Blu-ray Review: Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959) — Diamond Edition

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Responsible for bringing to artistic life two of the most frightening Disney villains ever invented –while it’s impossible to choose whether Maleficent or Cruella deVil is the greater epitome of iconic Disney evil – it’s easy to see the influence of animator Marc Davis’s classic creations reflected throughout popular culture to this very day.

Whether it’s in Disney’s own Little Mermaid villainess Ursula or via live action and hand-drawn works alike from filmmakers around the globe, Davis’s impact can’t be understated. Arguing that very point for him based on their prominent inclusion in a memorable special feature, both of the artist’s fiercest villains are on display in a brand new Diamond Edition Blu-ray bonus that takes a look at Disney villains while conveniently up building anticipation for the upcoming home entertainment release of the studio’s Angelina Jolie starring live action feature Maleficent.

Likewise, it’s a tribute to Davis – and Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty by extension – that Maleficent not only set the pace for the summer movie season as one of only a precious few bona fide 2014 blockbusters (besides Disney sister-company Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy) but will also kick off holiday gift-giving when it debuts next month following Beauty’s lead.

Although Disney enthusiasts might remember that the 2008 Platinum Edition of Beauty was one of the first combo pack format releases (alongside the first Tinker Bell spinoff) to bow on Blu-ray as part of the studio’s budget friendly multi-format sets that have since become industry standard, this Diamond Edition follow-up incorporates some superb brand new features from the House of Mouse’s legendary vault.

Of perhaps greatest interest are Disney's debut of rough sketches coupled with audio that help provide a glimpse of alternate takes and/or deleted scenes that were left out of the final cut that countless generations have come to know so well.

In stark contrast to the superfluous scenes we’re used to seeing in contemporary DVD features, Beauty’s newly unveiled footage helps answer lingering viewer questions including how and why Princess Aurora wandered in to prick her finger on Maleficent's spinning wheel in the first place.

Another scene adds crucial words to the otherwise mostly silent heroine whose name and looks essentially make up her entire personality, which is a far cry from this era of feisty, fiercely independent, chatty princesses depicted in the studio’s biggest blockbuster to date via last year’s phenomenal Frozen.

Boasting Disney’s ever popular karaoke feature along with the previously released classic featurettes mixed together with new material, we're taken behind-the-scenes of one of Disney's most acclaimed, landmark endeavors. And as such, it’s interesting in retrospect to go back and view Beauty with the company’s other fairy tales in mind.

For not only do you begin to better appreciate the ways that the film laid the cinematic groundwork for the titles that would follow but it’s also thrilling to evaluate the work structurally from a storytelling perspective.

When viewed as part of a double feature with The Little Mermaid in particular, you’ll see numerous examples of how this 1959 work impacted the one that would give birth to the so-called Disney Renaissance exactly three decades later via 1989’s Mermaid (which was documented in the intriguingly titled nonfiction effort Waking Sleeping Beauty).

From the reconfiguration of Maleficent to create Ursula to the way that the prince in both titles first falls for the women based on the sound of their melodic voices alone, Beauty’s role in creating the official paradigm future Disney classics would follow grows that much more evident with each new comparison and contrast.

Admittedly it’s a tough feature for feminists to champion as Aurora is even more silent than the mischievous mermaid turned voiceless Ariel who swam to two-legged life out from under the sea of her father’s staunchly male-centric kingdom as part of a Faustian bargain with Ursula. Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny Aurora’s role in getting Disney to its Brave new world where old sexual stereotypes have begun to freeze over thanks to Frozen’s cry to “let it go.”

Loading up the combo pack with a bonus standard definition DVD as well as a digital copy, while understandably some fans might be stumped as to why – besides serving as a Maleficent marketing tie-in – the studio would choose to upgrade Beauty from Platinum to Diamond a mere six years later when so many classics are waiting in the wings, there’s enough here to warrant a second visit.

Of course, following the tragic death of Robin Williams, I can only hope that Aladdin will be the newest work to make its debut on Disney high definition Blu in the future.

Nonetheless Beauty’s reappearance helps remind us how much of a role the film has continued to play in our culture, from the live-action gender reversal While You Were Sleeping (made by another Disney sister company) to its offscreen role as part of the complex debate about the media’s obsession with a woman’s beauty vs. what or how much she’s allowed to say.

50th Anniversary Platinum Edition DVD Review:
(Edited for Context; Originally Published 10/05/08)

Ushering in the new era for Walt Disney Studios animation as the last feature with hand-inked cells, Sleeping Beauty became the first film to be both created and released exclusively for the 70mm format.

Now in 2008, nearly fifty years later, it makes history once again as “the first-ever Disney Classic animated feature in high definition.”

Awakening on shelves in a stunning digitally re-mastered 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition on October 7 (as always for a limited time) on both 2-disc DVD and Blu-ray formats, it has the tremendous and unprecedented distinction of offering fans without Blu-ray players the chance to purchase that format as it comes with a bonus standard edition playable DVD.

Tchaikovsky’s music and acclaimed, international operatic singing sensation Mary Costa (who voiced Princess Aurora) sound better than ever in Dolby Digital Surround that more than equals the crisp definition of the animation.

 Deliberately advised by Walt Disney himself to model the look of Beauty on medieval architecture and paintings, the film made the most of the brand-new 70mm format to craft “elaborate backgrounds” that took an average of seven to ten days to painstakingly ink by hand.

Legendary Disney artist and Sleeping Beauty production designer Eyvind Earle was given “a significant amount of freedom,” in granting Disney’s wish to present Beauty with an entirely “different visual style,” as opposed to the “soft, rounded look of earlier” features in the Disney collection. And in doing so, the visual scope of the film offered a more “detailed and complex” range of artwork than viewers had ever seen “used in an animated movie before.”

A mixture of the Brothers Grimm fable source material as well as Perrault’s version and Tchaikovsky’s original ballet, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty tells the story of the newborn Princess Aurora who is cursed at her christening by the wicked Maleficent (which translates to “evil-doer”).

Charged that she will die after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel when she turns sixteen, Aurora is quickly taken under the wing of three tiny good fairies—Flora (dressed in pink), Merryweather (blue), and Fauna (in green)—who whisk her away to live in the woods.

 Raising her in hiding and giving her the new name of Briar Rose, the young princess grows into a stunning blonde beauty (modeled after Audrey Hepburn), entirely unaware of her background.

After she falls in love with the handsome Prince Philip, her unknowingly betrothed husband-to-be since birth as they dance to “Once Upon a Dream” in the forest, Aurora/Briar Rose is cruelly tricked by the sinister magic employed by Maleficent and falls into a deep sleep, out of which only true love’s kiss can she awaken.

One of Disney’s most famous works, Beauty was the impressive product of a seven year intensive production. In fact, Disneyland Castle was even named for the one in the film which was released four years after the theme park opened its doors.

Yet, despite this, upon closer inspection Aurora is one of the dullest Disney princesses ever created. Raised in an era of feisty Disney heroines like Little Mermaid’s Ariel, Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan, as I watched from an adult’s perspective, I realized this time around that although Aurora is the titular character, the film is essentially more about the secondary cast. In fact, Beauty focuses the most on not only the fairies but Maleficent (who is never thoroughly explained), Prince Philip, and the families of the protagonist.

Upon further research, I discovered that, “second only to Dumbo (who didn’t speak at all)… [Aurora] has very few lines of actual dialogue throughout the entire film. Her first line comes 19 minutes into the film and her last line comes 39 minutes into the film.”

 Thus it may come as a slight shock to children of today used to far more fast-paced Disney offerings where the women have more to do than simply wait for a rescue and hope to avoid morning breath.

Despite the fact that Aurora is hands-down the most submissive and quietest character whose title-reflected beauty and helpless state propel the film along as a DVD, Beauty is an absolute knockout. 

The third film, following Snow White and Pinocchio to “undergo painstaking computer restoration,” both devotees and fans will be amazed by the presentation, which offers the film as it was originally meant to be seen with both enhanced picture and sound. 

Filled with endless featurettes and bonus footage taken right from the Disney Vault that’s sure to excite viewers of all ages, the Sleeping Beauty set includes an all new making-of documentary.

Plus, it takes you further inside the pre and post-production process, serving up an alternate opening, a DVD game for kids, four deleted songs, the original Oscar winning short that aired with the film in its theatrical release, a celebration of Tchaikovsky as well as the Disney artists, along with countless other snippets that have never before been seen.

Thus, the 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition is a veritable set that’s “once upon a dream” for lovers of all things Disney and the treasure trove has only been expanded upon in this Diamond Edition upgrade.

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