'Sleeping Beauty' At 60: How Disney's Beautiful Box Office Failure Changed The Company Forever

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises.)

Think of the major Walt Disney Animation Studios releases from its first 20 years. These films are the foundation of the entire company, titles that children of the 1990s and later know as untouchable classics, formed as much by their quality as by their studio-enforced legacy. Pinocchio. Bambi. Alice in Wonderland. Fantasia. Because these films were re-released in theaters multiple times, and then arrived on home media to become staples of most of our childhoods, it's easy to presume that they were all massive hits initially.

Instead, the opposite is true: each of the aforementioned titles struggled to break even with their budgets, let alone turn profits. Though now they're hits, in the 1940s and 1950s, they only served to make Disney lose money. That financial consideration is worth keeping in mind especially in light of today's 60th anniversary of Sleeping Beauty, one of the studio's most ambitious animated films, one whose aims so exceeded its initial success that the studio nearly gave up on feature animation altogether.

Disney’s Up-and-Down '50s

On its face, there are obvious similarities between Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella; both were inspired by stories from French writer Charles Perrault, both feature willowy blond princesses who are eventually bound to wind up in the arms of a blandly charming prince, and both feature villainesses with the same striking facial features and even the same voice actor. Though the story of the young Princess Aurora, hidden away by her parents due to a fatal curse placed upon her as a baby by the evil Maleficent, is the stuff of fairy-tale legend, what made Sleeping Beauty so remarkable at the time was its animation style and presentation, which both caused the film to stumble initially.

The 1950s began very strong for Disney, especially compared with the 1940s. That decade was one in which the Disney animators worked on package films such as Make Mine Music and Fun and Fancy Free, while also being on the hook for U.S. Army propaganda for the World War II effort. The studio managed to stay afloat without making a ton of big hits, but just barely. When Cinderella opened in 1950, it was a massive box-office hit that served as a reminder that the studio could balance its ambitions with crowd-pleasing stories. The following year brought Alice in Wonderland, which was enough of a dud at the box office that, unlike other films from the studio, it wasn't re-released for nearly 25 years, and only then as a way to capitalize on the popularity of psychedelia. Disney's next two films, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, were both hits, the latter of which became the studio's biggest success since Snow White.

And then things went pear-shaped with Sleeping Beauty, the 1959 release that set the studio back far enough that it took Disney Animation literally 30 years to make another princess-focused film. From a budgetary standpoint, the animation studio was largely able to survive thanks to an animation process that fueled Disney through the 1960s and 1970s, known as xerography. This process, adapted by longtime Disney cast member and technical wizard Ub Iwerks, allowed animators to skip the hand-inking process and place a drawing directly onto an animation cel. Though it was first tested in Sleeping Beauty, the process was used to full effect in the studio's next film, the very popular One Hundred and One Dalmatians. What it primarily did was enable Disney to continue making animated films at a lower budget, because the high-budget days of films like Sleeping Beauty had to end. And Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, and The Rescuers were, for their time, big enough hits that the studio didn't hesitate to press forward beyond its fairy tales.

A Stylized Look

In 2019, it's hard (if not just kind of laughable) to consider the possibility of a Walt Disney Studios that wasn't always a massive, monstrous success. But such were the days in the 1950s; back then, the budget for Sleeping Beauty was a whopping $6 million. Adjusted for inflation, that's just over $52 million, whereas Ralph Breaks the Internet had a reported budget of $175 million. But in 1959, that $6 million budget was more than twice the cost of each of Disney's last three films; more than Alice, Peter Pan, or Lady and the Tramp. Sleeping Beauty was one of several underperforming 1959 films that caused Disney to report a financial loss for the first time in a decade, even as the company expanded further into theme parks with Disneyland's continued success.

All these financial details are disappointing to consider mostly because the bombastic ambition of Sleeping Beauty is still on full display 60 years later. We can only wonder what would have happened if the film had hit big with audiences. Disney's later, more current animated fare isn't lacking in ambition; the studio has vastly improved the types of stories it tells, and how it tells those stories. Sleeping Beauty, which clocks in at just 75 minutes, is tackling an old-fashioned fairy tale and the actual plot is in line with that of Snow White or Cinderella. The comic relief—the three fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather—the prince and princess, and the villainess all occupy roles we might recognize. (And as with Snow White and Cinderella, the comic relief is given more personality and screen time than the eponymous heroine.)

What does work in Sleeping Beauty works so well, and only grows in power over time. The film's animation remains striking and painterly 60 years later, having been heavily inspired by Medieval imagery as well as Art Deco designs. The characters, from the trio of fairies to Aurora and Maleficent, often feel as if they're figures truly superimposed on the lush, colorful, widescreen backgrounds. It's an expanded version of what Disney's multiplane camera accomplished in the 1930s and 1940s, where the filmmakers would move past and through different layers of artwork at different speeds to suggest deeper more dimensional movement. The way that Sleeping Beauty utilizes this unique effect is what makes the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough attraction in Disneyland so fascinating; you walk through various dioramas of scenes from the film, calling to mind the experience of watching it.

Designer Eyvind Earle was instrumental to the way Sleeping Beauty looks, compared to the much more familiar visions evinced in Cinderella and Snow White. It's little wonder that many of the animators on the film, including some of Disney's fabled Nine Old Men and even the director, Clyde Geronimi, grew frustrated with Earle's heavily stylized backgrounds, which set the template for the events happening upon those backgrounds. Geronimi, in later years, argued that it felt as if the backgrounds took precedent over the characters themselves. Coincidentally, Earle, credited for "Color Styling", left Disney a year before the release of Sleeping Beauty, allowing Geronimi the chance to dilute his backgrounds slightly. It's a little wild to consider, then, that Sleeping Beauty represents an even mildly diminished version of what Earle was trying to accomplish because it's remarkable.

A Visual and Aural Feast

Something else that helps Sleeping Beauty stand out, even on an HDTV, is its widescreen presentation. Though Lady and the Tramp was created and presented in CinemaScope — in the mid-1950s, one of the growing crazes in cinema was ultra-widescreen — Sleeping Beauty was the first animated film to be created in Super-Technirama. They don't get trotted out much now, but there are even 70mm prints of Sleeping Beauty that get shown to audiences occasionally. The Blu-ray experience of this film is crisp and colorful, but you can only imagine how gorgeous it must have been on the big screen. Earle's backgrounds, and the general design in each scene from the castle to the forest to Maleficent's lair, are more awe-inspiring to behold in widescreen.

The film's other triumph is in its use of sound and music. In the same vein as the studio's most ambitious animated film ever, Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty is inspired by the ballet of the same name by Peter Tchaikovsky. Composer George Bruns, one of the great musical forces at Disney in the 1950s and 1960s (he wrote the lush and seductive score for The Jungle Book, among other credits), was nominated for an Oscar for his scoring, adapted from the ballet itself. Decades later, it's easy to recall to mind the strains of "Once Upon a Dream", the song that Aurora first sings to herself in the forest on the eve of her 16th birthday before being joined by the dashing Prince Philip. But even the score amidst the film's brief songs is as soaring and epic as the visuals themselves are. (That said, one of the few stumbles is when the two kings, fathers to Aurora and Philip, get together and sing a drinking song called "Skumps," which is just unnecessary.)

Like many animated films made during Disney's lifetime, Sleeping Beauty is sequence-driven, with a sense that these are specific, discrete chapters in a larger story. The sense of this film being pushed forward simply as a set of sequences makes it, in some ways, the apotheosis of the old-school Disney film. Sleeping Beauty was far from the first film to be built around sequences; in a way, package films like Fun and Fancy Free weren't too far a cry from the setpieces of animated classics like Pinocchio and Snow White. Sleeping Beauty is even more aggressively demarcated by section; there's the opening sequence with the fairies and Maleficent giving Aurora their gifts, the sequence with the fairies stumbling about and trying to make a birthday cake; the sequence where Aurora goes into the forest and meets Philip, falling in love; the "Skumps" sequence; the climactic dragon fight; and so on. Character development was, perhaps, less top-of-mind to Disney and his animators than sequence development.

An Elemental Classic

Even with that older style of storytelling, there are truly jaw-dropping moments in Sleeping Beauty, many of them courtesy of one of the studio's most terrifying villains, Maleficent. (The character has since been diluted through the live-action rendering played by Angelina Jolie. Not for nothing, but the best scene in Maleficent is when Jolie's Maleficent curses baby Aurora, and the dialogue basically matches the scene in the 1959 film.) As voiced by Eleanor Audley, the sorceress is an extension of both Lady Tremaine from Cinderella and the Evil Queen in Snow White: an imperious, haughty, sharp-featured character with no shading or complexity aside from her own cruel aims. Maleficent is frightening not because she's a fully dimensionalized character, but because when she shouts to Prince Philip that "shall you deal with me, and all the powers of Hell!" and then turns into a dragon, it's just incredibly scary.

That is the vein Sleeping Beauty taps most of all: elemental senses of fear and joy. There's a dreamlike quality to the entire film, from the way characters speak in fancified tones in one scene, but shift into 1950s vernacular in another scene. Each image, in its own way, feels like something out of your mind as you drift off to slumber. It's a haunting, sometimes unnerving effect you can't find in most Disney movies. When we aren't exulting in the gorgeous animation or music, or embracing love the way Aurora does, we're cowering in fear at Maleficent and her devilish minions. (The shot in which those minions hop and jump maniacally around a fire calls to mind the demons in the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of Fantasia in their orgiastic dance around a village at nighttime.) But Sleeping Beauty wasn't appreciated in 1959, either by critics or audiences — while the film is now a wildly successful venture for Disney, that's only thanks to constant re-releases in theaters and eventual VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray releases for the home audience.

Because of the film's relative underperformance at the box office, Disney Animation shifted its strategy for three decades. It's not just that they didn't make a princess film again until The Little Mermaid; it's that they didn't have a single female protagonist for three decades. (While characters like Miss Bianca in The Rescuers and Perdita in One Hundred and One Dalmatians exist, they co-exist next to male characters, when there weren't male protagonists in films like The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, and The Fox and the Hound.) Once Disney found its voice again in the Renaissance of the 1990s, the new generation of animators were more capable at telling overall stories, as opposed to sequences that string together to make a feature. But the ambition of Sleeping Beauty was, in its way, a last gasp of Disney Animation aiming to marry highbrow and lowbrow styles in one.