This past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing a 70mm projection of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (dir. Clyde Geronomi, 1959) at the Somerville Theatre, which has been knocking out of the park lately with some astonishing repertory programming. (Sleeping Beauty is part of a week’s worth of 70mm screenings that also includes The Ten Commandments, West Side Story, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The screening I attended was nearly packed full, and if audiences in 1959 were reportedly underwhelmed by the film (which has never enjoyed the popularity of Snow White, Pinocchio, or Cinderella) it played extremely well to this one: hearty laughter at even the corniest of its gags, gasps of surprise from adults, cries of terror from children, and vigorous applause when the lights came up. Whatever charges one wants to level at the Disney empire and everything it represents, the films still know how to hold a room, entertainment-wise.
My love for Sleeping Beauty, which remains my personal favorite of the Disney classics, is partly nostalgic. Watching it as a child, I was mesmerized by Princess Aurora, the fairies, and especially Maleficent, whose scenes both terrified and fascinated me (a few notes of her musical motif alone were enough to send me into a panic). I didn’t care that, seen on VHS in muddy pan-and-scan, the film had effectively been drained of much of its visual luster. I was held captive by the basic drama of the fairy tale. My appreciation for the film deepened immensely when I rediscovered it on DVD as a college student in 2003—though “rediscovered” is perhaps not the right word, since I was seeing the film in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 2.55:1 for the first time.
I’ve come to love Sleeping Beauty just as much, if not more, as an aesthetic object than as a nostalgic one; it seems to me one of the most ravishing pieces of animation in cinema. The mastermind behind its striking visual style, Eyvind Earle, famously sought inspiration in medieval tapestries and illuminated manuscripts, but it’s his interpretation of them through the modernism of the 1950s that gives the film its beautiful angularity. The use of vibrant colors and abstract visual effects in the magic-spell sequences, meanwhile, feels borderline psychedelic. It’s a formalist’s dream of a movie: mannered, painstakingly designed, completely sui generis within the Disney canon and within animated film generally. Watching the climactic battle between Prince Philip and Maleficent, you can see why Sergei Eisenstein so admired Disney’s work—this sequence alone is a masterpiece of editing, composition, music, and camera movement. But my favorite shot in the film is the one in which the figures of a dancing Philip and Aurora are reflected in the surface of a stream. Here, as throughout the rest of the film, Disney and his animators succeeded in their goal of making Sleeping Beauty a moving illustration.