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Opening Night Sleeping Beauty at the El Capitan

As John posted last week, Disney is showing Sleeping Beauty in a limited engagement at their El Capitan Theater in downtown Hollywood. It’s showing for the next three weeks while we wait for the 50th Anniversary DVD and Blu-Ray release to come out in October.

Thursday night was the first showing of the film in this theater. It was preceded by a panel discussion on the film. And I was lucky enough to get to go.

Even though I live about 40 minutes away, this was my first time to the El Capitan Theater. It’s just easiest to go to a local one. But I was quite impressed with it. This is an old time, one screen affair with a balcony. I just had to sit in the upper section. I got there early and got to hear an organist playing Disney songs until the evening’s program actually got started. That was lots of fun.

Up first was the panel. It was hosted by Don Hahn, the producer of such big hits as Beauty and the Beast (my favorite movie ever) and The Lion King. I think he was as pleased to be there as the rest of us were.

There were five people on the panel itself. Blaine Gibson and Frank Armitage actually worked on the film as animators. Bob Thomas wrote his first book on Disney animation during the period they were working on the film. Tony Baxter is currently an imagineer with Disney. Finally, Princess Aurora herself was there in the form of Mary Costa. Each member of the panel got a few minutes to talk about some aspect of the film.

Frank Armitage talked first about the look of the film. He worked on the backgrounds with Eyvind Earle. There was talk about the unique look of the film based on European tapestries. And how much detail went into each background created for the film.

Bob Thomas talked briefly about being hired by Walt to write a book about animation that would highlight the contributions of everyone who worked on the films, specifically the work of the Nine Old Men. That book became the classic Art of Disney Animation that has been updated several times since it was originally published. Mr. Thomas did a book signing at the Studio Store next door to the theater right before the panel started. I didn’t find out about it in time to take advantage of that wonderful opportunity, however. Next time.

Mary Costa entertained us all with her story of landing the part of Aurora. She had gone to a party to meet some music people and started singing around a piano. The man who was trying to cast the part at the time heard her and asked if she wanted to audition for Disney. She figured she’d never get the part, but said yes just so she’d have a chance to meet the man. Imagine her disappointment when she didn’t get to actually meet him until much later. Instead, she sang for a panel that included famed animator Marc Davis. They were impressed with her voice but were worried about her strong southern accent when speaking. But she convinced them she could speak with a British accent as well. She was surprised when Walt called to offer her the job that afternoon. Her mother answered, and Walt is supposed to have said, “I believe you have been hiding the Princess Aurora in Glendale.”

Blaine Gibson worked closely with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston doing character animation. He did lots of the animals and drawings of the three fairies flying. He said he only got to do one scene with dialog into the entire film. It’s King Stephen’s line near the beginning. Right after Maleficent has cursed the princess, he shouts out “Seize that creature!” Naturally, the line got applause at the screening.

It was also during this time that they discussed the budget and time process involved. The film took 3 years to make and cost $6 million, which was quite a lot 50 years ago. (Okay, so I am watching the special features on my old DVD set, and there is a quote from Disney saying the film took 6 years to make.  That makes more sense to me.)  One reason it took so long was because Aurora was such a detailed character. One person could only draw 8 pictures a day of her. And it takes 24 pictures for one second of screen time. Obviously, that’s a long of work.

Finally, you might be wondering why a current imagineer was on the panel. I know I was. Tony Baxter talked about the original Sleeping Beauty walk through in Disneyland. It opened in 1957, two years before the film hit theaters. The original exhibits were heavily influenced by Eyvind Earle’s work. There were parts based on sequences cut from the film and there were interactive features. The one they really talked about involved mirrors hidden behind keyholes. They were designed to show you your own eye but make it look like one of Maleficent’s goons looking back at you. The original walk through was changes drastically in 1978 to the posed scenes I was familiar with on quite a few trips to Disneyland. Tony has been working on a special feature for the up coming releases that show case what this original walk through was like.

But the thing at made us all cheer was Tony’s announcement that they are working to reopen the Sleeping Beauty walk through with something close to the original design. He didn’t give us a firm finish date, but he said they were hoping to have it done by the time the last leaf fell, “Which is Southern California is often sometime in January.”

The panel talked for about 40 minutes before Don started introducing the film. He showed us examples of the restorative work that has gone into the new release of the film. They played the soundtrack in original stereo followed by the same passage in the new 7.1 mix. The difference is truly amazing. Then he showed us some of the imperfections that have been removed from the picture. Yes, I did pull out my old DVD copy and look. I know it was restored back then. I’m not sure that they did much more this time around, but the picture we saw certainly looked amazing.

I’m not going to comment too much on the film itself. It’s a masterpiece, one I hadn’t seen in way too long. But it was quite fun watching it with other die hard fans. There is nothing more contagious than group laughter at a joke or applause when the hero conquers the villain.

The panel was an “opening night” event, and I was glad I could catch it. But if you get a chance to go down to the El Capitan and see the movie on the big screen, I highly recommend it. It makes me wish that Disney was still releasing more of their films on the big screen for us to enjoy before putting them out on DVD and Blu Ray again. I’d certainly make it a point to go.


1 thought on “Opening Night Sleeping Beauty at the El Capitan”

  1. the one thing that i find most interesting about this is that the sleeping beauty walk-through opened two years *before* the film was released. modern disney would never take that kind of gutsy risk before they knew whether a film was going to succeed or not. it actually seems like any new property-based attraction is used to extend or rekindle the film’s popularity.

    there’s really a lot of missed marketing and hype-building potential in the parks, but i guess with so many other ways of doing that now, it’s just not viewed as necessary.

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