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The film begins with the image of a book of fairy tales opening and ends with the image of the book closing. Voice-over narration is heard intermittently throughout the picture. According to contemporary studio press materials, Walt Disney originally considered making an animated version of the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty" in 1950, and in 1953 went into full production but was soon delayed due to the studio's efforts to develop the Disneyland theme park, television programs and live-action feature films. Disney challenged his artists to make the film look unique and as high-quality as possible, necessitating years of continuous work.
Although the onscreen credits read "From the Charles Perrault version of Sleeping Beauty," some reviews, as well as the DVD edition of the film, acknowledge the early nineteenth century, Grimm Brothers version of "Sleeping Beauty" as a source for the story. Disney studio press materials note that numerous story sessions resulted in a new take on the Perrault legend, including the use of three fairies instead of seven, and the renaming of the villain from "Uglyane" to "Maleficent." The film's music was based on the Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet The Sleeping Beauty, which was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1890. Although an August 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Jack Lawrence was entering his fifteenth week of work on the film's score, only George Bruns is credited onscreen as music adapter.
The following information was included in studio press materials and in the extra materials on the film's 2003 special edition DVD release: The production utilized 300 artists and roughly one million drawings before its completion. Although Eyvind Earle's opening credit reads "Color styling," he provided the entire overall design and artistic concept for the animation of Sleeping Beauty. Earle (1916-2000) began his career as a painter, became a Disney background artist in 1951 and went on to become a modernist painter noted for developing the style of "designed realism." Disney appeared in a promotional short for Sleeping Beauty in which he termed its animation "the art of painting in lifelike motion." Earle consulted many ancient artworks, including medieval paintings and architecture, gothic art and Persian tapestries, to create the stylized, modernist background and character design, which went on to inspire many animation artists.
Press materials specify which artists were responsible for each part of the film, as follows: Marc Davis created and animated both "Aurora" and Maleficient. He conceptualized Maleficent's design as containing the goat horns of a devil figure, a bat-wing-like collar and a robe that evokes both flames and reptilian scales. Wolfgang Reitherman directed the prince vs. dragon duel, which was animated by Eric Cleworth. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston animated the three fairies, while Milt Kahl crafted "Prince Phillip."
As with previous animated Disney features, some scenes were first photographed using live-action models, which the artists used to create their sketches. Helene Stanley, who had earlier served as the model for "Cinderella," acted as a live-action model for Princess Aurora; Ed Kemmer was Prince Phillip's model; Jane Fowler and Eleanor Audley modeled Maleficent; and Spring Byington, Frances Bavier and Madge Blake provided modeling for the fairies. Verna Felton, who provided the voice of "Flora," was also the voice of such Disney characters as "Lady," "Thumper's mother" and Cinderella's fairy godmother. Although studio press materials referred to Sleeping Beauty as Mary Costa's feature-film debut, she first appeared in the 1953 RKO picture Marry Me Again. The film marked the last feature film appearance of long-time character actor and silent star Taylor Holmes, who died on 30 September 1959.
Sleeping Beauty marked the first animated feature to be shot in Technirama 70mm, a technique that exposes images onto double 35mm frames, which are then processed on a 70mm print. As noted in the Variety review, the film was printed on special printer lenses developed for Disney by Panavision. The format, which allows the film to move horizontally through the camera instead of vertically and provides a greater range of vision, required the artists to move the characters through a large field of action via intricate mathematical calculations, and to create new color schemes.
According to press materials, the film took six years to complete, at a cost of $6 million. On April 30, 1958, the Disneyland television program broadcast a promotion for the film consisting of a short entitled "An Adventure in Art." A November 1958 Los Angeles Times article conjectured that the "prohibitive cost" might make it the last animated fairytale feature ever produced, and, in fact, the film did not recoup its cost in its first domestic release. It was re-released several times, however, including in 1971 and 1979, and an October 1979 Daily Variety article noted that that year's re-release was expected to bring in $5 million, raising the total profits to $10 million. Upon the initial release of Sleeping Beauty, reviews were very favorable, although Bosley Crowther of New York Times remarked that the film was strikingly similar to Disney's 1938 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40). Crowther later wrote an article (New York Times 22 February 1959) that questioned whether or not the film contained too much frightening violence for children, concluding that the answer was up to the children's parents.
Although a March 1959 ^DV article noted that the president of the Independent Exhibitors and Drive-In Association of New England registered a complaint that the 70mm format limited the exhibition of the film, the reviews stated that the film would first be shown in Technirama but then would be adapted to 35mm CinemaScope screens. The image from the film of Sleeping Beauty's castle was subsequently used as the model for the entrance to Fantasyland in the Disney theme parks, and a drawing of the castle was incorporated into one of the company's logos.
A 1903 silent feature produced by Path Frres marked the first of many film and television versions of Sleeping Beauty (see AFI Catalog. Film Beginnings, 1893-1910). The Disney version was first released on home video on October 14, 1986, adding significantly to its earnings. Sleeping Beauty received a nomination for a 1959 Academy Award for Best Music (Scoring Musical Picture), George Bruns. The 2003 DVD release featured a digital restoration of the original film, supervised by Aaron Dem.