Monday, June 15, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty

And once again I stretch the term "pulp fantasy" to the breaking point. I am nothing if not painfully consistent in my eccentricities. Perhaps I should simply rename this feature "Appendix N" or something similar and be done with it, since it's (generally) about the books and other media that influenced the creation of Dungeons & Dragons.

That's why I bring up the 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. I recall Gary Gygax's having said that he watched and enjoyed Walt Disney's fairytale films, particularly Snow White. Indeed, I have a recollection that he credited several Disney films with having exercised a powerful effect on his imagination. One of Gary's oft-repeated contentions was that many of D&D's iconic elements derived from so many sources, often going back to his childhood, that it was difficult to disentangle them and claim that this or that was its "true" inspiration. I find that contention very plausible, as I know very well from my own experiences.

Consequently, it's hard for me to watch Sleeping Beauty and not see in it images and ideas that may well have made their way into D&D, if only sub-consciously. Sleeping Beauty was and is my favorite of Disney's fairytale films. There are many reasons for this, including Eyvind Earle's sumptuous art direction, which makes the movie look like a medieval illuminated manuscript come to life. When I am not in a deep swords-and-sorcery mode, my vision of the "D&D world" shares a lot with this film. It's a rare example of my having a model that's rooted not in the written word but in a visual medium, which speaks to just how much I like Sleeping Beauty and its look.

The character of the evil fairy Maleficent is certainly the most explicitly diabolical of all Disney's villains -- she calls upon "all the powers of Hell" in the film -- with all the trappings one now associates with the Dark Lord archetype, including hordes of bestial, orc-like minions. She wields remarkably D&D-like magic, being able to teleport, throw lightning bolts, and polymorph herself. It's this last ability where another possible D&D connection appears. The black dragon into which Maleficent transforms herself spits a fiery liquid that I feel might have been the inspiration for the acid breath of the game's black dragon. Maleficent also sports two horns on her draconic head, just as does D&D's black dragon, the only evil dragon species to have such an arrangement.

Disney films have a much-deserved reputation for being light and airy, but Sleeping Beauty, though far from being "dark," nevertheless includes moments of surprising gravity. Prince Philip's battle with the dragon is rather intense for a children's film and most of the scenes in which Maleficent appears are cast in ominous shadows. Her defeat is inevitable according to the demands of the fairytale format, but I feel the movie somehow manages to make one believe, if only for an instant, that evil might well prevail -- quite an achievement in my opinion and one I think many referees would do well to emulate.


  1. Couldn't agree more! Both those movies are enjoyable to watch and would fit the mold. It would make a great solo dungeon!

  2. I’d be inclined to argue that Judge Frollo from Hunchback is more diabolical, but I can’t remember whether he explicitly calls on the infernal powers. The whole scene with the fireplace makes it more than clear, however. Combine that with his designs on Esmerelda and he goes over the top IMO as far as Disney villains go. Faithless to the source material as Hunchback is, it’s still a pretty darn good movie.

    Other than that, I’m completely on the same page with you as far as Sleeping Beauty & D&D.

  3. IIRC the judge in Hunchback is not self-consciously evil at all: the images give us an insight that his rationalising words deny - which is a much, much more believable model of evil than the bald statements in the MM.

    Lore says it better than I can.

  4. In Michael Moorcock's Elric stories, the dragons of Melnibone' also spat a fiery liquid. Of course I think Sleeping Beauty was out first.

  5. Well done, James. Sleeping Beauty is by far my favorite of the Disney films made during Walt's lifetime, and has been the lens through which I view fantasy for a large portion of my life.
    I am also, however, famously fond of Fantasia as far as Walt's period, as well as Robin Hood, and the movies of the early 90s that make up the second Disney Renaissance period. Indeed, probably truer to say that I grew up viewing Fantasy through a lens woven of fibers spun(pun entirely unintentional) from Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, and Robin Hood (the second probably resulting in my love for near and middle eastern settings, the third explaining why I am so very fond of having good/neutral anthropomorphic animals in my games.)

  6. I Love the fact that I get to watch this flick with my 3 y.o. daughter about 2-3 times a week...ha!

    Her brother and I have a deal with her that when she gets the plastic figurine set from the Disney store at the mall (she has a few already - Beauty & the Beast, etc) we get the black dragon fig. She agreed. Sa-weeeet!

  7. Sleeping Beauty is indeed a visual feast.

    I attended art college with a heavy emphasis on animation - and all the animation professionals (speakers and VIP's the school regularly brought in) regarded Sleeping Beauty as the height of animation art. To this day it is still a source of inspiration for the heavy hitters: Pixar, Dreamworks...

  8. Having watched a goodly number of old Disney films in the last ear or so with my daughter, for the first time since i was a kid, I'm finding the whole "Disneyfied" thing a bit of hooey. Every time we watch one of these--Sleeping Beauty being a great example--I'm surprised at what goes in there. These movies are actually pretty harsh, in a good way, just like Roald Dahl's children's stories.

  9. Note that Sleeping Beauty wears blue, and her prince wears pink. This illustrates that the idea that blue is a boy's color and pink is a girl's color is very recent (i. e., since WWII or so).

    For centuries in Western civilization, blue was considered a girl's color since blue is the color of the Virgin Mary. Red was considered a masculine color since it is Jesus's color, as well as the color of fire, blood, and of Mars. When you wash red clothes, what happens to them? They turn pink.

  10. Sleeping Beauty is easily my favorite of the 'classic' Disney films. The story is solid and evocative, the animation is simply gorgeous, and (as my wife likes to point out) unlike the other Disney princes of the time, Philip is not a simpering dolt.