Disney has done
a respectable job over the years with their classics
being restored and released on DVD. With few exceptions,
they've gone in and let the films retain their original
colors, beauty, film grain and luster. Although it is
true that Disney, like many studios, has remixed
original mono soundtracks into 5.1 surround sound,
they've at least done the "right thing" and put the
original mono soundtrack option on the DVD. Disney has
done some overly digitized clean-up on "Snow White and
the Seven Dwarfs" and "Cinderella," which left those
films with an unnatural and sterile appearance. Overall,
they've been pretty consistent in letting the films
maintain their original "flaws." A speck of grain or a
speck of dust never turned off an audience from enjoying
a Disney classic.
"Sleeping Beauty" is again available on DVD and Blu-ray. This review is on the DVD.
"Sleeping Beauty" has been a perennial classic in the Disney line up for many years after its original release in 1959. Not as much adored by audiences as some of Disney's other fairy tales with warmer lead characters and heart, "Sleeping Beauty" is nonetheless an entertaining and visually breathtaking film. It was a box office disappointment in 1959, but through re-releases in theaters up until 1986, and then video and occasional revival screenings during the 1990s and 2000s, the film has made money. It's now regarded by many animation and film historians as a breathtaking achievement, which is positive criticism that the film didn't really receive in 1959.
When the film was restored beautifully in 1996, a 70mm print was struck and it was one of the most gorgeous films these eyes have ever seen. That particular restoration was painstakingly accurate. The image quality was in-line with the Technirama process in which it was shot in. The sharpness, the depth of the image, the color, the aspect ratio for the 70mm print was lovingly rendered by the restoration team headed by Harrison Ellenshaw. It was, in my opinion, the correct way to do a restoration. The film wasn't tweaked to today's "modern thinking" or "If Walt had this digital technology, this is what he would've done!" No. It was done with today's technology (Kodak's Cinesite) with respect for the original artists and their intent.
So why on Earth would Disney decide to re-restore "Sleeping Beauty," and in the process, screw up its original composition and soundtrack? Wasn't the 1996 restoration perfect? I thought it was.
Beauty Over The Years
It's a overused term, but there's no other term I can think of when it comes to this 2008 restoration. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The restoration team behind this new "enhanced" and "like you've never seen it before" version took it upon themselves to re-compose how the film was originally shot. They tinkered with the colors of the film (which is very noticeable in the opening title). The team re-mixed the soundtrack and it doesn't sound as good as it did in the 1996 restoration. In the most simplest terms for non-geeky people, this 50th anniversary version of "Sleeping Beauty" isn't the version that's been seen (if shown properly) for almost 50 years.
Please understand that I've admired most of the work that the current Disney restoration team has done in the past. Most of their work has kept the natural beauty of films like "Lady and the Tramp" honest and true. But this "Sleeping Beauty" restoration has me stumped. I've loved this film since I saw it for the first time during a re-release in 1986, and to see it restored in any other way than its original form is wrong.
The film has either been shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio on 35mm prints (and I believe early versions of the film on LaserDisc.) The way the film was originally meant to be shown, and advertised, was in 70mm with a 2.21:1 aspect ratio. It was advertised as "Super Technirama 70." It was never meant for the ultra-wide 2.55:1 aspect ratio that is used in its current "restoration." The 2.55:1 aspect ratio was used for CinemaScope, which predated Technirama. CinemaScope used that aspect ratio for a few years since its official public unveiling on 1953's "The Robe." CinemaScope went to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio around 1955. Technirama was unveiled in 1956 with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio on 35mm prints, which I would imagine matched the then current aspect ratio for most 35mm widescreen movies made in CinemaScope. On 70mm prints, as mentioned earlier, the aspect ratio was 2.21:1, and "Super Technirama 70" was first used on Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" in 1959. Technirama never had a 2.55:1 aspect ratio that I'm aware of. The widest aspect ratio a film could be shot in Technirama was 2.25:1. I invite readers to click http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/lobby.htm to check out the various film formats. It's easy to understand and Martin Hart has done a wonderful job in explaining formats. I also recommend his other page on aspect ratios, http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/cinemascope_oar.htm. I don't know how much more simpler understanding aspect ratios can be.
For all of its story weaknesses and a lack of heart, "Sleeping Beauty" is truly one of the most visually impressive films from the 1950s. This is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen in 70mm to really appreciate its beautiful animation and backgrounds. This is a detailed and multi-dimensional looking film on the big screen. No video format will give a viewer the same impression. The visual composition and staging of the film was brilliantly used in the Technirama format. The action flows across the screen with ease. The beauty of Technirama, especially in the Super Technirama 70 prints, was that the frame (aspect ratio) was still wide, but pleasing to the eye. In addition, the restored 70mm print from 1996 had great color and depth that I'd never seen before in this film.
In 2003, Disney released "Sleeping Beauty" on DVD, proclaiming that it looked better than it did in theaters. I laughed, because the movie looks better on a big screen. Nonetheless, Disney did an impressive job on that DVD release. By the looks of it, they used the 1996 restoration's visual and sound elements and used the 2.21:1 aspect ratio that would've been seen on 70mm prints. Picture and sound quality were very good for DVD. My only complaint at the time was that Disney also included a pan-and-scan version of the film.
Restoration - Let's Try It Our Way
For the 2008 re-issue, the restoration team decided to "reveal" more of the artwork that was supposedly available during the production of "Sleeping Beauty." Apparently there was a bit of extra space around the original backgrounds that wasn't used during the production. They've essentially re-shot the film to reflect a super wide CinemaScope aspect ratio, which had nothing to do with the production's use of Technirama. From what I understand, by 1955 most films shot in CinemaScope were framed for 2.35:1. Technirama, in which "Sleeping Beauty" was filmed, wasn't around in 1955. It is true that Disney originally was going to shoot the film in CinemaScope, but at some point in time during its long production history, it was decided to go with a more elaborate and ultimately sharper image quality by using the Technirama format. Roadshow presentations, in which movies were usually filmed in a big film format and presented in select theatres, were big in the 1950s. Disney probably felt it was necessary to capitalize on that craze, and what better film than "Sleeping Beauty" to show off a new film format like Super Technirama 70?
It was Disney's second animated feature foray into the widescreen format after "Lady and the Tramp" (1955). "Lady" movie was filmed in CinemaScope and apparently was composed and shot in the 2.55:1 aspect ratio. "Sleeping Beauty" was not shot in that format or aspect ratio, so why would the restoration team backtrack to a film format that wasn't going to be used on it anyway? The result of this new thinking has changed how the original film feels on an emotional level. The framing of "Sleeping Beauty" is different. The staging is now different. The film feels claustrophobic. The action doesn't "breathe" on the screen. The characters seem like they're trapped in a letterbox and can't get out.
The soundtrack has been re-worked for 7.1 surround sound. The original mix of "Sleeping Beauty" was never sonically spectacular. The sound quality itself, especially on the dialogue, was tinny and not very dynamic. I'm not sure exactly when the original voice recordings and sound effects were done, but they weren't of the same caliber as Disney's other films of the era. Disney's sound department was usually very good with their sound mixes.
The 1996 restoration had a three-channel mix, even though the 70mm prints could contain six tracks of audio. Left, center and right channels were used on that 1996 mix, and I'm positive that mix followed the original recording's audio stems. The 1996 sound mix was perfectly suited and respectful to the original mix.
Disney has usually done a smash up job on their sound mixes on the old classics. It's a bit odd that old films like "Bambi" have surround sound, but at least Disney has kept the original mono mix on the DVD as an option. The original mix is available here, but I'm not fond of the new remix. Oddly enough, the short "Grand Canyon" is available on this DVD and it sounds better than "Sleeping Beauty." Its soundstage and natural stereophonic sound is warmer and more pleasing to listen to.
The 2008 restoration takes a different track. Other than the redundant use of 7.1 surround sound, the soundtrack sounds like it's been remixed and/or re-equalized. The sound quality, mostly on the dialogue and sound effects, now sounds flat and uninvolving. It's as if the sound was re-engineered to correct whatever flaws it had, and now the sound is lifeless. If the original recording was weak, there is no amount of digital tweaking that will make it sound better.
An Underrated Classic
"Sleeping Beauty" isn't in the same league as some of Disney's other classics like "Bambi," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," or "Cinderella." It is, though, a fast paced and decently made film that like many of the big widescreen epics of the 1950s, plays better on a big screen.
The story revolves around Princess Aurora (Mary Costa) and how the evil witch Maleficent (Eleanor Audley) has cast a spell on her that can only be broken by love's first kiss. Aurora is voiced and sung by Costa and she's excellent in the role. Walt had a knack for picking great voice talent. Unfortunately, Aurora is rather bland as a character. As she's written, Aurora really doesn't have a wish like other Disney princesses have. She pretty much wanders around the forest singing songs and waits for her prince to come. The audience doesn't care for her plight like they do with Snow White or Cinderella. We don't feel a lot of danger when Maleficent entices her to prick her finger on a spinning wheel, nor do we really miss her when she's slumbering. The strongest and most sympathetic characters are Flora, Fauna & Merryweather. The fairies add humor and warmth to the film, where Aurora is rather cold. It's not to say she's not appealing. She's beautifully drawn and animated and her songs are memorable. She's just not very interesting on the whole.
The strongest character in the film is Maleficent. Animator Marc Davis did a splendid job on creating a truly graceful and frightening figure. Her elegant yellow eyes and purple and black clothes make for an intriguing villain. She's voiced well by Eleanor Audley. Unlike Aurora, she's hell-bent on getting what she wants. Maleficent is an outcast in the kingdom in which Aurora's parents rule and will stop at nothing to keep the young princess in a deep, deep sleep. Add a bit of jealously over the princess's beauty, Maleficent is a downright cruel character. But we love her anyway.
The story of Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" is disjointed and isn't strong like many of its other fairy tales. I wonder if the production took so long due to story issues and the fact that the Disney studio was branching out in the 1950s. This was an extraordinary growth period in the company's history with Disneyland, the Disney television shows, feature live action films, animated features and shorts occurring at the same time. The movie is still enjoyable. The decision to utilize artist Eyvind Earle's magnificent detailed style adds so much depth and detail to the frame. The entire production uses a blend of Medieval artistic style and late-50s modernistic design. Much of the film's look is angular with sharp lines and the lack softness may have turned off many of Disney's animation fans. But looking at the film today, it's easy to admire the risks the studio took.
The film has tested time. Disney used to re-release the film in theaters and it's been very successful on home video. This latest incarnation doesn't, in my opinion, do the film proper justice. It's meant to be seen with an aspect ratio 2.21:1 in 70mm. That's the way it was intended to be seen and experienced.
Technical Technirama Note
As mentioned earlier, "Sleeping Beauty" was filmed in Technirama. Walt Disney and his studio was always looking for the next best technology to help tell its stories. He embraced sound for his early cartoons, color for many of his cartoons, stereophonic sound for "Fantasia" (1940), the widescreen format of CinemaScope for some cartoons and features, and Technirama for "Sleeping Beauty." The film would ultimately be shot in that format and presented in 70mm prints. The Technirama format was actually a very versatile method in which to shoot and present a film. By using a larger negative than standard 35mm film, the original negative could look outstanding. By printing 70mm prints, a film could not only use a larger and brighter screen, but the 70mm print could add prestige to a movie. Hence, the Super Technirama 70 moniker.
Technirama was one of the underrated film processes of the 1950s. Technirama used 35mm film turned horizontally, much like Paramount's VistaVision format. Both formats used eight perforations of 35mm film, thus creating a large negative to shoot. Almost any 35mm you've seen would use film vertically and only four perforations of film.
Technirama went a step further by using an anamorphic lens. This lens would "squeeze" the image, then another anamorphic lens on the projector in a theater would un-squeeze the image into a widescreen composition. With Technirama, Disney and other producers could in turn have the lab print 70mm Six Track magnetic stereophonic prints for special presentations. The result was a sharp and bright image that standard 35mm film couldn't achieve. Standard high quality 35mm prints could also be struck for later engagements of a film for smaller markets and/or wider release. For "Sleeping Beauty," Disney was the first studio to go with the "Super Technirama 70" logo and presentation. Other studios would follow suit.
Special thanks to Click Communications
Photos: © BVHE. All rights reserved.
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