In the 1950s, movie theaters were changing, as they are in today’s world, where streaming options have impacted the current moviegoing experience. But, back in the 1950s, it was the then, still-new, technology of television that was keeping audiences at home.
To bring people back to theaters, one of the tactics was widescreen, epic films, giving audiences experiences like Technirama, VistaVision, Cinerama, and CinemaScope that couldn’t be duplicated on TV screens, and films like The Ten Commandments and Giant were treated less like movies and more like a concert or event.
At the time, Walt Disney utilized Cinemascope for his animated feature, Lady and the Tramp, in 1955. With his next feature, Sleeping Beauty, larger in scope and more epic, it emerged as an “event film” and was made using the Technirama process.
“This was Walt wanting to be a part of what the movie market was at the time,” said Disney historian Jim Fanning, who has authored a number of books, including Drawing 100 Years of Disney Wonder. “Competing with television, there was widescreen, and there were also ‘roadshow attractions.’ These were specially made movies, where you would buy tickets in advance, as you would for a play. It was a whole experience. With Sleeping Beauty, they stepped away from the reserved seat policy, but it only played in special theaters, and the cost of the ticket was higher. The biggest movie that year  was Ben-Hur, the ‘roadshow attraction’ to end all ‘roadshow attractions.’ So, this was also Disney wanting to be in that field with something special to compete with these other grand films.”
Celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, Sleeping Beauty was first considered as a project at Disney in 1950, and during the nine years before it reached the screen, it was in production during a unique time at the Disney studio, as author Bob Thomas remembered in his book Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast:
“The film was developing during the mid-fifties when Walt was enmeshed in Disneyland, the Mickey Mouse Club, Zorro, and Disneyland television shows. The Sleeping Beauty story men and animators often waited weeks before Disney could meet with them.”
However, from this came a unique Disney animated feature based on the 1697 fairy tale by Charles Perrault, as it told the story of Princess Aurora (voiced by Mary Costa), who is cursed by the evil Maleficent (Eleanor Audley, who had also voiced Lady Tremaine in Disney’s Cinderella and would also voice Madame Leota in Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction).
Princess Aurora is saved by the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather (Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy, respectively), who are unable to remove Maleficent’s curse but change it so that the Princess will not die but instead fall into a deep sleep upon pricking her finger, to be awakened by true love’s kiss.
The three fairies also take the princess deep into the woods, hiding with her in a cottage and renaming her Briar Rose. While here, on her sixteenth birthday, when the fairies are to return the princess to the King and Queen, Briar Rose meets Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley) while walking in the woods, and the two fall in love.
Maleficent, who has been searching for the Princess all this time, discovers her whereabouts and vows to enact her revenge.
Even though he may have been distant to the artists while Sleeping Beauty was in production, Walt did have a specific vision that he relayed to them. “He said, ‘Let’s make the ultimate animated feature,” said Fanning. “That was his goal – the greatest in artistry, the greatest in the animation of the human form, the greatest in music, and the greatest in storytelling. He really set out to make this a special and unique work of art. He wanted animation to be an art form. He told his artists, ‘Every frame of this film has to be a work of art.’”
This was realized through the masterful artistry of Eyvind Earle, a background artist at the studio who served as the supervising color stylist/inspirational sketch artist for Sleeping Beauty. In his book Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney’s Inspirational Sketch Artists, author John Canemaker wrote, “For the film’s visual style, Earle created an opulent medieval tapestry based on the paintings of Durer, Van Eyck, Breughel, and fifteenth-century French illuminated manuscripts, particularly the Tres Riches Heuvres de Jean, Duc de Berri.”
Earle’s style became the Sleeping Beauty style, informing all corners of the film and giving it a unique look that differentiated it from any other Disney animated film. The style also influenced character design, including that of the film’s villain, Maleficent, who was brought to the screen by Disney Legend and member of the Nine Old Men, animator Marc Davis.
In a 1998 interview, Davis (who also supervised the animation of Princess Aurora for the film) noted that the character was a challenge from an animator’s perspective: “…the hardest thing with Maleficent was how to bring her to life. She did stand up and make speeches, but that’s when I introduced the Raven. This way, she could work to the Raven. She had a wonderful voice. Eleanor Audley, wonderful lady.”
With Maleficent, Davis crafted one of film’s most memorable and chilling screen villains.
As part of the film’s climax, Maleficent transforms into a fire-breathing dragon that Prince Phillip must battle. The sequence, directed by the legendary Wolfgang Reitherman, remains one of animation’s most indelible and dynamic action sequences.At the center of Sleeping Beauty, along with the main character of Princess Aurora, are the three fairies of Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather, who emerge as not only three individual personalities but distinctive heroines, thanks to the talents of two more legendary animators (and members of the Nine Old Men), Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.
Wrapping around the story is a lush musical score by George Bruns, who adapted Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet (for more of the music of Sleeping Beauty, check out Greg Ehrbar’s 2014 article).
Released on January 29th, 1959, Sleeping Beauty received mixed reviews from critics and was a box-office disappointment. At a cost of $6 million, it was the most expensive animated film of its time and didn’t re-coup those costs during its initial run.
Of course, sixty five years later, like most “ahead of its time” films, Sleeping Beauty has earned its much-deserved appreciation as a pinnacle of animation artistry and a beloved moment in Disney history. It has inspired subsequent generations of audiences and artists (the look of Disney’s 1995 feature Pocahontas is just one of many animated films that drew inspiration from Sleeping Beauty).
“It’s very special,” said Fanning of the film, adding, “and it gladdens my heart that through the years, Sleeping Beauty has been more and more recognized as the beautiful work of art that it is.”