I haven't seen the new Disney redux of Maleficent yet but I am anxious to do so. Mostly because of my longtime interest in Disney's 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty.
I was an artistic kid and I could draw pretty well, even as a small child. But as with most children I was a literalist. I prefered representational art; art that looked as realistic as possible. That meant a fondness for Renaissance artists and art of later periods, like the Pre-Raphaelites, and Gainsborough and his ilk. Children's books that were illustrated had to be particularly rendered. N.C. Wyeth, for instance, with his hazy reality of Treasure Island or the tales of King Arthur, was one of my early favorites. And even later when I had my own son, I bought him picture books with lucious illustrations. Anything from Chris Van Allsburg (of The Polar Express fame) who had the same soft touch, was a top pick.
And so when I saw Sleeping Beauty in a second run release (because I wasn't yet born when it was first released), I wasn't a big fan. Oh, I loved the dragon sequence, and we'll get to that in a minute, but I wasn't fond of the stylized backgrounds. It was only later in life after I had my career in graphic design that I truly began to celebrate modern art and a more graphic style in art. Which included the work of Mary Blair (who designed the style for the Disneyland ride It's A Small World) and the artist that Walt himself chose to give a whole new stylistic look to Sleeping Beauty, Eyvind Earle.
Earle took his cue from medieval tapestries and paintings, such as the Unicorn tapestry (below), where every detail of leaf and blade of grass is rendered tirelessly, with nothing out of focus and background melding into foreground. His background trees rose up on straight, straw-like stalks, with puff balls for
The Unicorn Tapestry, from the late 15th century
leaves, or squared-off treetops. The effect is odd but strangely satisfying. And the lighting! The lighting shows off the texture of the bark you could almost reach out and touch. His stone in Sleeping Beauty's castle is absolutely solid, and the shadows and eerie green highlights in Maleficent's castle is rendered with far more drama than Disney's live action films.
I don't know if Disney's choice of Earle as his style guru for Sleeping Beauty was influenced by another popular medieval production--the Broadway version of Camelot currently wowing audiences with the vocal and acting talents of Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, and Richard Burton--or he had come upon it on
You can just see the stylized trees and pavillion in the background, also influenced, no doubt, by something like the Unicron Tapestry.
his own. Or, I suppose, it was the other way around, since Camelot wasn't staged until 1960. After all, Earle had also done the stylized backgrounds for Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and the LSD trip of Alice in Wonderland. But the characters didn't match the backgrounds. They were stock Disney, put into these stage sets. Walt wanted background and character integrated for Sleeping Beauty and worked ten years and $6 million dollars--a huge sum in the 1950s--on getting it right. It made money for the studio and also tangently helped launch his other crazy venture, Disneyland.
I sometimes wish that I had had an inkling of moving toward animation. I was certainly a fan. When I was resteering my hopes and dreams into an art career, wouldn't it have been nice for a fairy god mother to direct me toward making cartoons? I would have gone on to Cal Arts, the premier school for would-be animators...but then we wouldn't be having this conversation together. Ah well.
I am still a big fan of animation. I don't think I will ever tire of cell animation. I think our emphasis today is too heavily into digital. There is still something about the cells, the carefully hand-rendered lines. Cells seem alive to me, just waiting for their chance to move. One of the last great cell animated features done in this country was by Brad Bird's Iron Giant. I don't think it is any less of a beautiful film for not being digitally rendered. In fact, I think it's probably more beautiful because of its hand work. The Japanese still work with cells for their anime, of which I am also a fan. And, of course, the weekly shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy still work with cells. Let's hope it doesn't entirely fade away.
So what jazzed me about Sleeping Beauty when I was a kid--and still does--was the sequence with the prince fighting the dragon. There is nothing like a good dragon fight, and to this kid's mind, already floating with medieval imagery from home, that sequence was the best! It's still completely wonderful. And you'd be hard-pressed to match it. Even Smaug doesn't rate in the absolute melodrama, lighting, and swelling music of that sequence.
Maleficent won't be the film Sleeping Beauty was. The latter is in its own class, to be sure. Especially with its unforgetable Tchaikovsky music from the composer's Sleping Beauty ballet. It was the last great Disney film to actually use hand-inked cells. Henceforward, because of time and financial constraints, cells were Xeroxed right from the artist's drawings. In 101 Dalmations, the very next film, you can see the difference in the scratchy nature of the lines. Not that it didn't fit in with the whole style of the piece, but it whittled away at the artistry with which cells were created. If you looked closely at Sleeping Beauty and the previous Disney films, you can see that the outlines were inked in colors, not just black.
Next time you sit with your kids or grandkids and watch a Disney classic, watch it carefully. Not just for the animated characters and their fantastic movements and emotions, but at the backgrounds, the overall style, how it integrates together. There is far more there than just making a cartoon.