Disney Film History: Sleeping Beauty

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Arguably one of Walt Disney’s greatest animated films, Sleeping Beauty is rich with a history all it’s own and when trying to sit down and write this, became a bit of a problem as I wanted to do the film justice while keeping the history from bouncing around too much. Sleeping Beauty’s debut in 1959 marked the largest gap between Disney animated features as the last film, Lady and the Tramp, was released in 1955. It had been 4 years so what took so long? The truth of what took so long actually reaches farther back than Lady and the Tramp’s release. Sleeping Beauty actually was in production before other features as well.

The story of “La Belle au Bois Dormant” or “The Sleeping Beauty”, written by French author Charles Perrault, was discussed and as early as January 1950 and the story started to take shape in 1951. After the success of Cinderella, Walt wanted to move forward with the princess film but the Perrault version of the story, he felt, resembled the other princess films that he did (Snow White and Cinderella). The story was reworked with more elements from the Brothers Grimm telling of the story, better known as “Briar Rose”. The story was finalized in 1952 and animation began on the film in 1953.

With so much going on by this point at the Disney studio, including television, live action films, and the upcoming Disneyland, Walt handed off the film production to Ken Anderson and Eyvind Earle. Anderson was in charge of the overall production and look of the film, but Eyvind Earle, who had only be at the studio since 1951, was put in charge of the style, color palette, backgrounds, and character designs.

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With Walt gone and Ken Anderson also working on the development of Disneyland, Earle was given more freedom than any artist on any other production up until that point. Due to Earle being a perfectionist and his lack of work at the Disney studio, he rubbed many of his peers the wrong way. Regardless, he carried out great influence on the film, which Walt wanted to be a moving piece of art. Earle turned to the stories roots and decided to focus on an art style that would evoke a Medieval Europe. The color scheme was not as bright and bold, and the characters were given more sharp edges. Earle, being the perfectionist he was, painted every single background himself, taking up to a week to complete a single painting, as compared to other productions where it took a single day.

We can’t blame Eyvind Earle for anything here, as Walt was looking for the perfect film, and since Cinderella was such a success, Walt could afford to dump money into Sleeping Beauty. Walt opted to make the film inthe more expensive Super Technirama 70, a film type that used a 70 mm frame instead of the standard 35 mm most film reels took. Walt decided on the film style so he could have more details in the animations and backgrounds. Walt also decided to use Xerox for the first time in a film, allowing animations of the dragon to be bigger or smaller depending on the need in the frame.

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Earle’s insistance on different character designs went against many of his peers and as a result, the animators at the studio had to rework their style to adapt to what Earle saw fit. Lead animator Marc Davis was put in charge of Aurora’s design, based on Audrey Hepburn,  as well as the villain, Maleficent, whom Davis wanted to look less like a witch and more like a vampire. We can credit Davis for Maleficent’s signature look, with her horns and “flaming” robe. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas were put in charge of the fairies. The Perrault story originally has 7 fairies, but it was decided in writing the story that there would only be 3. Walt wanted all of the fairies to look the same, but Johnston and Thomas found that boring and not fitting of the story. Since there would be so much time spent with the fairies versus our princess, the veteran animators wanted to give them personalities, each with a different look and color scheme. Despite, Earle’s direction and need for others to adapt, for myself personally, the characters by Davis, Johnston, and Thomas are what make Sleeping Beauty a Disney classic.

Like many of the animated films of the time, live action references were used for animators, and at Walt’s recommendation, Johnston and Thomas observed old women at the market to get the right movements for their 3 fairies. The reliance on this classic Disney way of animation as well as the introduction of Medieval artwork and new technologies allowed the film to feel fresh but familiar. By the end of production, it took over 1 million drawings and a $6 million budget to complete Sleeping Beauty.

Walt also wanted the film to have a catchy soundtrack to be able to sell on vinyl, but after hearing Pytor Tchaikovsky’s ballet of “The Sleeping Beauty” Walt opted to adapt the orchestration of the ballet to the film. This was unique as only 1 true song, “Once Upon a Dream” was added to the film. Most Disney features (excluding the package films) had been packed with songs.

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Rewriting of the story, changing in animation style, introduction of new technologies, and Walt’s changing heart toward the musical style of the film all pushed Sleeping Beauty back and that’s why the film took 8 years to make. Even though the length of production went longer than any other production in the history of the Disney studio, Walt had a positive feeling about the film. He decided to give it focus on his Disneyland television show, give it a decent budget for advertising, and before Disneyland opened in 1955, changed the name of Snow White Castle to Sleeping Beauty Castle, making it the key figure of the park 4 years before the film even made it’s debut. The castle was filled with dioramas, showcasing the new style of his animation department and building a buzz around the film with it’s own attraction in his park.

Sleeping Beauty was finally released in January 1959 and regardless of Walt’s advertising campaign for his $6 million movie, the largest budget for a Disney film to that date, the film didn’t make back it’s budget in it’s initial release. The film received mixed reviews during the time, noting that the film didn’t focus on our heroine, Aurora, or that the design wasn’t what movie goers had come to expect of a Disney film. The film lost $700,000 in that first run and because of it, left Walt sour on his animation department. With success in live action films, television, and his theme park, it seemed logical to drop the one failing department at his studio. Luckily for us he didn’t drop animation from the studio, but animated features would get less attention and lower budgets for the next few decades after Sleeping Beauty.

After the film’s initial release, there were 4 re-releases of Sleeping Beauty with the last in 1995. All 5 releases bring the film’s total box office to just over $51 million. The legacy of Sleeping Beauty actually make this film much bigger than in Walt’s lifetime. We now regard Maleficent as one of Disney’s best villains and the character got her own live action retelling of the story in 2014. The 3 fairies are regular characters in Disney Channel show “Sofia the First”. The Hong Kong and French versions of Disneyland also have a castle named after the film. I would go out on a limb to say that Sleeping Beauty, along with Davy Crockett and Cinderella, are Walt’s most credible creations of the 1950s. Sleeping Beauty will continue to be reimagined by Disney and be enjoyed by audiences around the world.

What do you think of Sleeping Beauty? Do you love it or hate it? Leave a comment below and keep the conversation going!

Josh Taylor
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Posted on September 29, 2015, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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