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Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’: Masterpiece or mess?

POSTED: June 4, 2014 1:30 p.m.
Buena Vista Home Video/

Scene from Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," released in 1959.

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“Sleeping Beauty” took almost a decade to reach theaters and cost $6 million to produce, far and away the most expensive Disney animated feature at the time.
The movie, the inspiration behind this week's release of "Maleficent," is seen by some as the creative pinnacle of Disney’s Silver Age — a bold and beautiful fairy tale with sumptuous animation and several iconic scenes.
Yet at its 1959 original release, it failed to attract audiences or impress the critics. In fact, it was a financial failure, according to animatedfilmreviews.com.
That might be due to the title character. An essay on the website somefilmsandstuff.com states that "Princess Aurora is possibly the dullest Disney heroine, and the stereotype of what audiences typically dismiss as a ‘Disney princess’ — beautiful, waiting for her prince, (idle), lacking in agency, with no narrative control over her own tale."
IMDB reports that Princess Aurora has only 18 lines of dialogue, less than any lead character in a Disney cartoon feature (except the silent Dumbo) and only appears in the film for 18 minutes.
Walt Disney was very personally involved with each of the preceding films, but animators indicate that during production on "Sleeping Beauty," he was more involved in other projects, including the construction of Disneyland.
“Walt lost touch with the project and also seemed to resent spending time to discuss ‘Sleeping Beauty,’” said the film’s writer, Bill Peet, in “The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney."
“Walt was not supporting us,” said legendary animator Frank Thomas in the same book. “And you couldn’t figure out what he didn’t like. We had to find designs that enabled us to get some kind of life in the characters, but still recognize that they would have to ‘work against’ the busy detail of the backgrounds and hold their own graphically regardless of the choices Eyvind (made).”
Production designer Eyvind Earle was the person most responsible for the film’s look, according to a Turner Classic Movies profile on the film. At Disney’s direction, Earle took great pains to make the movie look different from “Snow White” and previous animated Disney films. It was the first time a single artist was given total control over the look and feel of an entire production.
The animators disliked his art direction and openly protested it, including Marc Davis, one of the studio’s masterful animators, who created and animated Princess Aurora. He was quoted in “Working with Disney: Interviews with Animators, Producers and Artists” as saying that there was “a conflict of personalities" that involved "Eyvind Earle, who does magnificent things, but he was so in love with his backgrounds that they didn’t give you a good stage to stage business in because they were so busy. But Walt at that time was very intrigued with them.”
Historian Leonard Maltin called Disney a “pretty canny guy” in a Los Angeles Times interview: “He specifically knew that there would be some chafing at this new design concept, and he understood that it would be healthy for the film.”
The animation department suffered massive layoffs that included many of the youngest artists.
“All us young kids in my Disney ‘class’ thought we had a lifetime job,” said animator Floyd Norman, who survived the staff cuts. On the website The Disney Project, he continues: “The pixie dust was suddenly brushed from our eyes as the first round of pink slips were handed out. The old-timers took it in stride — but we were devastated.”
After “Sleeping Beauty,” the studio avoided adapting fairy tales for almost 30 years, as pointed out by somefilmsandstuff.com. It was not until the 1989 release of “The Little Mermaid,” during the "Disney Renaissance" period, that the studio would return to its fairytale roots.

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