Flatness and Depth: Classic Disney’s Medieval Vision

Disney's medieval masterpiece, Sleeping beauty (1959)

Flatness and Depth: Classic Disney’s Medieval Vision

By J. P. Telotte

The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Vol. 30 (2015)

Disney's medieval masterpiece, Sleeping beauty (1959)
Disney’s medieval masterpiece, Sleeping beauty (1959)

Introduction: The architecture of film has acted, from the beginning of this [twentieth] century, as a laboratory . . . for the exploration of the built world. 

Since a castle is its corporate logo, we should hardly be surprised that castles, as well as other elements of medieval architecture, figure prominently in a host of classic-era Disney films. While there are very many examples to which we might point, these elements show up in numerous cartoons, such as the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’s Oh, What a Knight (1928) and Mickey Mouse’s Ye Olden Days (1933), Giant Land (1933), and Brave Little Tailor (1938); they become emblematic of goals and values in such animated features as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and The Sword in the Stone (1963); and they form the historical and cultural backdrop for various live-action adventures, such as The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952) and The Sword and the Rose (1953).

Walt Disney himself is partly responsible for this prominence, since, as various commentators have noted, he much valued European art and culture, favored classic European fairy tales and legends as source materials, and required his animators to familiarize themselves with European art traditions. But the castle’s role as spatial representation, and as part of a larger spatial aesthetic at work in Disney’s animated films, has been overshadowed by a critical tendency to view the company’s various efforts, and indeed the Disney brand, mainly in a cultural light, often leading to assessments of his works as modern plunderings or abasements of older and highly valued forms.

Yet that confrontation of the old and new, particularly the new art of animation with medieval imagery like the castle, can tell us much about the trajectory of Disney animation that largely escapes those culture-centric commentaries. This essay tries to connect the aesthetic with the cultural by exploring some of those architectural features—and, more generally, the spaces—of classic Disney animation, as they feature in a variety of cartoons and in more ambitious works such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. All of these films provide us with a lens for better seeing how Disney animation, even as it valued and sought to depict an older, medieval world, was engaged throughout its golden era of the 1930s-1950s in a productive dialogue with the space that has become emblematic of something very different, of modernism itself, including that of the architectural modern.

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