The Great Disney Reel Rumble Retrospective presses onward through the Silver Age! This time we cover one of the last “Princess” and fairy tale films until Disney’s 90s Renaissance, as well as another Britain-set tale. We’re near the end of the Silver Age!
Production began on Sleeping Beauty following the huge success of Cinderella. The early writing largely recycled leftover scenes from Snow White and Cinderella, but new ideas and sequences soon emerged. The film was originally set to release in 1955, but Walt tossed out huge chunks of director Wilfred Jackson’s work. Disney wanted to improve the central romance between Aurora and Prince Phillip, and rewrites resulted in the pair meeting by chance in the forest. Jackson suffered a heart attack in 1953, resulting in Eric Larson, one of the Nine Old Men, taking over as director.
The name Aurora was given to the princess based on the Tchaikovsky ballet, whereas in older versions of the story Aurora was the daughter. Prince Phillip was the first Disney Prince to have a real name, due to the prominence of Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh at the time of production.
Sleeping Beauty aimed for a 1957 release as Disney worked with Larson to animate the forest sequence. Disney’s ambition was for the sequence to serve as a moving illustration, with artist Eyvind Earle providing background designs, and he was willing to wait as long as necessary to make it happen. During the long production Disney released other films and focused on live-action work, sometimes neglecting story meetings with the Sleeping Beauty animators, much to their annoyance. Delays lengthened as Larson was replaced by Clyde Geronimi as director.
The art direction steered towards a blend of Art Deco and medieval imagery thanks to Earle as well as Kay Nielsen, the artist responsible for the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia. Characters were stylized to speed up animation due to the complex backgrounds. Conflicts ensued on this aspect of production due to rigid design constraints.
Sleeping Beauty finally hit theaters in January 1959 as the first animated film photographed on Super Technirama 70 widescreen and the second in anamorphic widescreen. Using 6-channel stereophonic sound in its first-run, its release was designed to be an event. Unfortunately for Disney, it only earned $5.3 million domestically. Production costs had been $6 million, making it the most expensive Disney film to date. The underperformance of other Disney films during 1959 and 1960 resulted in the company posting its first loss in a decade, followed by a large number of layoffs. Later rereleases helped Sleeping Beauty reach a lifetime gross of $51.6 million.
Reviews at the time were not kind. While most praised the beautiful animation and wonderful sound design, most found it a pale shadow of Snow White. Sleeping Beauty, they said, had too much similarity to prior Princess films with little to distinguish it. Modern reviews have been kinder, and the legacy of its villain, Maleficent, has grown. She is now a prominent member of the Disney canon. The film’s influences can be seen throughout Disney media and its theme parks.
The origins of One Hundred and One Dalmatians read like a Disney conspiracy. The author wrote the book in 1956, secretly hoping that Disney would adapt into a film. Disney read the book in 1957 and immediately wanted to make it; Dodie Smith knew Disney’s tastes. Animator Bill Peet was assigned to write the film, marking the first time a Disney animated feature was written entirely by one person. Some elements of the book were toned down while others were expanded; for instance, the villainess Cruella originally had a husband and cat. Disney loved the script and set Peet to storyboarding and casting. While Walt was not very actively involved in this production, he did show up to all of the story meetings.
The film occupies an odd spot in Disney history in that the studio was shifting to cheaper animation processes. After Sleeping Beauty‘s failure, there was talk of closing the animation department. Still, Walt couldn’t bring himself to destroy the foundation the company was built on.
Enter Ub Iwerks, who began to experiment with Xerox photography for animation. In 1959 he adapted the Xerox to transfer drawings directly to animation cells, eliminating the need for inking. This saved time and money while still maintaining the creativity of penciled drawings. The tradeoff was that the Xerox left a dark, scratchy outline on the drawings. But it allowed quick production of the many dogs in this film, saving perhaps half the cost. Though Disney initially hated it, he recanted shortly before his death, and it became a defining feature of the next Disney era.
101 Dalmatians was released in January 1961 and was a box office smash. It grossed $14 million in the US and Canada, and generated $6.2 million in distributor rentals. The film was, oddly enough, very popular in France. On a budget of $3.6 million, it likely helped prevent the closure of Disney Animation Studios. Subsequent rereleases also vastly increased its lifetime box office gross. Critics were also star-struck, with glowing reviews labeling it as the best Disney feature since Snow White. Even negative reviews gave it accolades for its wit and sense of familial love. It’s legacy has endured well enough, with references in video games and several live-action remakes, including a new one currently in production.
As noted above, Sleeping Beauty‘s story was lambasted upon release as a knock-off of other Disney princess stories. And they weren’t wrong; once again, a princess becomes cursed or deals with a magical obstacle due to a wicked old woman, only to be saved by a charming prince. Granted, prior romances in Disney films were not all that well-written or developed, but this one seems even lazier than usual. Aurora’s three good fairy protectors are lesser versions of the Fairy Godmother that we’ve seen already.
However, Sleeping Beauty is not without its charms. It’s certainly one of the more grand Disney films in terms of scale, with an almost Tolkien-esque battle between good and evil in the form of Aurora and Maleficent. Maleficent oozes atmosphere, leaving no doubt as to why she’s regarded among Disney’s best villains. Her hordes of crows and goblins help build tension towards her final clash with Prince Phillip, and her climatic transformation into a dragon lit with iconic green flame is surely one one of the best moments in Disney canon. Eleanor Audley’s cackling voice performance is also great, and there are slight hints of “sympathy for the devil” in Maleficent’s backstory. Sleeping Beauty doesn’t shy away from darkness, including the possibility of death for Aurora and Phillip.
The story of One Hundred and One Dalmatians is seemingly tamer by comparison. The majority of the story is a rescue mission to save a multitude of Dalmatian puppies from the clutches of Cruella De Vil and her goons Horace and Jasper. Though simple and occasionally is a bit meandering, the story stands out thanks to its developed characters. The central conceit of the dog, Pongo, serving as the narrator of the tale and referring to the humans as his pets is a cute one, and several of the puppies have some personality as well.
Despite the cutesy nature of the story, it does have a fairly dark underpinning. Cruella’s desire to murder all of these puppies and use their spotted fur for a coat makes her one of the most despicable villains in the Disney canon. A light tone downplays this darkness, but there are several scenes reckoning with the sadness of the characters. Perdita, the puppies’ mother, is depressed enough at one point to regret having children. The genuine worry and pain of both Pongo and Perdita, as well as their owners Roger and Anita, when the puppies are stolen really comes through.
Though Sleeping Beauty‘s climax is one of Disney’s better sequences, there is unfortunately little prior to it that is interesting or unique. Its imitations of Cinderella and Snow White make it rather indistinct on the whole. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is ultimately a more entertaining story and a more memorable film, with better-developed characters.
Winner: One Hundred and One Dalmatians
We’ve hit a batch in the Disney canon where the standout musical numbers are pretty limited. Sleeping Beauty only has one or two real songs aside from the score. This wasn’t always the case, as Jack Lawrence and Sammy Fain originally signed on to compose the score and write songs. But Walt decided in 1953 that he wanted to maintain his homages to the Tchaikovsky ballet version and use that score for his film as well, which rendered all of the songs written by the pair useless aside from “Once Upon a Dream.” That’s a spritely and dainty number, replete with gorgeous strings and the beautiful vocal talents of Mary Costa. It is used several times in the film and eventually becomes a duet with backing chorus. Though pleasant enough, it blends in with similar songs from prior Disney films. Other choral songs near the beginning of the film seem more a part of the George Bruns score more than anything. The score itself is sufficiently fairy-tale-like, with plenty of strings, and it showcases the story’s ballet origins.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians is likewise a film with very few songs, relying mostly on a George Bruns score. The highlight is the jazzy “Cruella De Vil,” which is propelled by a central piano portion and an amusing description of the vileness of its title character. Notably, the songs in the film are incorporated as diegetic music to make them more natural; the decision to make the main human male character a musician makes this easy. There’s also a puppy food advertisement song that is undeniably catchy, but that’s about it as far as music goes.
Though neither movie has a lot of notable songs to choose between, the edge goes to the cracking “Cruella De Vil.” Its foray into jazzy sounds is a fun departure from the music heard in earlier Disney films.
Winner: One Hundred and One Dalmatians
For all of Sleeping Beauty‘s lackluster qualities, the animation cannot be faulted. The long production paid off here with some of Disney’s most lavish and exquisite animation. The backgrounds are rich and detailed throughout, with beautiful color and character. The design of Maleficent’s green face, dark horns, and cloak are distinct, and her transformation into a dragon is magnificent. Her calling forth of the powers of hell is believable, and the atmosphere of it all is fantastic.
The design of three Good Fairies is bright and colorful. Though they are imitations of the Fairy Godmother, they are also distinctive enough in their own right. The Forest sequence is amazingly detailed, with every little leaf visible. The deep green color is captivating, and it gives way to an enchanting purple. This is surely some of Disney’s best animation to date.
The animation of One Hundred and One Dalmatians is not bad, either. Though it does introduce the Xerox technique that gives the next era of Disney an arguably lesser visual appeal, this first use of it fits the aesthetic of the film. It’s a more urban piece, and the Dalmatians each have a strong, rugged outline that sets them apart. The expression on the animal faces is particularly well done. Even the snowy backgrounds as the Dalmatians make their way home have a decent level of detail.
Cruella De Vil’s design is iconic. Her slender frame and black dress underneath a giant fur coat is a great look for a villain. The grimy city aesthetic works really well, and the range of motion animators put into the characters is really good, too.
Despite One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ positive qualities, Sleeping Beauty is, indeed, a beauty. While it may have sunk the film’s profitability, the intense time and devotion that went into the animating process make it one of the most stunning of Disney’s works.
Winner: Sleeping Beauty
While few Disney films can top the wonderful animation of Sleeping Beauty, it unfortunate went towards a story that struggled for creativity and ingenuity. The final battle sequence is among Disney’s most climatic, but it would have been better if we cared about any of the characters; Aurora and Phillip are just not that distinct. There are no wonderful Disney songs to elevate the material either. One Hundred and One Dalmatians has a good song and a fun story, and the characters and stakes draw you in a bit more. Even with its sometimes rote diversions, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is the superior film!
- Ranked #1,633 globally
- Wins 36% of matchups
- 20,673 users have ranked it 170,038 times
- 17 has it as their #1 film
- Ranked 20/59 in the Walt Disney Animation Studios filter
One Hundred and One Dalmatians
- Ranked #1,738 globally
- Wins 35% of matchups
- 29,838 users have ranked it 226,093 times
- 21 have it as their #1 film
- Ranked 23/59 in the Walt Disney Animation Studios filter
- Bambi (1942)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
- Cinderella (1950)
- Fantasia (1940)
- Peter Pan (1953)
- Alice in Wonderland (1951)
- Pinocchio (1940)
- One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
- Lady and the Tramp (1955)
- Dumbo (1941)
- Sleeping Beauty (1959)
- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
- The Three Caballeros (1944)
- Melody Time (1948)
- Saludos Amigos (1942)
- Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
- Make Mine Music (1946)