The most ambitious animated film of Walt Disney’s lifetime, Sleeping Beauty was a big-budget return to the fairy tale format of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. Three years in the making (and nine in the planning), the film cost a then-unheard-of $6 million to produce, shot in a new 70mm “Technirama 70” process. The animation was a blend of Medieval art with more realistic human figures, for which purpose Disney commissioned a cast of models to film a live-action point of reference for his animators. The result was a visually stunning retelling of the familiar story.
The sleeping beauty of the title comes into this world as a baby named Aurora, first and only daughter of King Stefan and his Queen. The film opens with a celebration in honor of the girl’s birth, but the party turns sour when an uninvited guest shows up. The wicked fairy Maleficent, angry at her snubbing, curses the girl to prick her finger on a spinning wheel needle and die on her sixteenth birthday.
A trio of good fairies-Flora, Fauna and Merryweather-weaken the spell so that the girl will merely fall into a deep sleep, to be awakened by a kiss from her betrothed, Prince Phillip. The king puts his daughter into the good fairies’ care, and the trio raises the wee heir as a normal country girl named Briar Rose. The girl grows to maturity in a secluded forest cottage, but near her sixteenth birthday, she runs into Prince Phillip. Neither knows the other’s true identity, but the spark of romance is there.
The fairies prepare a cake and dress for Briar Rose’s sixteenth birthday, but Maleficent’s pet raven spots the disguised girl and comes crowing to his evil mistress. Briar Rose/Aurora is beckoned to her parents’ castle, where she pricks her finger on the last spinning wheel left in the kingdom and falls asleep. The good fairies put the entire kingdom under a sleeping spell until she can be awakened, but Maleficent takes Phillip prisoner in her dark castle to ensure that will never happen.
The stunning animation was matched by an Oscar-winning score from George Bruns, who adapted parts of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet. An initial disappointment in theaters, the movie spelled the temporary end of fairy tales at Disney, giving way to rowdy comedies like 101 Dalmatians two years later. But over time, Sleeping Beauty has become one of Disney’s most praised works, a visual stunner that continues to charm and terrify more than forty years after its release.