Sleeping Beauty (50th Anniversary Platinum Edition)

The Platinum Editions for classic Disney animated films are typically beautifully restored versions with tons of extras. The latest release, Sleeping Beauty, which coincides with the movie’s 50th Anniversary, scores well on both points and is also the first Platinum Edition to be released on Blu-ray as well. When it was released in 1959, Sleeping Beauty was not a tremendous hit and nearly bankrupted the Disney studio. It has since been considered a classic, but I’ve never been as impressed with it as I am with some other films from that era. While the animation is gorgeous, it comes across as a bit sterile. Combined with the powerful, classical score (based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same name) it, at times, makes me feel like I’m looking at a book of beautiful pictures while an orchestra plays in the background. That has its appeal, but it doesn’t have the joy, bounce, or strong story elements that are at the heart of Disney’s best efforts.

The plot is the real sticky wicket here. The lead character, Sleeping Beauty/Princess Aurora/Briar Rose (voiced by Mary Costa), is blandest of all the Disney Princesses and is relegated to being a secondary character in her own movie. She sings a song and is wooed by her Prince in the forest and then falls asleep until the end of the film. There isn’t any time or effort to get us interested in her the way we are in Belle, Snow White, or Ariel, for example.

Some of the supporting characters fare a little better. The three good fairies, Flora (Verna Felton), Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen), and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy), who work to protect the Princess from a plot by the evil Maleficent (Eleanor Audley) to kill her are far more interesting. They have a fun interplay, but aren’t given a whole lot to do besides bickering about blue versus pink. Maleficent herself is evil for evil’s sake in the manner of early Disney villains, but she has the right amount of menace. The parents of Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley), who eventually delivers the key kiss, and Aurora are mostly filler and get involved in a pretty dumb argument that seems intended primarily to extend the movie to its bare minimum 75 minutes.

The story just doesn’t move along very briskly or have a lot of compelling elements. The story isn’t bad or even boring, but it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Disney is the king of taking fairy tales and making them into wonderful movies, but here it isn’t the tale being told, but the look and sound that is the real attraction. The production design is sometimes jaw dropping and while I don’t tap my feet to the classically influenced music, it fits in perfectly with the look of the film. It’s interesting to see the angular and almost diorama influenced look of the movie after so many rounder and softer films from Disney during that period. A moving pop-up book with tremendous detail.

Almost everyone has seen this movie in the last 50 years, so my opinion is not going to make much headway regardless. This is a good Disney animated movie from a classic time and its visuals are often amazing. If you don’t have too many demands on the plot, you’ll enjoy it, but it doesn’t really stand up with the classics. While I find the movie, Sleeping Beauty to be good, but not great, I am blown away by this DVD release. Although you don’t get the same HD clarity as with the Blu-ray version, the picture has been fully restored and it is amazing. This film’s visuals are its strength and it’s good to see them so crisp and clear. Because the movie was originally intended to be shown in Technirama 70, it is presented in a 2.55 to 1 ratio rather than the usual 2.35 to 1 (like the 2003 Special Edition release of this film.) This means the very ends of the frame were not previously seen and are being shown in this version for the first time. It’s hard to say that it makes a big difference, but it is a beautiful, wide, lush picture. The sound is also excellent and it’s just a nice overall presentation.

The picture and sound are great, but the extras are also fantastic. Many of these are carry-overs from the 2003 Special Edition release, but there are new items that might encourage people to double dip. First off is a commentary by the trio of Disney Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, film critic/historian Leonard Maltin, and longtime Disney animator Andreas Deja. They are like having supremely knowledgeable geeky fans talk during the movie. Also, historical voice clips of those who were involved in the production (Walt Disney, etc.) are played from time to time to help supplement the commentary. It’s well done and an enjoyable experience. Not particularly for kids, but the little ones can get some extra info through the “Princess Fun Facts” option. This is a pop-up video kind of item that brings up facts during the movie. The information is so basic (and not very frequent) that it will mostly appeal to the younger viewers, but it is an alternative to learning more about the movie without listening to the commentary.

There are a few other extras on the first disc. “Grand Canyon” was a short film that won the Academy Award and was shown prior to Sleeping Beauty in theaters. Lasting 28 minutes it features the scenery and wildlife of the Arizona landmark accompanied by “The Grand Canyon Suite” by Ferde Grofe. It’s really beautiful and the music (which is familiar to anyone who has ridden the Disneyland Railroad though the Grand Canyon diorama) is used perfectly. Really this is a highlight of the extras and will probably be skipped over by most. Don’t skip it.

Less interesting is “The Peter Tchaikovsky Story.” A 50 minute episode from the Disney television show that is a recreation of Tchaikovsky’s life. There is particular emphasis on the story of his writing the “Sleeping Beauty” suite that became the source of the music in the film. The recreation lasts about 30 minutes and 20 minutes is clips from the film. Since you’ve seen the film, the 20 minutes is a bit of a waste and the recreation is kinda corny, so it’s not that fun to watch.

The rest of the first disc are music related extras. There is the ability to jump to the various songs in the movie and have the lyrics on the screen. It’s not a full-blown musical so there is only about eight minutes of songs. It’s not any big deal but at least it isn’t painful to watch like the “Once Upon A Dream” music video by Disney Channel mainstay Emily Osment. It’s not any worse than any other classic Disney tune redone by a teen pop wannabe under contract at Disney, but they are all pretty uniformly bad, and this one is too.

The second disc contains the lion’s share of the extras and they are really fun and interesting for the most part. There is a new 44 minute making-of featurette called “Picture Perfect: The Making of Sleeping Beauty” that interviews the (few) animators who worked on the picture and are still alive but also brings in lots of current animators and animation historians to talk about the film. It’s very well done and combines talking heads, what looks like staged “behind the scenes” footage from the period, and storyboards/concept art.

Supplementing the long making-of featurette are a few other specialized items. These include a seven minute bio on Eyvind Earle. Earle created the style of Sleeping Beauty and lived a really interesting life that is only touched on in the featurette. I wish it had been longer and will probably get a book on Earle. A second featurette covers “Sequence 8” in more detail. This is the forest scene where Briar Rose and Prince Phillip dance. The difficulty in making a hand drawn, highly stylized animated film is brought to the fore through discussions with some of the animators. Really gives you more of an appreciation of the look of the film. Finally there is a the 16 minute “Four Artists Paint One Tree” which was from a Disney television show around the time of the film. It’s pretty much what the title states, although the real purpose of the show is to publicize the movie.

Deleted scenes for an animated film are almost always storyboards, since they don’t seem to go to all the trouble of animating a sequence and not use it. The disc contains an alternate opening with a demo track of the song “Holiday.” It was intended to announce the gala at the castle with a song sung by all of the subjects. There are also four other deleted songs included.

One of the most exciting extras around my house is the “Original Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough Attraction.” This includes a virtual walk through of the former Disneyland attraction and then the same walkthrough with information provided by a couple of Disney attraction creators. It’s fun to see all the behind-the-scenes tricks used by the designers of the attraction. There is also a history of the attraction featurette, in case you’ve never been to Disneyland when the castle was open to tour prior to 2001. The prominence of this extra is probably due to the re-opening plans of the attraction. Disney loves them some synergy.

Except for some games, the rest of the second disc extras are art galleries, trailers, and storyboards. Fun to click through if you are a big animation fan, but not compelling for anyone else. The two games on the disc really move the focus of the extras from adults back to kids. Young kids. Very, very young kids. One of the games teaches kids words like “bucket” and “mop” by showing a mop and saying “this is a mop…..mop……mop.” I mean, for anyone with a child that’s talking, this is way too simplistic.

This is a great release for anyone who doesn’t have Sleeping Beauty on DVD yet. You get a good classic Disney film and more than enough extras to justify the purchase price. The wider aspect ratio and restoration process, along with more extras may tempt those who just bought this movie at the 2003 Special Edition, but you probably need to be a big fan to buy the same movie twice in five years.