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Toon Talk: Sleeping Beauty DVD
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by Kirby Holt (archives)
September 22, 2003
Kirby reviews the new Special Edition DVD release of Sleeping Beauty.

Toon Talk
Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt

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Sleeping Beauty
Special Edition DVD

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Purchase Sleeping Beauty Special Edition DVD

After the huge successes of their earlier fairy tales Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, it was inevitable that another fable of a beautiful princess and her handsome prince who meet once upon a time would find itself inspiration for another Disney animated feature. But who knew that Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, due to its graphically modern style and serious tone, would prove to be one of the most influential and visually distinctive films in animation history?

As evidenced throughout the recently released, gloriously appointed DVD Special Edition, Beauty was indeed ahead of its time; for example, its influence can be seen in such contemporary works as Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan, among others. Conversely, one could read between the lines of the surviving filmmakers interviewed herein that even they weren’t quite sure what they had on their hands at the time, or how this immensely difficult production would, when all was said and done, significantly expand the possibilities of the medium.

The genesis of this wholly original creation can be, arguably, based solely on the fact that Sleeping Beauty was the first Disney film to employ one man’s singular artistic vision, that of (then unknown, now renowned) artist Eyvind Earle. At the time of Beauty’s early development, Walt hand-picked Earle to design the complete look of the film, from the backgrounds and characters down to the layout of scenes and mood and atmosphere of the story. An earlier story treatment at the Studio relied heavily on themes already expressed in Cinderella and (especially with its three gnome-like fairies) Snow White; but Walt particularly wanted his new fairy tale and its star to be different then what they had done before, so, quite surprisingly, entrusted Earle (who was then a newcomer to the Studio) to the task of spearheading his edict that this Beauty be a “moving illustration?.

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To say that Earle’s uniquely stylized designs for Beauty were a radical departure from the other animated features of the time is an understatement. Such against-the-grain concepts as the backgrounds sharing a sharp focus with the foreground animation (generally, backgrounds in animation are painted in soft focus so that the eyes are drawn to the characters) and his insistence on developing the color schemes for each character (a task usually reserved for the supervising animators) did not sit to kindly with the older, seasoned artists at the time. And Earle possessed, as most brilliant young artist often do, a brashly confident nature that led to conflicts during the film’s long production (six years total, including an unusually lengthy four years in animation alone), a situation compounded by the lack of hands-on involvement by Walt himself.

(The situation between Earle and the other staff members would, disappointingly in retrospect, not be resolved and, even though he claimed that he loved this job where “he got paid to paint all day?, he left the Studio soon after the end of Sleeping Beauty.)

The mid-’50s were busy times for the studio. In addition to Beauty, Walt was overseeing the Studio’s new television series and burgeoning live action productions, not to mention a little project called Disneyland. In other words, Walt had ‘new toys’ to play with; this is not to say that he didn’t care about animation any more, he simply yet firmly entrusted it to the experts he had nurtured over the years.

This “deluge? of activity wasn’t the only factor in Beauty’s long gestation: early on it was decided to produce the film in 70 mm format, which necessitated added time and expense (the final budget was reportedly $6 million, a huge amount for that time period) to fully exploit the larger canvas now available to the artists. And although an original score was initially considered, Walt insisted that the highly recognizable and popular music for Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet be used, necessitating composer George Bruns’ meticulous adaptation of that score for the film, as well as employing songwriters Sammy Fain and Jack Lawrence in creating new lyrics for the existing melodies.

Watching the film today, one can marvel at the intrinsic detail of the artistry involved while simultaneously wondering how audiences in 1959 must have viewed such a startling departure in the form. Earle’s bold reliance on the juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical lines in the scenery (creating, for example, the uniquely squared-off trees of the forest) was even carried over into the characters themselves (the designs of which were fleshed out by Tom Orb, whose contribution was so great that he was the first artist ever credited as ‘character stylist’ on a Disney film); it was a bold move for a Studio known most famously for its ‘soft and round’ superstars such as Mickey Mouse and the Seven Dwarfs. This conceit can be seen in all the character designs, from the ‘enclosed’ curls of Aurora’s hair to those of her cuddly forest friends (who bear strikingly different appearances then their predecessors in, say, Snow White and Bambi), all the way down the wings of the three fairies, each as individually shaped as the characters themselves.

More then just a Medieval tapestry come to life, Beauty is inherently a rather simple story - boy meets girl, girl falls asleep, turn the page, happily ever after ... But Disney's Beauty is nevertheless made compelling by all of the artists involved, and not just Earle and his fellow craftsmen. The story department had the unenviable task of retelling a tale everyone had heard as a child at bedtime; so once again, they focused on their characters.

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