Sleeping Beauty (1959)
How Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959) Solidified Animation as an Art Form
By: Domonique Cox-Salberg
Sleeping Beauty (1959) is a Disney movie that most remember and love more for its technical artistry than its hero or heroine. Aurora is the epitome of the timeless and graceful princess which is a joy in itself to watch; however, the true beauty of the film is pronounced in its direction, and depth of artistic detail and color. If we look back at the Disney classics like Snow White, Pinocchio, and Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty appears distinctive from the others. The style, tone, use of colors, and, most importantly, how it was filmed mark a great shift for Disney and the genre of animation.
Quick jump to the following sections:
- Sleeping Beauty and The Influence of Medieval and Renaissance Art
- How Sleeping Beauty’s Art & Direction Helped Define Its Greatness
The Peak of Classic Disney & Unmatched Extraordinary Artistry
To this day, no other animation has captured on film, the level of graphic sophistication exhibited by the artist(s) responsible for Sleeping Beauty. The film has gone on to influence and be imitated by some of Disney’s most iconic princess-centric fairytales and shots, most notably in Beauty and The Beast (1991), during the ballroom dance sequence for the closing act. It mirrored the one in which Aurora and Phillip waltz through the forest with their bodies reflected, gliding in the water. Or how it trickled into Aladdin (1992) with the “marry for true love” theme and similar elements within their final dramatic and imposing battles.
The true mastery of the film, however, is seen most in Disney’s ambition and accomplishment shooting the film in Super Technirama 70mm Widescreen, an extensive aspect ratio never used in animation before. It also was the second full-length animated feature film to be filmed in anamorphic widescreen, following Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955) four years prior. To this effect, the film looked and moved like a gorgeous medieval tapestry.
To quote Disney himself, “Sleeping Beauty is so beautiful, you could stop at any point in the movie and hang it up as a painting.” Without a doubt, the story of Aurora is the best looking 2D animated Disney movie. Likewise, part of the appeal of Sleeping Beauty not only comes from its pioneering technical features but from the animators merging past artist’s works with their own.
Sleeping Beauty & The Influence of Medieval & Renaissance Art
It is most apparent in the remarkable pre-renaissance medieval Gothic paintings and tapestries tactfully infused into the look of an animated film. Inspired, with the expression by these past artistic eras, I noticed how it influenced a more mature, considered, and classical tone with its distinct color palette and geometric shapes of Gothic art. The approach to the characters and story is more sophisticated as well, compared to the Disney canon before it. The film even went so far as to avoid the comedic subplots of most Disney films before and after. In an attempt to create formation of a film that focuses on the principal narrative at hand, then showcase and ponder the stunning art in Aurora’s world.
Moreover, Sleeping Beauty’s striking look can be attributed, specifically, to the choices and talent shared by acclaimed background artist Eyvind Earle. Yes, I know animation is a collaborative medium; still, Eyvind Earle is responsible for incorporating his style, finding its origins in the medieval art the Unicorn Tapestries into the film’s most remembered and praised feature: the background. These seven pieces of medieval art were first brought to Walt’s attention from artist John Hench, for which Earle and Kay Nielsen brought to life in sketches.
It became a mix of their style and the renaissance that presented us with one of the most and extremely detailed Disney films. Some beautiful illustrations of the amount of detail incorporated are seen in the painted designs, the wood fixtures in Aurora’s house, and the divots in the castle stone walls and bark of the forest trees. Then, the contrast in the wild and tamed grass throughout the forest and those hanging drapes to add a romantic, ornate, and soft tone.
How Sleeping Beauty’s Art & Direction Helped Define Its Greatness
Among everything already discussed, what had the greatest influence to secure Sleeping Beauty into a league of its own is the directional choices. Its expansive widescreen and deep depth of field framing allowed for the audience to be transported into a fantasy world never before showcased in animation. Where the foreground and background are displayed at every second to encapsulate both audience and characters into its enchanting world, it resulted in vast and encompassing detail as we viewed Aurora and Phillip in this advantageous ratio.
Therefore, where I felt its use was most effective and established the film’s importance, success, and endearing adoration: the waltz scene (full video above). The couple dances gracefully through the woods in delicate and static framing to capture their intricate movements and stunning reflections in the water without having to cut to individual elements thanks to its expansive widescreen framing. This scene is just one of many exquisite sequences within the film that speak volumes to how iconic and equal in importance the background is as the characters that inhabit it.
As mentioned in my Snow White article, Sleeping Beauty is another example of the pinnacle of what cell animation can do when utilized at its best. The dark story, sophisticated yet abstract matte paintings, vast surrounding geography, elegantly wicked villain, and spectacular ending all meticulously blended a static background with moving cells resulted in a skilled and affecting look. We see it with the film’s gorgeously lit fluctuating lighting sources as with the sinister glow of maleficent herself or soft twilight’s roaring infernos.
Another example of the alluring artistry is Aurora’s hair and its vibrant color and fluid movement as each curl drifts and bounces along with her actions. Her hair, in particular, illuminates the painstaking work involved in detailing each curl and its two-tone appearance. It is created by a hue change between linework and fill-in colors, making it exceptionally eye-catching. There is so much to say about this film, but I think you get the idea of how monumental it was then, and why it has become an emblem of Disney animation at its most magical, and finest.