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"Sleeping Beauty" Platinum Edition is One Dream of a DVD

by on October 17, 2008

In our modern and cynical times, is there any room for a product of a simpler era like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty? Its detractors will say that its lead, Princess Aurora, is the ultimate passive female heroine who has absolutely no influence on her own fate, and that both she and her destined-to-be beau, Prince Phillip, are paper-thin characters who are constantly upstaged by everyone else in the movie. Even at 75 minutes, it seems to have a lot of padding. It’s also not very realistic to assume a happily-ever-after based on one chance meeting in a forest—a plot point that provided tons of mileage in Disney’s recent Enchanted. For that matter, Enchanted gently lampooned a number of elements that got their definitive version in this film, from the cutesy animal companions to the scene-stealing sorceress. Even average movie-goers are more aware and less tolerant of storytelling tropes and clichés, and Sleeping Beauty turns out to have pioneered a surprising number of them.

I bet they did the reflection dance by hand, no camera tricks. Think about that.All of the above is perfectly true, and some of these points were even made at the movie’s debut in 1959. However, none of them matter a bit when you watch Aurora and Phillip dance together for the first time in the forest to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” ballet. It’s a painfully beautiful and romantic scene that weaves together powerful archetypal storytelling and gloriously expressive animation and filmmaking to produce genuine cinematic magic. It’s true that they’re boring characters, but acknowledging the truth of this statement does not lessen the emotional wallop of watching these two falling in love before our eyes, or reduce our marvel at the artistic skill that could perfectly mirror the pair dancing in a reflection in a lake.

Even with all the advances in filmmaking in the fifty years since Sleeping Beauty was made, it remains a distinctive visual feast for discerning animation fans. The look of the film is largely due to Eyvind Earle, credited as the color stylist but really the visual designer of the entire film. He combined medieval art and the space-age sensibilities of the time to create a wonderfully exaggerated and impressionistic aesthetic sense that informs everything from the character designs to the architecture to the gloriously textured and unreal forest that Princess Aurora grows up in. According to most accounts, it took Disney’s Nine Old Men quite some time to adapt to the new style, which was far less representational and far more stylized than their earlier work in movies like Lady and the Tramp, but you’d never be able to guess that from the final results. The Disney animation studios were really at the top of their game for this movie, especially with Marc Davis’ design and animation of the evil Maleficent, which quickly made her one of Disney’s most unforgettable villains. Add in the Tchaikovsky-inspired soundtrack that’s perfect to the last note and a raft of excellent character actors backing the somewhat flat but oh-so-vocally-talented leads, and you get a classic film in every sense of the word.

The magnificently malevolent MaleficentDisney has been trumpeting the restoration of this movie (check out some of the advance material they’ve released here), and they have good reason to be proud of the results. The 2003 Special Edition DVD had a excellent transfer of the movie, but the Platinum Edition’s restoration gooses the colors, making them a bit brighter and more vibrant without making the image seem garish or over-saturated. Colors also seem more consistent throughout the film, and are especially visible in the reds in Prince Phillip’s outfit or the purple highlights of Maleficent’s gown. Simply put, the movie has never looked better, and looks especially glorious on modern-day TV sets. The new transfer also includes more information on the left and right edges of the screen which has never been available on earlier editions. Its inclusion on this edition invites the question of where this material came from and why it wasn’t included on earlier editions, but the new material isn’t truly essential, mostly adding a bit more beautiful artwork to gawk at and only occasionally affecting what’s on screen.

As with most Disney Platinum Edition DVD sets, Sleeping Beauty comes with a raft of extras. Many of these are duplicated from the 2003 Special Edition DVD, such as the “Grand Canyon” short, the “Peter Tschaikovsky Story” docu-drama film, and the “Four Artists Paint One Tree” short, and all of them get a clean-up and remastering comparable to that on the original film, with noticeable improvement in image quality and clarity as well as true widescreen transfers. Many of the storyboard sequences, character art galleries, trailers and live-action reference footage are carried over from the last release as well. The only special features from the 2003 release that has no counterpart on the Platinum Edition is the short musical reminiscence by Princess Aurora’s voice actress Mary Costa, a brief featurette on the restoration of the movie, and the widescreen to pan-and-scan comparison (but that argument has been long settled, hasn’t it?). The old restoration featurette noted that Sleeping Beauty was the second film to undergo Disney’s digital restoration process, so it’s not as surprising that advances in the intervening years could produce such noticeably better results.

Owl princeThe original commentary track (which spliced together comments by many of the artists who worked on the original film) is replaced with a lively new feature-length commentary track hosted by Disney’s Andreas Deja, Pixar’s John Lasseter, and film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. Their knowledge about the history and art of the movie is matched only by their infectious enthusiasm for it; in the few dead spots in the commentary track, you can practically hear their stunned-into-silence awe at what’s happening on screen. Some of the older comments make their way into the new commentary track, and most of the missing ones seem to be included somewhere in the lengthy 45-minute “making of” documentary that replaces the much shorter, less thorough one that appeared on the Special Edition release. The documentary combines older footage of the Nine Old Men with surviving staffers who worked on the movie (such as veteran animators Don Bluth and Floyd Norman), along with a vast array of animation historians and critics, and the many Disney animators who were inspired or influenced by the film. A pop-up trivia track can also be played over the movie, which does have a few new nuggets of information buried among the fluffy historical tidbits and movie factoids that get repeated many times elsewhere. The obligatory teen singing sensation music video has also been replaced, as Emily Osment’s rendition of “Once Upon a Dream” replaces the version by “hit pop group no secrets,” which it turns out didn’t survive much past the release of the last DVD.

The Platinum Edition also gets a number of brand-new bonus features. Before settling on the Tchaikovsky-inspired soundtrack, Sleeping Beauty was to be a more traditional Disney song-and-dance production, and this DVD includes the older opening sequence along with 3 other deleted songs, all of which are accompanied by surviving storyboards, animatics, and some footage from the completed film. The Platinum Edition also includes a 7-minute movie dedicated to Eyvind Earle that is appropriately worshipful, although it seems to end rather abruptly after detailing his contributions to Sleeping Beauty, even as it notes his successful post-Disney career as an artist. Finally, a 5-minute featurette is dedicated to “Sequence 8,” the scene where Aurora and Phillip dance in the forest, explaining the grueling and difficult production behind the beautiful scene. The Special Edition bonus features were quite good, so it’s quite an achievement that the Platinum Edition bonus features manage to better them in almost every respect.

I know you. I've walked with you once upon a dream.It’s unlikely that Sleeping Beauty would have made it to the screen in its current form at today’s Walt Disney Animation Studios, or any other studio for that matter. Elements like the drunken minstrel in the “Skumps” sequence and Maleficent invoking “all the powers of Hell” just wouldn’t pass muster in an animated kids’ film today. It’s also true that the movie’s adventuresome, daring experiments in style and wild cost overruns wouldn’t be tolerated either, as films get increasingly focus-grouped into safe mediocrity. For that matter, it turns out these things were barely tolerated then—Sleeping Beauty was a hit when it was released, but it still failed to recoup its costs and nearly bankrupted the Disney studios. The painstaking ink-and-paint method may have produced final results of unparalleled beauty, but they did so at an comparably unparalleled cost that couldn’t be sustained. While I also have great affection for the Xerox-process animation that replaced the ink-and-paint process, it is still somewhat sad to acknowledge that Sleeping Beauty was the swan song of an era. History has ultimately given it a well-earned place of honor among the classics of animated filmmaking, and this new Platinum Edition deserves a spot on any animation fan’s shelf based solely on the technical merit of both the film and its presentation. This new release provides a surprising number of compelling reasons to upgrade for those who own the fine 2003 Special Edition release.

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