" when it was first released. According to Bob Thomas' biography of Walt Disney, the firm went from record profits of $3.4 million in fiscal 1958-59 to a loss of $1.3 million the following year, "largely because of the cost of 'Sleeping Beauty.'"
Conceived as a lavish animated spectacle, shot in the wide-screen process of Technirama 70mm and making extensive use of the multiplane camera, the movie took six years to complete at a cost of about $6 million. The scenario was adapted from the Perreault fairy tale and the score from Tchaikovsky's ballet suite. The backgrounds, inspired by Renaissance paintings, were designed to be especially impressive: meticulous representations of brooding castles and idyllic forests.
Unfortunately, the picture seemed to leave the public cold. Even within the organization, it was regarded as a misbegotten venture -- beautiful in many respects, but lacking narrative freshness and sufficient warmth or variety of characterization. The widely perceived imbalance between the imposing draftsmanship and feeble scenario was traced to the inability or disinclination of Disney, then preoccupied with the construction of Disneyland, to supervise the production closely.
It's possible that the story itself recalled aspects of "Snow White" and "Cinderella" much too closely. The trio of spinterish, twinkly-good fairies who try to protect the Sleeping Beauty, a young princes named Aurora, from the curse imposed on her as an infant by a wicked sorceress, Maleficent, are not without charm. But they fail to equal the charms of their obvious predecessors -- the dwarfs in "Snow White" and the mice in "Cinderella".
In a similar respect, Aurora adds nothing of consequence to the earlier fairy tale princesses. If anything, she seems to refect a more homogenized notion of cartoon "beauty." Her song interlude, "I Wonder," with little woodland creatures, recalls a more spontaneous and evocative sequence from "Snow White." Her destiny is identical: to await resurrection by a lover's kiss after being bewitched into a coma. Her Prince Charming is less stilted and idealized than his predecessors; the animators finally succeeded in creating a young prince with a pleasantly comic tendency, in part by giving him a comic relationship with his horse.
Since it took "Fantasia" a generation to rally a receptive mass audience, the Disney organization probably hopes that "Sleeping Beauty" will also enjoy a belated success. "Sleeping Beauty" has less to recommend it -- "Fantasia" rates as an inspired fiasco, reflecting Disney virtuosity from its kitschiest lows to wittiest highs -- but "Beauty" seems better than I remembered (at a hazy distance of 20 years). The 70mm stereophonic prints at both the Tenley Circle and Tyson's Cinema may also make it easier to appreciate the film's scenic elaboration and splendor.
"Sleeping Beauty" struck me as dreadfully stuffy when I saw it at age 16. The backgrounds seemed wonderfully detailed and the depth illusions frequently astounding, suggesting that the multiplane camera had added several new planes to its field of vision. At the same time, the characters made so little impression that I retained vivid memories of no one, not even the extravagantly malicious villainess, a kind of Night on Bald Mountain exaggeration of Snow White's stepmother.
Twenty years later, the movie seems curiously incongruous but not unappealing. The painstaking background art doesn't so much overwhelm the derivative, frail cartoon characters in the foreground as remain in fundamental pictorial conflict with them -- never harmonizing into a stylistic synthesis.