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The marquee at The El Capitan Theatre for Disney's Sleeping Beauty screening and panel discussion
Sleeping Beauty at the El Capitan Theatre
Report from the Panel Discussion & Screening in Hollywood

By JP Chism

Many anecdotes were revealed at the 50th Anniversary premiere of Sleeping Beauty at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. Prefaced with a panel discussion, the film was shown for the first time in its original, Walt-approved aspect ratio and with an enhanced soundtrack presented exactly in its original form.

The film itself looked absolutely gorgeous. Disney films are normally visual feasts, but Sleeping Beauty has always had that special something -- that something's name was Eyvind Earle.

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Much praise was given to Earle throughout the panel. His style was the film's style and all the characters were designed to blend into his unique look.

In viewing the film for the first time as an adult, certain elements stand out. The writing is very crisp, especially for the three good fairies. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather are such well-drawn characters that we understand their relationships and history instantly. Little touches -- like when Fauna conjures tea and two teacups, Merryweather just conjures a third without pausing -- really show the care and character these films used to receive.

However, one thing has always struck me as odd about Sleeping Beauty, and that's the much underwritten Briar Rose. She only speaks in three or four scenes, and sings two songs. Granted, they are beautiful songs, but the character is almost a non-entity. I never really enjoyed Mary Costa's vocal performance, but now that I understand the context behind it I understand and enjoy it much more.

Also, Briar Rose is only sixteen in the film, so her dialogue, crying fits and subsequent silent martyrdom are more appropriate than I realized. But once she finds out the truth about her life, she never speaks another word the rest of the film! Just tears. I can't decide if this is an example of underwriting, or just the filmmakers letting the spectacle tell the story. Her reunion with her parents doesn't carry the weight it should when no one speaks to each other, and we never know how she really feels at discovering she's a princess.

So, what's special about this 50th Anniversary release? For one, this is the first time the film is available in the aspect ratio Walt Disney approved, 2:55:1. Second, the image is pristine and all thumbprints have been removed.
The curtain is lifted for a dramatic look at the El Capitan Theatre's speakers.
The actual production frames for Sleeping Beauty are about the size of placemats and as such show well defined fingerprints on the edges where they were handled. Watching the old DVD transfer looks like VHS compared to the new transfer. If this is what all animated films look like on Blu-ray, I'd buy a player today if it were affordable.

During the presentation, we were treated to a "before-and-after" clip showing the alterations. Since the edges of the production frames are usually clipped anyway, and the smudges aren't visible outside of high-definition, it's an improvement the average consumer won't notice. What they will notice, however, is the improved soundtrack. The screen at the El Capitan was lifted to show the audience the speakers underneath. Another before and after demonstration ensued and the old track didn't sound impressive at all. In fact, it sounded terrible. When the new recording began playing the difference was jarring, the improvement was so great.

The panel consisted of moderator Don Hahn (producer of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), sculptor and animator Blaine Gibson, Imagineering Senior VP Tony Baxter, illustrator Frank Armitage, The Art of Imagination author Bob Thomas, and Mary Costa, dubbed "the best looking woman on stage tonight" and the voice of Sleeping Beauty.
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Hahn was a wonderfully enthusiastic host, ensuring that each person on stage got a moment to shine. One of the cooler stories came from Gibson as he recounted how he always ended up drawing the fairies as they were flying. Lots of flying, no talking. His one dialogue claim to fame appears in the opening sequence as King Stefan shouts "Seize that creature!" Naturally, and as predicted, that scene was greeted by loud applause. That wasn't the only part of the film that had the crowd cheering, which is sort of odd for a film turning 50 in a few months, but I guess that's a testament to just how well-made and enduring it is.

Mary Costa gave a wonderful retelling of how in Hollywood it is all about being in the right place at the right time. She got the audition for Princess Aurora when she took center stage beside a dinner party piano in the company of just the right person. At 10am the next day, she auditioned in front of most of the crew. They asked her to do the English accent, and when she proved capable of sustaining one, she went home to await the call. Walt Disney himself called a few hours later to offer her the part. She asked when she would be able to meet him, and he said not for a long time -- he didn't want her personality to overpower his vision of the character. Costa says though the two didn't meet right away, he gave her some wonderful advice: paint with your voice, and don't let anyone give you a line reading!

As any discussion of classic Disney must, the conversation turned to the genius of the man himself. One story recounted how Walt had to become the public face of Disney because he was the only famous face Disney had!
But it was Walt who told Thomas to focus on "the Nine Old Men" for his book, to share the spotlight and create other Disney legends.

Baxter was on the panel to discuss Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty castle, both how that exhibit has changed and will be changing. Apparently, the current owners of Disneyland didn't even know there was once a Sleeping Beauty exhibit in the now-locked castle! They even asked, "Will my key open it?" The Eyvind Earle Museum that once stood inside is going to be restored, as will other classic parts of the experience, over the coming years.

For now, though, we have an incredible new version of Sleeping Beauty to enjoy. If you can, see it at El Capitan in Hollywood (it plays there through September 18th), the way Disney classics should be seen: larger than life, looking and sounding better than ever.

Sleeping Beauty: Platinum Edition comes to DVD and Blu-ray on October 7th
Sleeping Beauty: Platinum Edition DVD cover art Preorder the DVD from Amazon.com

Preorder the Blu-ray from Amazon.com

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Posted September 8, 2008.