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Disney princess movies revisited: Sleeping Beauty


Disney's Frozen 2 arrives in Cineworld this November, and we're counting down the days by revisiting all the classic Disney princess movies in chronological order of release.

In honour of Anna and Elsa's imminent return, we're taking a nostalgic trip back through time. This week: we're headed back to the release of 1959's Sleeping Beauty.

What's the story of Sleeping Beauty?

Innocent and beautiful Princess Aurora is born to King Stefan and Queen Leah. She's betrothed at her christening to Prince Phillip with the aim of uniting the various kingdoms, but the happy ceremony is invaded by the wicked sorceress known as Maleficent.

Her invitation having been rebuffed, Maleficent places a curse on the child: she promises that she will grow into a beautiful young woman, but on her 16th birthday will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. This is then mediated by magic so Aurora will instead fall into a permanent deep sleep, rather than death.

Aurora is taken to live in the forest, out of sight of Maleficent, with her fairy guardians Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. She's given the new name Briar Rose and, on her 16th birthday, unexpectedly bumps into the older Phillip. Not knowing who she is, Phillip is instantly smitten but Maleficent's pet raven then learns of Aurora's location.

Not suspecting that the mystery individual is Phillip, the fairies tell Aurora that she is already betrothed, breaking her heart. When she returns to the castle to meet her parents for her birthday celebrations, Aurora is tricked by Maleficent into fulfilling the spinning wheel prophecy, and falls into an everlasting slumber. It falls to Phillip to rescue Aurora and defeat Maleficent in the process.

How did Sleeping Beauty get made?

Walt Disney Studios was in relatively rude health upon Sleeping Beauty's release in 1959. This was largely down to the blockbuster success of movies such as Cinderella – the latter was created as a direct response to Disney's 1940s debt crisis, brought on by expensive flops like 1940 experimental film Fantasia.

The sheer popularity of Cinderella also revived interest in the quintessential Disney princess movie, which had been pioneered in 1937 by the masterful, Oscar-winning Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was perhaps inevitable that at the tail-end of the 1950s, Disney would look again to the kind of archetypal, mythological storytelling designed to speak to a wide audience. The studio therefore looked to Tchaikovsky's enduring ballet, Sleeping Beauty, and also the original myth by author Charles Perrault.

Work on the Sleeping Beauty screenplay began in 1951, overseen by director Wilfred Jackson. In 1953, Jackson had recorded the dialogue and was about to embark on prep work for the animation itself. A key sequence depicted Aurora and Prince Phillip (named after the Duke of Edinburgh) dancing in a forest, although this sequence was eventually discarded by Walt Disney himself.

Disney, dissatisfied with the script, encouraged a re-write from Jackson, animator Ted Sears and two other scribers, who subsequently incorporated elements of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet (the name 'Aurora') and also the Grimms' fairy tales (the name 'Briar Rose'). In particular, the assembled writers sought to emphasise the Aurora/Phillip romance in the first half, so that the second act would have more clarity and emotional impact.

It was at this moment that the first scene between the two characters was re-written as a chance encounter in the forest. Also, because the curse in Perrault's source material lasted one-hundred years, this was shortened to a few hours to cover Prince Phillip's climactic duel with Maleficent as a dragon.

Production, however, hit a snag when in December 1953, Wilfred Jackson suffered a heart attack. The movie's release date was pushed back to February 1957 under the supervision of new director Eric Larson, one of the 'nine old men' making up Disney's stock company of lead animators. However, Disney's ambition was so great (he wanted it to be the "ultimate in animation") that the project suffered yet more delays and was shunted back to Christmas 1958, losing Larson as director in the process.

Disney then appointed Italian animator Clyde Geronimi in his place, who would work with veteran animator Wolfgang Reitherman, another of the 'nine old men', on the pivotal dragon battle. (Reitherman's association with Disney stretched back to 1933 when he collaborated on the Silly Symphonies cartoon, Funny Little Bunnies.) Together, they would pioneer a bold new look for Disney pictures.

Artist and designer John Hench had observed the unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Disney was impressed with the designs, and agreed they should be deployed in Sleeping Beauty. The baton then passed to artist Eyvind Earle, selected personally by Disney who, working from Hench's observations, crafted a gorgeous visual look drawing on the medieval period and the Italian renaissance, among various other periods.

However, Geronimi was dismissive of Earle's work, to the extent the latter left Disney before the movie was even released. The design subsequently proved unpopular with the artists responsible for animating the human characters, decrying Earle's work as rigid and static. Nevertheless, they had a champion in the form of Disney himself, and Earle's work stayed the course.

Even the design of Aurora caused internal controversy. As before, a live-action stand-in (actor Helene Stanley, who had undertaken the same duty for Cinderella) was used to provide a frame of reference for the artists, part of Disney's insistence on the characters being close to "flesh and blood". Animator Ron Dias however was critical of Earle's redesign of Aurora, who had originally been modelled by Tom Oreb on Audrey Hepburn.

"Eyvind redesigned her," Dias said of Aurora's new design. "She became very angular, moving with more fluidity and elegance, but her design had a harder line. The edges of her dress became squarer, pointed even, and the back of her head came almost to a point rather than round and cuddly like the other Disney girls. It had to be done to complement the background."

Regardless of the incidental difficulties, there's no denying that Sleeping Beauty is one of the most visually luscious movies in the Disney canon. The film's breathtaking animation was further amplified by its super-widescreen format: Sleeping Beauty was the first animated film to be photographed in the Super Technirama 70 widescreen process, as well as the second full-length animated feature film to be filmed in anamorphic widescreen (the first was Disney's own Lady and the Tramp).

Interestingly, Chuck Jones, who would later become famous for the Looney Tunes cartoons, delivered four months of uncredited work on the project, as did Don Bluth, who would later receive acclaim for An American Tail.

After a three-year search, actor Helen Costa was cast as Aurora – she was discovered by composer Walter Schumann who heard her performing 'When I Fall in Love' at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. Advised by Sleeping Beauty composer George Bruns to sing and perform a bird call during her audition, Costa then received a phone call from Disney the following day telling her she had secured the part.

Radio and TV star Eleanor Audley voiced the imperious Maleficent, despite initially turning down the role on account of her battle with tuberculosis. (She also provided the live-action reference for the character to assist the animators.) The role of Prince Phillip was modelled by Ed Kemmer, who had played Commander Buzz Corry on cult 1950s TV series Space Patrol. (He was voiced, both in a spoken and singing capacity, by Bill Shirley.)


What songs are on the Sleeping Beauty soundtrack?

Sleeping Beauty is unique in the Disney canon in that the story derives inspiration from a pre-existing ballet. This therefore gave composer George Bruns (who would later score The Jungle Book) a foundation on which to build. He worked with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, having replaced Walter Schumann after the latter clashed with Disney over creative decisions. Bruns went on to receive an Academy Award for Best Original Score (ironically enough).

However, the decision to use Tchaikovsky was only arrived at by Disney in 1953: he had already enlisted the songwriter-composer duo of Jack Lawrence and Sammy Fain to write original material for the project, but the decision to stick closely to Tchaikovsky's music rendered most of their work irrelevant, bar the film's signature number, 'Once Upon a Dream'.

This swooning romantic ballad initiates the first meeting between Aurora and Phillip – he hears her singing it in the forest and promptly falls in love, not knowing that she is in fact his betrothed. The main melody is derived from Tchaikovsky's 'The Garland Waltz' from the Sleeping Beauty ballet, and performed in various guises as both a choral overture and a duet by voice actors Mary Costa and Bill Shirley.

Such is the enduring popularity of 'Once Upon a Dream' that it was lifted wholesale for 2014 live-action Sleeping Beauty reboot, Maleficent. It was performed by Lana Del Rey in an arrestingly moody new interpretation, befitting the Gothic tone of the movie and also the anguished nature of Angelina Jolie's titular portrayal. Complex remarked that Del Rey's cover had a "somber and sinister" feel in comparison to the original.

It remains to be seen whether Lana Del Rey's take on the song will appear in sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, released on 18th October. However, the trailer does showcase a cover of Donovan staple 'Season of the Witch', performed by MOLLY.

How successful was Sleeping Beauty?

As the presence of the two Maleficent movies demonstrates, Sleeping Beauty remains one of the most popular and imitated of all Disney films.

Remarkably, however, it would be the final Disney princess movie for 30 years. Critical reaction was initially mixed. Time magazine's review was especially tough: "Even the drawing in Sleeping Beauty is crude: a compromise between sentimental, crayon-book childishness and the sort of cute, commercial cubism that tries to seem daring but is really just square. The hero and heroine are sugar sculpture, and the witch looks like a clumsy tracing from a Charles Addams cartoon."

Owing to high production costs (at $6 million, Sleeping Beauty was the most expensive Disney movie made up to that point), plus underperforming Disney movies from the same 1959-1960 period, Walt Disney Studios posted a fiscal loss.

Animation lay-offs ensued, and the movie was never re-released theatrically during Disney's lifetime. However subsequent theatrical re-issues throughout the 1970s helped the movie steadily find a new audience. Such is the cumulative success of these various re-issues that Sleeping Beauty has ultimately come to gross $623.56 million (adjusted for inflation), making it one of the 30 most successful movies of all time.

It's a tale of endurance, survival and rebirth of which Disney himself would surely be proud.

What is the next Disney princess movie?

The Little Mermaid, released in 1989, is the next movie in our Disney princess retrospective. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog for a full breakdown.

When is Frozen 2 released in the UK?

Frozen 2 is released on 22nd November, so check out the trailer and tweet us your favourite Disney princess movies @Cineworld.