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How a Disney animator helped Maleficent steal 'Sleeping Beauty'

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Sleeping Beauty

When Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty first arrived in theaters in 1959, reviews were mixed, in part because the conceit of a wicked sorceress putting a beautiful princess to sleep seemed like such a blatant Snow White rip-off. But over time, Sleeping Beauty has carved out its own space, no doubt because of its mesmerizing villain, the elegantly evil Maleficent—a fact brought to cinematic fruition this year with Angelina Jolie’s live-action blockbuster. Maleficent wasn’t a hag, like the in-disguise apple-offering witch in Snow White, nor a prim harpy, like Cinderella’s stepmother. She was undoubtedly grotesque, with devilish horns, yellow eyes, and pale green skin… but also beautiful and alluring, especially with the unsettling patrician voice of Eleanor Audley.

Maleficent was drawn by Marc Davis, one of Disney’s original Nine Old Men, and his style is part of why the character was both frightening and seductive. He had been one of Walt Disney’s go-to animators for pretty girls, working on Cinderella, Alice, Tinker Bell, and even Beauty‘s Princess Aurora, and he instilled what could’ve been just another fire-breathing dragon-lady with enough mystery and subtext to make her the most interesting character in the animated film.

Davis’ achievement is examined in one of the extras on the new Sleeping Beauty Diamond Edition Blu-ray, out Oct. 7. In an exclusive clip from “Art of Evil: Generations Of Disney Villains,” old interviews with Davis, who died in 2000, and new tributes from current animators combine to celebrate the legacy of Maleficent and the man who created her.