I'm sure I'm not the first to make the observation that the villains of Disney's animated features are often more interesting than their heroes (and heroines). Think Cruella de Vil in '101 Dalmatians,' the Wicked Witch of 'Snow White,' or the Beast of 'Beauty and the Beast,' and it's easy to savor all of the cruel wickedness far more than the blandly-vanilla sweetness. Nowhere may this be more true than with 'Sleeping Beauty,' a perfectly fine fable in the Disney canon, but one where its titular Princess Aurora and her romantic melodrama are overshadowed by the vividly drawn supporting characters, and particularly the delightfully-demonic Maleficent. That doesn't make 'Sleeping Beauty' a bad film at all, but it's one where all of the story and character elements are certainly not created equal, and furthermore, take a back seat to Disney's technical artistry.
By now the story of 'Sleeping Beauty' is known by just about anyone who ever had a fairy tale read to them as a child. Based on the first section of Charles Perrault's short story "La Belle au Bois Dormant" (published as part of Perrault's 1697 book "The Tales of My Mother Goose"), it's only fair to Disney to say the source material is slim at best. Culled from a mere four paragraphs from Perrault, the tale is quite straightforward and simplistic. Running a scant 75 minutes, the film oddly short-thrifts its main human characters (who are generic at best). The villain, Maleficent, energizes the film, and even the animal characters seem more, well, animated. The real beauty of 'Beauty,' then, is in the details -- it's supporting characters, its wondrous visual acumen, its memorable songs and its beautifully-rendered animation.
If not exactly a failure as a story, 'Sleeping Beauty' is nonetheless remembered as much, if not more, for its sights and sounds. 'Sleeping Beauty' was produced at a crucial period in American cinema, as television was sweeping the nation and moviegoers were rapidly abandoning the theater seats for the comfort of their couches. Like all of the major studios at the time, Walt Disney was looking for something new to attract its dwindling audiences. 'Sleeping Beauty' was the first Disney feature to adopt many technological advances of the time, including 70mm (dubbed Technirama) and six-track audio. The film is also a widescreen beauty, composed in 2.55:1, and produced in three-strip Technicolor. It is also the last hand-drawn Disney feature to be inked entirely by human hands.
The result is that despite narrative weaknesses there is much to savor in 'Sleeping Beauty.' The film is absolutely and undeniably beautiful -- it's animation is as splendid as any of the unquestionable classics in the Disney pantheon, including 'Snow White,' 'Cinderella' and 'Bambi.' Marking a further creative departure from past Disney features, 'Sleeping Beauty' has a more arch and defined visual style. (Next to the Barbie-like Aurora and angular evil of Maleficent, the plump Snow White seems positively cherubic by comparison.) The color palette, too, is darker and more foreboding. The forest is teeming with menace, thanks to the use of rich, deep purples, green, and reds that are gorgeously realized. The contrast with the far more cheery world of Aurora is also thematically ripe, adding a suggestion of complexity to a story that is greatly in need of depth.
With its action and intensity, 'Sleeping Beauty' is also more aggressive than some previous Disney features. The climactic battle to lift the curse that imprisons the slumbering Aurora, between Prince Philip and a dragon-ized Maleficent, is quite suspenseful and visceral, enough that I'm sure it has scared the bejesuses out of many small children over the years. The reign of misery that Maleficent and her shadow self/raven Diablo cast upon the kingdom is also no child's play. There is a heft to the darkness in 'Sleeping Beauty' that further helps to off-set the cliched and conventional aspects of its romantic confections.
There has been some debate among diehard Disney fans as to the studio's choice to bring 'Sleeping Beauty' to Blu-ray as its first Platinum Series high-def release. Though I still enjoy 'Sleeping Beauty,' it's true that it is perhaps not as cohesive and wholly-realized a vision -- in character, story and visuals -- as say 'Snow White' or 'Beauty & the Beast.' But it still ranks as a truly fine achievement for Disney, and easily holds its own as a classic. It's a wholly respectable and welcome launch title for Disney's Platinum line, and judging by how terrific this disc looks and sounds (not to mention the copious extras), there is only better yet to come.
Disney's kick-off Platinum Series Blu-ray title 'Sleeping Beauty' has received a wonderful restoration, with this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode offering a beautiful transfer (it is also -- at last -- framed at 2.55:1, showing more area at the top/bottom and sides of the picture than ever seen before). According to Disney's provided press materials, 'Sleeping Beauty' has undergone a meticulous frame-by-frame clean-up, culled from the original nitrate negative and requiring years to complete. The result is clearly superior to any video (or theatrical, for that matter) presentation seen before. If this is indicative of Disney's future Platinum Series presentations, fans are in for a treat.
The source is just about impeccable, with no traces of dirt or blemishes. Blacks are pure, with little of the print fluctuations that usually plague material of this vintage. Contrast is vibrant but retains a film-like look, and there is no faux-digitization of the image. The originally, already-brilliant Technicolor palette is superior and, in some cases, greatly improved over the previous DVD version. Darker scenes, such as nighttime forest scenes and those with Maleficent boast much cleaner and deeper purples, reds and blues. And thanks to the wonders of digital technology, the often disastrous misalignment of three-plate Technicolor is absent here, so the image is always uniform.
Detail and sharpness also receive a noticeable boost. The image is three-dimensional, with appreciable depth and excellent clarity even in the most detailed shots. Shadow delineation sees a jump over the DVD, such as fine textures of Aurora's clothing or minor details in background plates which are now clearly visible rather than vague mush. It's also no surprise that this is a rock-solid encode, with no apparent edge enhancement or motion artifacts.
Are there nitpicks? A couple. The opening minutes made me a bit nervous, as there was some minor print wavering, but it quickly subsides. There is also the sporadic soft shot throughout, but this minor inconsistency in sharpness appears more indicative of the source than a fault of the transfer. Such quibbles aside, 'Sleeping Beauty' is a gem.
Going above and beyond the audio usually offered on remasters of classic titles, Disney offers a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track for 'Sleeping Beauty,' in 7.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit). It's an excellent remix, with the studio utilizing newly-discovered 35mm 3-track recordings. Certainly, 'Sleeping Beauty' has never sounded better. (Also offered is an English Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround mix, plus English Closed Captioning. I could find no foreign language dubs or dedicated subtitle options.)
'Sleeping Beauty' has been expanded nicely to 7.1. The rear soundstage is nice and full, with the original sound stems utilized to create truly discrete effects that pan smoothly between channels. I did not notice any great exploitation of the two extra surround channels, but certainly the surrounds are full and alive with sound. Minor ambiance is also nicely sustained, particularly during the outdoor and action-y moments. Clarity and depth to dynamic range is full-bodied, with the elements betraying their nearly 50-year age. Low bass is also deep and tight, but not overpowering. The score is also technically impeccable, with a richness I wasn't expecting for an older title.
All that could be considered slightly lacking is dialogue reproduction. Spoken words are no doubt clean and pronounced, but they sometimes sound a tad thin in the high-range, and not as natural as the effects. But no matter. As with the video, Disney has more than earned the Platinum designation with this DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 upgrade.
Disney has pulled out all the stops for its premiere Platinum Blu-ray, and 'Sleeping Beauty' overflows with extras and exclusives. Some material is old, some new, but combined it's a terrific two-disc package. (Video materials have almost all been upgraded to 1080p/i/AVC MPEG-4/MPEG-2, and subtitle options are offered in English, French and Spanish.)
'Sleeping Beauty' may not be one of Disney's absolute best animated features, such as 'Snow White' or 'Beauty & the Beast,' but it remains a classic. Both as story and as animation, this is a pivotal film in the Disney canon and certainly deserves the Platinum Series treatment. The studio has delivered on all fronts, with painstakingly restored video and audio and hours of bonus materials and exclusives. The Blu-ray of 'Sleeping Beauty' is a must-have for any serious fan of Disney animated magic.