June 25, 2014

An Artistic Masterpiece: Disney's Sleeping Beauty, By Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

In honor of the release of Disney’s epic film Maleficent, in this post I want to take a look back at the film that inspired it: Sleeping Beauty--definitely one of my favorite Disney movies of all time.

Sleeping Beauty was Disney’s third feature length animated film to be based on a traditional fairy tale, and Walt Disney wanted it to be special, different in style and story from his previous movies. It took six years and six million dollars to achieve. At this time, an animated movie was still a risk at the box office, but Sleeping Beauty became second only to Ben Hur in terms of financial success in 1959, the year it was released.

Sleeping Beauty was recorded in state of the art stereophonic sound and, because of the exceptional beauty of the art and animation, filmed in 70mm (instead of the more typical 35mm). It was the first animated feature to be filmed in this way, which required all of the hand-painted backgrounds to be larger than usual.

Disney hired artist Eyvind Earle as the production designer for the film. He brought his own unique, modern graphic style to the project. His himself painted most of the backgrounds with only a few assistants to help with the forest scenes. Earle’s style was allowed to shine; it created the style and feel of the movie to such an extent that the lead animators, headed up by Marc Davis, worked to create their characters in a style compatible with his.

Earle did a lot of research for the design of the film, studying pre-Renaissance medieval paintings, tapestries, and architecture. (You can see a wide variety of medieval art in the set designs of Maleficent as well.) His backgrounds are exquisite, with intricate detail even in the smallest elements, and are full of strong vertical and horizontal lines in keeping with the art that inspired him. In the forest scenes, every bush has delineated leaves, every tree has textured bark. There is depth and richness of pattern. Scenes of the castle feature not just turrets and courtyards and a throne room, but details like flying buttresses, finials along roof lines, Gothic portal doors, gonfalons with distinct heraldry, and more. Even with this strong medieval influence, however, his work still maintains its own contemporary flair.

Davis, the lead animator, created stylized figures to match Earle’s stylized backgrounds. The costumes of the crowd harken back to the late medieval period (in Europe), with elements like the women’s pointed hats (“hennins”). In the “making of” documentary attached to the special edition DVD of Sleeping Beauty, Davis describes coming across a flame-like costume in a medieval illumination and immediately ascribing it to Maleficent’s character. He then added devil’s horns and a bat-wing collar to emphasize her evil nature.

The animators brought in live actors not just for voice work but also for live action reference. Eleanor Audley, the voice actress for Maleficent (and Cinderella’s stepmother) herself inspired many of her character’s facial expressions. A woman named Helene Stanley was brought in for reference in animating Aurora’s dancing scene, and a young man came in to physically act out the battle sequence between Phillip and the dragon.

In terms of music, Disney decided to forgo creating an originally score and instead adapted the music from Tchaikovsky’s well-loved Sleeping Beauty ballet. He wanted the music to have a classical feel yet still be easily understood and appreciated by all audiences. It took three years to find Mary Costa, the voice actress for Aurora.

Charles Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty is perhaps the most famous one today, but the story actually originates much earlier. The earliest extant version tells the tale of Troilus and Zellandine, which appears in the medieval prose romance Perceforest, written circa 1330-1344, and has roots in the earlier Occitan novels (the first literature written in a romance language!). Three hundred years later, Giambattista Basile included a version of the story, “Sole, Luna e Talia” (“Sun, Moon, and Talia”) in his 1634 Pentamerone. (You can read this darkly fascinating story in a post right here on Enchanted Conversation!) Just a few decades after this, in 1697, Perrault published his story “La Belle au bois dormant” (“The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”). The Grimm brothers added to the tradition in 1812 with their “Dornröschen” (“Little Briar-Rose”), which was included in the original edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen. Although Disney credits Perrault as their inspiration for Sleeping Beauty, the storyline of the film follows more closely the Grimm’s version, which ends with the prince’s kiss.

Do you have a favorite scene in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty? How do you think it fares as a successor to such a rich heritage of Sleeping Beauty stories? Join Enchanted Conversation today and let us know!

“ ‘Once Upon a Dream’ -- The Making of Sleeping Beauty” documentary on Disney’s special edition DVD.
A summary of “Histoire de Troïlus et de Zellandine” from Perceforest: http://talesoffaerie.blogspot.com/2013/07/perceforest-early-sleeping-beauty.html. You can read more about this old tale in Heidi Anne Heiner’s Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales from Around the World (2011), available through Amazon and Kindle.
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, “Dornröschen.” http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm050.html.

Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day.


  1. Lovely post. It's been years since I watched that film but it was one of my favourites as a child. I loved the blue fairy's (Merryweather??) facial expressions and temper!!

  2. "Father, it's the 14th century!"

    And of course, the cake: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/473159504570457442/

  3. I liked hearing 'behind the scenes' details.