Once upon a time there was a Kingdom where magic was a fact of life, and fairies would use it to help and hinder people as they saw fit. In the castle of King Stefan (voiced by Taylor Holmes) there has been a happy event, as after a long time of hoping for a child, a baby girl has been born to his wife the Queen and so the Christening is arranged forthwith. All the citizens are invited, and there are gifts for the infant Princess Aurora, named after the light of the dawn, including those from fairies Flora (Verna Felton), Merryweather (Barbara Luddy) and Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen), but there will soon be a gift from someone who was not invited: the evil fairy Maleficent (Eleanor Audley)...
Sleeping Beauty marked the last of a certain type of Disney movie associated with the studio, the fairy tale, though they had by no means been concentrating exclusively on that format since they started the move into feature length animation with 1937s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - after all, Bambi and Pinocchio were drawn from books. But it would take thirty years for them to return to classic fables with The Little Mermaid in 1989, the film that prompted a renaissance in their fortunes for the nineties onwards after some difficult twenty years or so since Walt had passed away, and perhaps they neglected pieces like this because they were seen as old hat.
Certainly, for all the work that went into crafting Sleeping Beauty, there was not as much reward as they were hoping for: it was a success at the box office yet had been hugely expensive for a film of the nineteen-fifties so did not make its money back, and to add insult to injury the critical reception had been mixed, with many down on Disney for not creating anything that seemed fresh. No matter that Walt himself had expressly demanded this not be a Snow White clone, it appeared to many they had reverted to type rather than advanced the form as so many commentators expected them to do, especially with a work with such a long and meticulous gestation as this; they wanted more.
Doubly ironic was that the design had been consciously modern rather than harking back to classic storybook illustrations as before, yet audiences and tastemakers simply did not view it that way, maybe not so surprising in light of the subject matter: the then-recent Lady and the Tramp was a lot hipper to the younger audiences of the decade and Sleeping Beauty could have been regarded as a step back. But tell that to the little girls who have seen this over the decades who didn't care about all those artistic and commercial concerns and simply wanted to see a story about a Princess, and you would find a much-beloved cartoon that was a lot cannier in its appeal to its target audience than the naysayers would have you believe. This was probably because it was constructed with the most consistently prominent female characters in animation of its era.
Indeed, while the plot hinged on saving Aurora, and there was a handsome prince, Philip (Bill Shirley), to perform the rescuing come the finale, much of this was to do with a clash of the ladies in the tale. More than the Princess (Mary Costa), who was closer to an icon of purity than a three-dimensional personality, sharing Snow White's allegiance to the inherent power of nature and likewise not averse to bursting into song, it was the three fairies and their battle of ideals with Maleficent which fuelled the engine of the movie. That trio were often played for laughs, but they had a vital function to perform, guardians of Aurora in their forest cottage retreat for sixteen years to prevent Maleficent's curse that she will die after pricking her finger on a spindle from coming true. Nevertheless, in a dreamlike sense of inevitability they cannot stop the curse's fulfilment, and that feeling of dreaming the whole film as if suspended in slumber was a major part of the charm. If it was not one of the all-time classics from Disney, lacking the truly distinctive elements to stand out, the quality was plain to see and admire.