‘Sleeping Beauty’ DVD shows gorgeous end to a Disney era

Like the city in which I live, Houston, I’m no traditionalist. I believe in progress, modernity, pushing forward and the future, whether it’s into space or any other endeavor. And that’s why, though I’m a longtime animation fan and adore classic Disney work, I quickly embraced the shift to computer animation, even though it meant the eclipse of hand-drawn efforts. After all, if it works, it works. And nothing has to be done the same way forever. Progress counts. Otherwise, we’d never have graduated to “talkies.”

But that said, I’m heartened to see the immaculate reissue of Disney’s 1959 masterpiece, Sleeping Beauty, on DVD.

This romantic, exciting film pushed the limits as far as Disney could take them in terms of hand-drawn animation for that time. Not only was it lovely and lavish, with a strong  — and dark — fairy tale story, but it also was produced and exhibited in 70mm in theaters, for a superwide 2:55 to 1 aspect ratio.

That’s the way Sleeping Beauty should be seen, and that’s the way it can be seen on Disney’s new two-disc Platinum Edition (and, to be fair, on its original 2003 Special Edition DVD, now out of print, which also offered a full-screen option).

The story, of course, involves lovable royals in a magical kingdom, including the radiant Princess Aurora, whose beloved is Prince Phillip. The wicked Maleficent casts a spell on Aurora which causes her to enter a timeless sleep, from which Phillip must rescue her, with the help of three tiny fairies.

The film has one spectacular battle scene between Phillip and a dragon (Maleficent in monstrous reptilian form). It also has lovely music from Tchaikovsky, no less, and dazzling creativity  for its elaborate, painstaking animation.

Sleeping Beauty is truly a state-of-the-art picture for the end of Disney’s first golden era of animation, soon followed by more modernized films such as 101 Dalmatians. Much of its creation and history you can learn from intriguing making-of materials on Disc 2.

BTW, the commanding voice of Maleficent is by Eleanor Audley, an actress who also was known for many on-screen roles, unlike some voice actors for classic Disney films. In Audley’s case, you may have seen her as the sternly disapproving mother of Edward Albert’s lawyer-turned-farmer character on Green Acres. Often playing a haughty society grand dame, she also appeared in many other sitcoms of the era, from McHale’s Navy, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Dick Van Dyke Show to My Three Sons, Hazel and Mister Ed.

But it was voice work as villainesses that supplied two of her greatest roles. Before Maleficent, Audley voiced the character of the cruel stepmother in Disney’s Cinderella — one of the best Disney’s villains ever (and that’s saying quite a lot).

In short, if classic Disney films scare you — and many of them should — chances are you’ve felt a chill from the imperious, sinister tones of Eleanor Audley’s rich voice. Yes, great animation goes a long way, but great voice talent also makes a huge difference. And until or unless computerized voices are perfected, that’s one artistry which won’t subside in the name of “progress.”

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