When I think of the finest of the Disney classics, this one has seldom come to mind, but looking at it again, I think it ranks right up there with the greats. It is radically different in visual style from anything Disney had done before, but only if you consider just the feature-length movies. All through the ‘50s there was innovation in animation from many smaller studios, and Disney dabbled in these new, less complicated but visually wonderful styles in shorts like “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” (1953), “Pigs is Pigs” (1954), “A Cowboy Needs a Horse” (1956), “Paul Bunyan” (1958), and “Noah’s Ark” (1959, the only stop-motion Disney short I’m aware of). Sleeping Beauty is meant to evoke medieval art without actually imitating it. Some of the backgrounds seem almost impressionistic, particularly the forests. There is more standard Disney fare, too, such as the characters of the fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather and King Stefan and King Hubert. The two kings don’t seem to fit well with the rest of the art, and they slow the action down, which is my only criticism of the film.
The movie was eight years in production. There is so much to like here. I wasn’t aware until many years later that most of the score is adapted from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “Sleeping Beauty.” It was a brilliant choice, and gives the movie a darker, more serious tone. The waltz “Once Upon a Dream” is one of my favorite Disney numbers. The look of the character Briar Rose/Princess Aurora was modeled on Audrey Hepburn!
I think the final scenes with Prince Philip escaping from the Forbidden Mountain and fighting his way back to the castle where Aurora and everyone else is sleeping is one of the finest action sequences ever animated. And the climax, where Maleficent transforms herself into a dragon … well, it scared the hell out of me when I was twelve. They have duplicated the scene in the outdoor summer show at Disneyland called Fantasmic!, and it’s one of the highlights. And speaking of Maleficent … my heart still belongs to Cruella De Vil, but oh, you Mistress of All Evil! How cool is it to call yourself that? She is without a doubt the scariest of the Disney scary evil women. She looks terrific, I just love her hat, or are those really horns? In addition to being a dragon, she can turn herself into a glowing green ball of light that just looks like it could suck the life right out of you. She was voiced by Eleanor Audley, who also did another creepy villianess for Disney, Lady Tremaine in Cinderella. And her face really did look something like both those bad girls. She did a lot of television, including Eddie Albert’s mother in “Green Acres.”