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Category:    Home > Reviews > Animation > Fantasy > Literature > Myth > Fairy Tale > Magic > Large Frame Format > Sleeping Beauty (1959/Disney Platinum Edition Blu-ray Set)

Sleeping Beauty (1959/Disney Platinum Edition Blu-ray Set)


Picture: A-     Sound: B-     Extras: B     Film: B



At the peak of his powers and the remarkable expansion of his empire with theme parks, Walt Disney decided to take on yet another fairy tale classic.  Sleeping Beauty (1959) had all the elements he could make into a major animated feature, even if some of the dark elements would be emphasized more than usual.  It was a maturing of the empire and of their brand of work as other companies caught up with their own interesting animated shorts and product, but Disney was still several steps ahead of them and this would be yet another building block of the House of Mouse.


The tale of the newborn daughter of a kingdom “once upon a time” cursed by eternal sleep unless she is saved is done with such elaboration that it is unlike any other animated feature in history, pushing what you could do with a widescreen frame and in the early days of such filmmaking, a groundbreaker for compositions in such a new kind of canvas.  With great moments of comedy, magic battles, a lush other world and characters we can relate to, the film is not often given the credit for being the Fantasy genre classic it is, but even the recent Lord Of The Rings trilogy would be unthinkable without it.


Despite the precautions taken, the evil Maleficent (modeled to look like Joan Crawford at her Film Noir evilest) has created the curse that only a brave Prince Phillip can save Princess Aurora from a fate of eternal sleep.  In the brilliant all-time classic climax when Maleficent becomes a murderous dragon, Disney hired no less than the brilliant British animation team of John Halas and Joy Batchelor (whose animated adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm in 1954 was a groundbreaker for mature, dark animated features) to create The Dragon, making it stand out against all the other animation in the film.  The resulting impact turned out to be one of Walt Disney’s greatest gambits, leading to one of the most memorable climaxes in Disney history.


Beside the British and other major studios making their inroads to animation, his former employees who left and formed the innovative UPA Studios (United Productions of America) had created their own innovations in minimalism and commercial applications of animation had been influencing the industry for many years.  Disney found a way to apply some of that minimalist sense here in a way UPA could never afford to do.  The film has been criticized for lack of character development, though my criticism is that it should have been longer the its 75 minutes, but some of those critics wanted the film to be as Disney-friendly as possible (read comfortable) like all of his previous films, but Walt Disney knew he had to push the boundaries of the artform he helped to create into new directions, no mater how uncharted or different that may play.  Instead, he sowed the seeds for movements like Anime with this film by creating new animated cinematic space here and while continuing to dominate in the departments of visual effects and animation until his passing, Sleeping Beauty is the peak of everything he and his company stood for and (with Pixar) does all over again.  How great it is then that the film has been saved!



The 1080p 2.55 X 1 image has an interesting story behind it.  This full widescreen aspect ratio for the film has never been seen because by the time the film was released despite the fact that it is the widest screen animated feature ever made, plus that original shape of CinemaScope would be cut down to 2.35 X 1 by the time the film arrived in theaters (still with us today all the way to Super 35) and was intended to follow Lady & The Tramp (1955) as the second widescreen animated feature with one major quality upgrade.


Instead of using the original 2-lens CinemaScope system, Disney would use the mirror/prism Delrama system (which does not have the distortion inherent in usual anamorphic lenses) to squeeze the animation images on larger frames of 35mm film similar to VistaVision.  The combination was Technirama, invented by Technicolor labs, a close ally of Disney.  When the film started, it would come out in 2.55 X 1 35mm prints only, but as 35mm was shortened, the labs found a way to produce 70mm prints and Beauty not only became the first Technirama film to have 70mm prints, but became the first ever 70mm animated film by default.


After much research, the restoration team at Disney decided that 2.55 was the original aspect ratio and it is a Blu-ray exclusive, while the bonus DVD here and all previous widescreen versions are just 2.35 X 1.  It is had to confirm how many if any 2.55 X 1 35mm prints were made in 1959 as hat aspect ratio for CinemaScope was finished via the need to add an optical soundtrack to prints, but it is ironic that clearer, sharper 70mm copies had even less cel information.  A new archival print was reportedly struck in 1997, the first year of the three-strip dye-transfer Technicolor revival that lasted until 2001, but it is unknown as of this posting if it was such a print or if it was 2.55 X 1.


In the case animated features done in three-strip dye-transfer Technicolor prints at the time, especially by Disney, used the successive shot process (that Disney himself helped to innovate) where you prepare the cel which is filmed a few frames at a time in any case.  For three-strip, instead of having a camera running the three black and white color-coded strips at the same time for live action, the camera would take a few frames of each cel in the three different basic colors one behind the other, then the cel would be altered, and the process would be repeated.  Disney would use this process for all their animated features until Robin Hood in 1973.


For this restoration, there is a digital version, sort of.  They have taken the original camera materials (fragile as they may be) and slowly put it through a computer at 4K digital resolution, recreating the film in its entirety and at the original aspect ratio for the first time in 50 years.  The result is a very impressive transfer with very few flaws and since the Disney people had to paint the cels to be like real Technicolor, the results are very impressive with little to hold it back.  The only issues diehard fans of the film and the dye-transfer process will rightly argue is that there is some slight motion blur here and as good as the digital is, it cannot compete with the full color range and beauty of a real three-strip print.  The good news is, whenever Technicolor revives the dye-transfer process, this film will be ready to go.


The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (MA 48 kHz/24-bit) lossless track is good for its age, derived from the original three-track original soundmaster recordings, all of which were brought into the digital realm then worked on from there.  The music sounds good and the sound elements are more detailed and articulate than ever, showing just how ahead of his time Disney was.  However, this still shows its age and like most films prior to the mid-1970s, the multi-track sound was restricted to being behind the screen.  The fun with that here is the travelling dialogue and sound effects you get through the film.  Between the sound and picture innovations here, Disney was determined to stay ahead of every studio not just in Hollywood, but in animation and this would be the peak of those efforts.  Disney remained king for years to follow and the studio is still the top today for animation, simply because he was not only never afraid to embrace new technology, but was willing to take it places with ambition and enthusiasm rarely matched in all of cinema history.  Sleeping Beauty was the equivalent of him reaching the moon and that Magic Kingdom flag planted continues to fly high.  When you see this film on Blu-ray, you’ll see why.


Extras are many, including all the DVD extras as reviewed elsewhere on this site.  The Blu-ray even includes a single bonus DVD, as well as BD Live features, never before seen alternate opening, sharp new feature length audio commentary by John Lassiter, all-new Cine-Explore Experience, all-new Maleficent’s Challenge Game, all-new Dragon Encounter Audio Sensory Experience and a colorful paperboard sleeve that the Blu-ray case is inserted into.


If only more cinema classics received this kind of treatment, but Disney cares to treat their prized catalog like this and have set a new high industry standard for others to follow, especially in a rich new format like Blu-ray.  Let’s hope they repeat this with their other animated classics.  In the meantime, Sleeping Beauty is a must-own Blu-ray and one of the top back catalog titles in the format for many years to come.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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