Saturday Matinee #136: "The Backgrounds of Sleeping Beauty" (January 29, 1959)
Published August 10, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
Not too long ago, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment announced their plans to release The Jungle Book and Sleeping Beauty to Blu-Ray in their prestigious "Diamond Edition" line in 2014. This actually will be Sleeping Beauty's second incarnation on the home media format, as its first - in October 2008 - was on the last legs of the "Platinum Edition" line (the final Platinum, Pinocchio, was released the following March 2009). No doubt, the decision to re-release Sleeping Beauty six years after its first release ties more into the July 2014 release of Maleficent rather than any reason to improve on one of Disney's greatest Blu-Ray releases. However, I still look forward to whatever WDSHE has in mind for the next release. Granted, their release patterns of the past couple years point to a more stripped down Blu-Ray rather than anything as elaborate as the 2008 set. But it's a film that I don't mind collecting in multiple formats, much as I do with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and more recently, Robin Hood. Last week, I managed to acquire the 1984 Betamax tape, while also buying the Blu-Ray this week! But that's another story for another Saturday Matinee.
Truthfully, this week will be spent in appreciation of Sleeping Beauty, namely the backgrounds as rendered by Eyvind Earle. The 1997 LaserDisc and 2003 DVD both featured a brief interview excerpt with Earle, as he discussed how he created the backgrounds:
"Sleeping Beauty dragged on for many, many years, longer than it normally would have, which gave me a chance to paint a majority of the backgrounds. But on the forest, suddenly I had a whole ton of assistants. I had to show them how I paint a bush or a tree. So I made a long panel with about twelve steps from a blob of black to the finished piece. And that was used to make sure everybody would paint the backgrounds the way I do. The important part of it is to start with the darkest color in the picture - except the background, whatever that is - and little by little, add the detail overlapping what you did before to give it depth, until the final sixth or seventh layer has the final detail. And way down deep inside, you see the very dark first impression." - Eyvind Earle, 1997.
When you compare the backgrounds of Sleeping Beauty to those of earlier or later Disney animated films, you'll notice a much greater attention to detail. This becomes both the film's greatest strength, as well as one of its weaknesses. I enjoy watching Sleeping Beauty more than I do paying attention to its story. More time was spent creating vibrant widescreen vistas (in glorious Technirama 70) than focusing on any compelling characterization. As a result, it's a pretty picture, but also a rather shallow one. Granted, one could argue that the fairy tale simply shows an archetypal representation of Good vs. Evil. But we get no real motivation from the characters, nothing deep or worth an emotional investment in their story arcs, simply because the arc feels forced.
Still, the thin story doesn't prevent me from enjoying the film. While I often criticize Aurora for being nothing more than a human MacGuffin, she does have some admirable qualities as well. She understands that duty and the "greater good" becomes more important than her own desires, which fuels her reluctant and crying-filled return to the castle. And as we already know, it all turned out for the better anyway as she got her man.
But we're meant to look at the backgrounds of this film. The stark, vertical nature may sometimes leave a viewer cold. But it also shows the very staid and stalwart nature of the story. Only good and evil exist in this world, clearly divided between two sides, as the backgrounds suggest. We don't get a change from this world until the finale, in which Aurora and Philip dance among the clouds, the very antithesis of Earle's strict backgrounds. And it works. Aurora and Philip no longer need worry about their struggles with good and evil, they can live on in a "Happily Ever After" of their own design. The clouds still contribute to the pretty-as-a-picture nature of the film, but also showing a formless, unwritten gray area where anything goes.
One of the hardest parts about creating backgrounds is the ability for it to both blend in and not draw attention from the foreground action, as well as being something memorable on its own. When you look at effective backgrounds, you'll notice that they're the ones that can be stripped of the characters, and still tell a story. Sleeping Beauty succeeds at this. Even Oliver & Company succeeds at this. The backgrounds provide something unique and clearly identifiable to their respective pictures, working to blend in and not distract, while still being able to contribute to the story.
As mentioned in the beginning, Sleeping Beauty will return to Blu-Ray in 2014. It previously saw home media release in 1986 (VHS/Betamax/LaserDisc), 1997 (VHS/LaserDisc), 2003 (VHS/DVD), and 2008 (DVD/Blu-Ray).