Among the most sumptuous of Walt Disney’s films, Sleeping Beauty’s enduring legacy is largely due to its incredible art design and complete creative vision. In production for nearly 10 years, the film was very costly and represented the end of an era for Disney hand-drawn animation. Though collaboration is key in most Disney productions, Sleeping Beauty owes its entire aesthetic soul to one man.
Sleeping Beauty was to be the third Disney “Princess” film, and the studio had ambitions to set it apart from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella through its art design. Integral to this vision was the collaboration of Eyvind Earle, a noted American illustrator who had worked on other Disney films. His work includes experimental backgrounds for the 1953 short For Whom the Bull Toils, colour direction on the award-winning Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, along with further work on Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp. Earle’s influence on the final look of Sleeping Beauty cannot be overstated, as he personally painted all of the film’s backgrounds, set the film’s colour design, and is responsible for its unique graphic look.
Looking back at Earle’s earlier work with Disney as well as his personal illustrations, it is clear that much of his personality is injected into the look of Sleeping Beauty. Though he rarely veers too deeply into abstraction, his work is distinct in the way it subverts representational art schemes. He is very fond of multiple planes of perspective; however, he challenges his own preference by flattening his images. There are clear influences from the Rennaissance in his work, and his backgrounds owe much to those of Da Vinci and Raphael. He utilizes colour to emphasize the sheer breadth of his worlds, shedding the far off backgrounds in green-bluish tones, a technique that Da Vinci used extensively. What seems like creative or arbitrary use of colour evokes a sense of distance, an obscured and twisted version of reality that is heightened by the cartoonishness of the surrounding world.
Earle brings this technique, as well as a variety of others, to Sleeping Beauty. The film is unmistakably inspired by the work of the late Dark Ages and early Renaissance, a period of transition, symbolism, and exaggerated realism. These combining factors are interpreted through Earle’s ultimately modern style and united under his careful if not ambitious colour design. In particular, the influence of the early Renaissance is felt in his use of perspective, which is often exaggerated in scenes that need to evoke emotional discomfort. He uses the vanishing point with extreme and literal precision, which has the effect of transforming the relationship characters and objects have within the space, as well as distorting the space itself. This is most notable in the final confrontation between the Prince and Maleficent, as well as the sequence in which Aurora pricks her finger on the spindle of the spinning wheel. Both characters and the camera often “dolly” in or out of this space, often dynamically at diagonals. This exaggerated the sense of perspective, as well as the action and movement within the sequences.
These moments are often emphasized, due to the fact that many of the more harmonious or romantic scenes of the film, draw more from 14th and 15th century-era tapestry than from Renaissance painting. This is the point in which Earle’s flattening and detailed work is most represented, and is beautifully complemented by the film’s use of the 2.55:1 aspect ratio and 70mm format. Watch the sequence in which Aurora sings “Once Upon a Dream”: The camera drifts across these sequences like an eye following the story of a tapestry. Much of the camera movement of these scenes pan back and forth; though it will occasionally move forward or backward, the camera can never be said to be penetrating through the space itself. This not only allows for more comfort but draws more explicitly on the more symbolic elements of art itself. It exaggerates the film’s fantasy and suggests that the stories of love onscreen are not important for the uniqueness or realism of their representation of romance, that they are important for their symbolic representation of love itself.
The film’s pivotal final sequence remains one of the most powerful and ambitious sequences in the entire Disney oeuvre. In the most abstract sequence, the prince confronts Maleficent, who is now transformed into an enormous dragon. Not since Dumbo and its “Pink Elephants on Parade”sequence or Fantasia has a Disney film driven so far away from realism and representation. The sequence combines all of Earle’s greatest strengths, and also shows his total abandon for drawing on Renaissance art. He uses a colour scheme that would be all but impossible before the invention of synthetic paints. The fluorescent green of the dragon’s fire, eyes, and mouth and the rich purple (along with blue, the most expensive pigment up until the 18th century, reserved for royalty and the Virgin Mary – hence the term “Royal Purple”) united in a strange harmony of how they contrast with each other and inspire feelings of awe and fear. The film’s use of this sort of sickly, unearthly green to evoke dark magic is particularly inspired and only contributes to its themes of jealousy and hatred. As a force of evil, this magic feels like a disease that can destroy kingdoms and tear apart families, and the only hope for a cure is love. It also stands notably outside of time, not existing within the era of the rest of the film: this dark force is transcendent and seemingly impossible to overcome.
Sleeping Beauty may have been an initial failure at the box office, but the film clearly lived up to the amount of work that went into it. It was among the very first Disney films to utilize the xerography process, to transform the shape of the dragon, but it was the last film where each cel would be hand-painted. This film also proved to be one of the final efforts in animation for Eyvind Earle, who would return to his own work as an illustrator in the 1960s. In 1998, Earle would receive the Winsor McCay lifetime achievement award at the Annies, cementing his importance in the field.
— Justine Smith