Unforgettables: Cinematic Milestones #25 – Sleeping Beauty (1959)

by - February 22nd, 2024 - Features


Getting lost and making forever memories, once upon a dream with Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the January 26, 2024 edition of the Seattle Gay News.

I saw Walt Disney‘s 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty for the first time during its 1979 theatrical rerelease, and I was unsurprisingly blown away. This sweeping animated epic held me spellbound from its jubilant opening frame all the way to its thrillingly fiery conclusion. Like countless kids (and adults) before me, as soon as it was over, all I wanted to do was watch it again that second — and that’s exactly what my mother and I did.

Sleeping Beauty (1959) | PHOTO: Walt Disney Pictures

But there’s more to this forever memory than watching an all-time great. My family had moved from one side of Washington State to the other a year prior, leaving the small coastal logging community of Aberdeen for the desolate urban wilds of Spokane. I was too young to understand how big a deal this was. I only saw it as an adventure, and it was one that, even as a quiet kindergartner, I was fully determined to make the most out of.

As part of that, and as we were still investigating the city, my mother purposefully chose a theater miles away from home that we’d never been to before. To get there, we left well ahead of time and did a variation on a “penny walk”: at every red light, we flipped a coin to determine whether we’d go left or right and then see if we could figure out where we were without getting lost.

We were comically unsuccessful. We didn’t just get lost; we got so hopelessly turned around that my mother worried she’d have to find a pay phone to call my dad so he could help us figure out how to get back home.

Somehow, we stumbled into a lonely café that was nothing more than a proverbial hole-in-the-wall. It was run by a gigantic white-bearded man I was absolutely certain was a vacationing Santa Claus. With a hearty laugh (and a free bowl of vanilla ice cream smothered in chocolate sauce), not only did he give us pinpoint directions to the theater, but he also outlined on a city map the route we’d need to take to get back home.

Why is this important? Sleeping Beauty is a masterpiece. In my opinion, it’s not just the best animated film to ever come out of Walt Disney Studios, but it is also the finest animated motion picture I’ve ever seen, period. But as dazzling as it is, it is the memories I associate with seeing it that first time that elevates Sleeping Beauty to a level it may not have ascended to without them. The experience of traveling to watch it is just as important to me, and I do not think any of that can be taken for granted.

Sleeping Beauty (1959) | PHOTO: Walt Disney Pictures

Don’t get me wrong. As I’ve gotten older and my viewing palate has expanded to tackle cinematic wonders from all over the globe and to eras going back over a century, I analyze this marvelous adaptation of the Charles Perrault fairy tale classic through far different eyes than the ones I utilized as a five-year-old. There’s so much to talk about — frankly too much for a short anniversary recollection piece such as this one.

I’m still going to give it my best shot. Sleeping Beauty was the most expensive animated film ever made at the time (a reported $6 million) and it took almost a decade to complete. Its impressionistic, pre-Renaissance style (heavily influenced by medieval tapestries that were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the early 1950s) was unlike anything the animators at the studio had ever attempted. Legendary Disney animator Eyvind Earle supervised an artistic direction for the production, which remains one of the most imaginative and influential ever conceived.

But there’s more. The confidently assured storytelling is brisk, creative, emotionally endearing, and — dare I say it? — downright magical. The comedy works on multiple levels, so viewers of all ages giggle as one. The eye-popping set pieces, most notably the sorceress Maleficent’s iconic transformation into a hellacious, fire-breathing dragon, are burned into the collective psyches of viewers going back over six decades. Using Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s “Sleeping Beauty Ballet” as the fantasy adventure’s musical foundation was a bona fide stroke of genius.

Speaking of Maleficent, the evil fairy is the villain to end all Disney villains. As despicably wonderful as many of them have been, none compare to her. Brilliantly brought to life by actor Eleanor Audley (who also memorably voiced Lady Tremaine in Cinderella and was the woman behind Madame Leota in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction), this is as chilling a depiction of pure, unadulterated vengeful wickedness that has ever seen the light of day.

Sleeping Beauty (1959) | PHOTO: Walt Disney Pictures

While all of this is noteworthy, it’s the bizarre trek my mother and I went on to see Sleeping Beauty way back in 1979 that brings a teary smile to my face. Even at that young age, I still saw pieces of myself in the film. I could even foresee snapshots of who I aspired to be at some vague, unknowable point in the future.

But that my mom and I were there together, my head tucked firmly against her shoulder, both of us oohing and ahhing in unison — I hold onto all of that. Art is more than its own thing disconnected from the experience of viewing, reading, or listening to it. What makes any of it stand the test of time are the individualized pieces of ourselves we almost unknowingly attach to it as we journey through life. That is what makes it timeless. That is what makes all of it unforgettable.

Celebrating its 65th anniversary, Sleeping Beauty is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and can be purchased digitally on multiple platforms. It is currently streaming on Disney+.

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