SleepingBeautycoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes
1959, 75 min., Color
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 2.55:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C

Sleeping Beauty was the last of the Disney films to use hand-inked cells, and the last film that Walt Disney personally supervised. Which is to say, Sleeping Beauty was both the last great film from the classic era of Disney animation, and a herald of even greater things to come. And though it’s one of the first trilogy of Disney princess movies (following Snow White and Cinderella), it captured the attention of young boys because it featured one of the all-time great Disney villains in Malificent—who now is the subject of a new live-action retelling on the order of Wicked.

Set in the 14th century and adapted from Charles Perrault’s version of the tale (Perrault also wrote the ballet which Tchaikovsky scored), Sleeping Beauty is actually closer in structure to the fairy tale related by the Brothers Grimm, who inspired Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Sleeping Beauty relates the story of a king and queen whose baby is cursed by a malevolent witch with the promise that before the child’s 16th birthday she’ll prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die! Maleficent (voiced by Eleanor Audley), one of the is a sorceress with spiral-horned headgear and flowing black gown who can vanish into thin air, transform herself into fire or a creature, and send minions scurrying with jolts of lightning from her staff. She both frightened and captivated children when the film first showed in 1959, and she’s likely to do the same for another generation.  

SleepingBeautyscreen1There’s less humor in Sleeping Beauty than today’s youngsters have grown accustomed to, but three good fairies provide a modicum of comic relief. To save the princess, the trio gives up their wands and raises the royal child deep in the forest, without magic, until she passes that 16th birthday. Just in case, one of them was able to alter Maleficent’s curse so that Aurora (whom they call Briar Rose) would only fall into a deep sleep and remain in a virtual coma until love’s first kiss brought her back to life.

Aurora is just as charming as the prince in this film, but because the plot is simpler and the focus is on love (the princess sings several such songs), boys used to fast-talking Disney sidekicks and action throughout may fidget a bit until the big dragon-fighting scene. I know I did, back in 1959.

SleepingBeautyscreen2Walt Disney once said, “Of all the stirring legends of the triumph of good over evil, none has ever been so inspirational to me as Sleeping Beauty.” The film may not be as rich and complex as Beauty and the Beast, nor does it have the epic pageantry of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But Sleeping Beauty does have the power of simple allegory: good vs. evil.

A milestone in animation, Sleeping Beauty had the largest budget ($6 million) of any previous full-length animated feature, and it was the first animated feature filmed in widescreen. It was also the first time that Disney used a single artist’s vision for a film, and art director Eyvind Earle’s elongated, one-dimensional pre-Renaissance style marked the first time that highly detailed backgrounds were used in an animated feature. It’s so unique that people either loved it, or . . . didn’t.

The Queen in Snow White was evil, and as a witch she was gruesome to look at. But with Maleficent the Disney animators discovered the power of a truly charismatic but frightening villain. She was the first of many to come, and that alone may fascinate families who aren’t already familiar with this wonderfully animated feature.