Disney films of the 1940s such as Bambi (1942) and Fantasia (1940) achieved dazzling artistic heights through Disneys willingness to experiment with the animated form and see just where they could take things to. The Disney films of the 1950s like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty though seem made with much more of a self-conscious artiness, the sense that they are trying to impress for their own sake. Sleeping Beauty, for example, was made for a then phenomenal $6 million and in the then new, fashionable widescreen format one that Disney called Technorama 70. Sleeping Beauty was the better part of the decade in the planning and is made with painstaking effort the accompanying video collectors documentary shows how each bush and tree in the forest were handbrushed in extraordinary detail. Cinderella felt epic but empty but with Sleeping Beauty, Disney comes close to pulling it off near flawlessly.
The lavishness of the artwork is dazzling. All angular stretched lines the design team were influenced by Mediaeval artwork. Maleficents initial appearance all in flame is excellent and there are some lovely moments such as the three fairies dance throughout the kingdom putting everybody to sleep. However, what makes the film is its enthralling climax the princes escape from the castle with the fairies aiding him by turning the goons arrows to flowers, their boiling oil to rainbows and falling rocks to bubbles, to an immensely exciting finale with the prince taking on Maleficent who has transformed herself into a dragon. That in comparison to this the subsequent kiss of true love that awakes Aurora is a perfunctory affair is almost a criticism that one feels a spoilsport for making. The reworking of Tchaikovskys Sleeping Beauty ballet makes for one of the finest scores of any Disney film.
Comparison between Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty is not inapt they are both made with the same self-conscious artistic flourishes, they are both adaptations of Charles Perrault fairy-tales. Sleeping Beauty works better for the obvious reason than that it is dramatically exciting and Sleeping Beauty is a character with some depth, whereas Cinderella is not. Sleeping Beauty is not perfect she needs more depth as a character and the three good fairies are like dotty aunts who are played up to a warm fuzzy comic extreme that does get to be a little too much.
The film also makes some notable changes to the original fairy-tale. The prince is a character who is present from the start, not just at the end; it is the fairies rather than the curse that puts the kingdom to sleep. Most noticeably, the film concentrates the entire fairy-tale into the space of a single day rather than a hundred years the fairies put the kingdom to sleep with the exception of the prince who then rushes back to save Sleeping Beauty. The prince does get to fight his way through a forest of thorns to get to Sleeping Beauty but this is not something that has grown up during her century-long sleep but merely something that Maleficent has magically thrown up to impede his path. Nor is the spinning wheel relevant here it was a McGuffin the fairy-tale used to carry the curse but it seems even more so here through its relatively low emphasis.
Sleeping Beauty was later spoofed in Disneys Enchanted (2007).