Briar Rose (aka Aurora) about to meet Prince Phillip.


Original Medium: Traditional story
Produced as a cartoon by: Walt Disney Productions
First appeared: Antiquity
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Most Disney animated features were based on stories that appeared in specific books, by specific authors. But there were a few that came from stories going back to antiquity, and if Disney's version came from that appearing in a particular book, then it was a book collecting such traditional tales, not one …

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… for which the author claimed full creation. Three such features were made during Disney's lifetime — Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty, which premiered on January 28, 1959 and went into general release the following day. After Sleeping Beauty, the next such Disney feature was The Little Mermaid, which didn't come out until three full decades had gone by.

The fairy-tale features had certain similarities in basic outline, with beautiful maidens (usually princesses) undergoing tribulation at the hands of strong female villains until right at the end, when they find happiness in the arms of their handsome princes. In the first two, the princes were mere props, without even names of their own — Snow's had no name at all, while Cindy's, who was at least a little more involved with the plot, was only called Prince Charming. In Sleeping Beauty, however, Prince Phillip was present at the beginning, and entwined with the story throughout. Even if his victory over the evil fairy Maleficent, author of Princess Aurora's woes, was less glorious than it might have been (facilitated, as it was, by magical help from the three good fairies who had raised her), he, more than the others combined, earned his "happily ever after".

This closer integration of the necessary plot elements represented the greater sophistication in story values those in the Disney organization had developed over the years. The art, too, represented an advance over the softer, more rounded, more easily animated styles of the earlier features. All through the 1950s, from Alice in Wonderland to Lady & the Tramp, the Disney studio had been moving toward the more angular yet fluid style exemplified by '50s start-up UPA (Gerald McBoing-Boing, Mr. Magoo). In Sleeping Beauty it was fully realized, making that film's look far closer to its successors, such as 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book, than to what had gone before.

The story had elements taken from both the Charles Perault and the Brothers Grimm versions, but was very much altered by Disney. Traditionally, the princess slept for a century after falling victim to the curse, and the prince who rescued her was necessarily a stranger before bestowing love's first kiss. In the movie, after setting up the situation on the day she was born, all the action, from showing her life as the forest-dwelling commoner Briar Rose with the three good fairies as her guardians, to Phillip's final rescue, took place on her 16th birthday.

The supervising director of Sleeping Beauty was Clyde Geronomi, whose directorial work on Disney features went all the way back to Victory through Air Power (1943), the studio's foray into World War II propaganda and and now the most seldom-seen of its features. Sequence directors included Eric Larson (who hadn't directed before, but whose animation was seen in Pinocchio, Bambi and elsewhere), Wolfgang Reitherman (Winnie the Pooh shorts) and Les Clark (the last few Goofy theatrical releases).

The voice of Aurora/Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty was done by Mary Costa, and Prince Phillip was Bill Shirley. Both were face actors whose cartoon work was confined to this film. Maleficent was Eleanor Audley (Lady Tremaine in Cinderella). The good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, were, respectively, Verna Felton (mother-in-law Pearl Slaghoople in The Flintstones), Barbara Jo Allen (a scullery maid in The Sword in the Stone) and Barbara Luddy (Lady in Lady & the Tramp).

At $6 million, Sleeping Beauty was the most expensive animated movie up to its time. Nonetheless, it was poorly received by both critics and audiences, possibly because of its departures from what had been seen before — it didn't quite have the "feel" of a Disney movie. None of its characters became Disney regulars. Still, it spawned the usual ton of merchandise (including comics adaptations from Dell, later reprinted by Gold Key, and King Features Syndicate), and the public gradually changed its mind. Today, it's regarded as one of Disney's classics.


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Text ©2006-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Walt Disney Productions.