Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray review

Mark swoons at the first full-length Disney animated feature to come to Blu-ray...

Disney full length feature animations haven’t previously been made available on Blu-ray or HD-DVD. Yet these films represent exactly the body of work that most high definition fans would gleefully gnaw Michael Eisner’s left leg off to own.

I’ve not even researched what excuses they’ve given so far, but just rejoice that they’ve eventually got one out on Blu-ray. I’m now confident that at some point the majority will follow. I say majority, because some of these films no longer exist in Disney’s revisionist history, having erased from time the production Song of the South, among others.

To animators there is something very special about the Disney full length features made during Walt’s life, bookended by Snow White and Jungle Book, respectively. Sleeping Beauty was released in 1959, and delivers possibly the most polished animated fairytale they ever made. It was the first they shot exclusively in 70mm, the first with a stereo soundtrack, and it combined all the best animation, rostrum camera and colour thinking the studio accumulated over the previous 25 years.

For me personally, what I find in Sleeping Beauty is an underlying message about the sheer expense of ultra high quality animation, and the shrinking practicalities of it in fifties America. In many of the early castle scenes it’s noticeable how the only moving character is the one talking, and how everyone else is entirely frozen. With all the will in the world, the animation through the majority of this movie isn’t consistently at the high water mark that Dumbo and Pinocchio set. There are some marvellous sequences, like the scene where Maleficent turns herself into a Dragon, that are superb. But other parts are less impressive, relying on the breathtaking quality of the backgrounds to distract from the less than perfect foreground animation. Where it’s good, it’s amazing, but it’s not perfect throughout.

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For animators the real focus here is on the fairies, demonstrating the awesome skills of Disney stalwarts, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. They have a 3D solidity which is hard to find fault with, and hand animation just doesn’t get any better than this.

This goes some way to explain why the story doesn’t rotate around ‘Sleeping Beauty’ herself, because it’s not that for a portion of the story she’s unconscious. The lack of involvement with her is quite striking. The character says not a word in the whole second half of the movie, even after she’s been snogged back to life. It’s much more about the Good Fairies, and their attempts to keep the nasty Maleficent in check.

Another strong aspect to Sleeping Beauty is the storytelling, which is simple but direct. It’s one that I’ve seen pre-school children become entirely engrossed in within minutes of it starting. It’s colourful, dynamic and has some catchy tunes to sing along, if you’re very young or have consumed lots of alcohol.

In part, this film fits perfectly within the Disney stable up to this point, and in others it’s a major diversion. Continuity causes them to borrow somewhat from other Disney productions. The dress and cake creation scene is more than a nod to The Sorcerers Apprentice part of Fantasy, but ends with a de facto copy of a sequence in Snow White. There’s also more than a hint of rotoscoping in a movement of the prince at times, another Snow White element. But where it really stands out for me is the use of design and colour, often entirely overlooked aspects to animation. Each character has their exacting colour motifs based on complimentary chromatic set. The colours are usually arranged as a two or three tone base with a third either complimentary colour or highlight. In Maleficent the combination is black and purple with bright yellow eyes to act as the highlight, and in each of the Fairies it’s a variation on their key red/green/blue colours each offset with tonal compliments. The colours are great, and inherently form part of the iconic symbolism of the piece. The way that colour is also manipulated to express the enchantment of the castle occupants is also highly impressive. Colour use was never as clever at Disney as it was here again.

We’re familiar with brightly hued animated characters, but in Sleeping Beauty the lines that enclose the opaque areas are also coloured, not just black. They also have variable thickness, as if added with a brush, not a pen. This gives the film a distinctive refined, almost tapestry, look, and it was the last time Disney could afford to do with feature length cell animation, ever. In contrast, Jungle Book was entirely cell-xeroxed, for a radically different and less opulent feel.

That high value production edge combined with the highly stylised medieval look that background designer, Eyvind Earle, gave the whole production makes Sleeping Beauty distinct from all other full length features, before or since.

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It has some minor flaws, but represents a hand animation pinnacle that Disney struggled years later to equal, never mind surpass.

Sleeping Beauty on Blu-raySo it’s taken a while to get here, was it worth the wait for Sleeping Beauty on Blu-ray? The answer to that is absolutely!

Disney has taken time to have this movie restored, and the transfer to Blu-ray is quite stunning, in particular where it counts most – in the colour department. The rich hues and tones in this reproduction leap out of the screen like the movie was shot in 3D! There aren’t words to describe how chromatically vibrant it all looks; it’s like experiencing a paint factory explode at close range.

The ‘Platinum’ 50th Anniversary edition comes with 2 Blu-ray discs, and a DVD. The movie occupies most of one Blu-ray, with the second disc handling the overflow of extras. So what’s the extra DVD for? No idea.

It’s the DVD version of the movie disc, presumably, so you can give this to your little darlings so they can scratch it to utter destruction and stay away from your amazing Blu-ray version. As sacrificial disc I can see it has value, but to adult Blu-ray fans it’s a curious extra with no obvious use.

The first disc has the movie, which is something special at almost every possible level. Technically it was shot in Super-Technorama 70mm, which is 2.55:1 – the widest widescreen ever! That’s exactly how it’s presented, not cropped, as intended. That’s a first, because the majority of cinema goers only saw 2.35 ratio cropped 35mm prints, and TV audiences since normally get the 4:3 ratio pan-and-scan deal. So this is the first time for most people, including me, that it’s been seen as it was meant to look. It was also made in 6 channel audio, astounding for 1959, and for this release it’s been remixed into 7.1 DTS HD – so it’s never been heard like this either. Much of this has been reconstructed from the source recordings, and builds on the original six channel ‘stereo’ presentation into something much more spatial.

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This disc also has some lightweight extras, mostly the sort of thing that kids will love. There is a commentary track hosted by Disney/Pixar supremo, John Lasseter, critic and film historian, Leonard Maltin, and current Disney animator, Andreas Deja. You can listen to this as is, or watch it with inserted images and video that illustrate what they’re talking about. It’s wonderful to hear people who are talking about animation because they love the media, and not because most discs come with a commentary track these days.

They’ve also put on here a pleasing live action documentary ‘Grand Canyon’, which was distributed with the original production. I loved this, because it reminded me that going to the cinema was once more of an event, often with unexpected elements.

If I have any complaint about Disc 1 it’s some of the choices made about what trailers they’ve put on the auto-play function. There is a trailer on here for some abysmal direct-to-bargain-bin garbage called Space Buddies, about dogs flying a spaceship! What are your marketing people smoking, Disney? I wondered even more when I found on here a Music video by Disney Channel fodder Emily Osment murdering “Once Upon a Dream” in her own special way. The only upside to this I’d accept is it wasn’t Miley ‘Hannah Montana’ Cyrus, as Osment is one of her painful teen-friendly chums.

Disc 2 is thankfully dog and Disney Channel promo free, containing a very nice selection of extras. At the top level menu these are divided into adult interest and more child friendly content. Games & Activities is where the kids will have fun while ‘Backstage Disney’ has more cerebral content. The three games in the kids section are aimed at very young children, and focusing them on identification and word skills. They’re not amazing, but when you’re five you might enjoy them.

The more adult content has some unusual stuff, most of which I wasn’t expecting.

I was unaware that the castle at the centre of Disneyland was once an open attraction based around its Sleeping Beauty. Closed for 30 years or more, they’ve recreated the experience digitally, presumably because it was cheaper than reconstructing it for real. I found this fascinating, even if the basic nature of its animatronic fun does explain why it’s no longer running. They build on this with a 10 minute documentary about the attraction, and what ultimately happened to it.

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The third item is a featurette about the making of the movie, runs for 45 minutes which, like everything here, is in HD. Another 8 minute featurette covers the pivotal designer, Eyvind Earle, whose road to Disney and Sleeping Beauty was a pretty rocky one. The infamous sequence 8 gets its own small featurette, as does the music, live action references, and the artistic processes. There is also an alternative start presented as a storyboard, and three deleted songs.

There is certainly something for everyone in the extras, and some of the people they got to contribute, such as Don Bluth, who worked as a cleanup artist on the film, blew me away.

Final thoughtsThe term ‘reference disc’ is massively overused, so I’m not going to brand this with that description. The Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray goes beyond what I’d expect from even a reference title, it’s that special. This disc elevates the technology to a whole new level, and sets a frighteningly high standard for digital reproduction of cell animated movies. There is a trailer on here for Pinocchio which is making me salivate on the prospect of seeing a restored version of that film. My only concern is that some of the Disney catalogue won’t look as wonderful as this, even if they are restored. The bar might have been set just too high!

In the meanwhile, if you’d like to see some classic Disney the way it was originally conceived, then you’ve got no alternative but to add this one to your Christmas list.


4 stars

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is out on Blu-ray now.

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3 out of 5