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DIMINUTION & ROUNDEDNESS IN THE DISNEY CLASSICS

One of my favorite design traits of the animated shorts and features produced during the Gold & Silver Ages of Disney’s heyday was a particular type of caricature that imbued objects and spaces with extraordinary appeal. This was mainly achieved by altering reality in 2 simple yet powerful ways: scaling things down, and rounding them off. This practice reached its zenith in the 1940s and ’50s, before it all but vanished with the influx of modernism that flooded the studio around the time of Sleeping Beauty (1959). It was a quintessential hallmark of both the animated films and theme park attractions during that time. Examples from the period are numerous, and many (if not most) evince these characteristics in multiple ways. Take the still from Peter Pan (1953), below. The lighting, the physical arrangement of the room, and the framing of the shot all adhere to these stylistic principles. Even the moonlight outside the window has been caricatured such that its fall-off has been rendered unnaturally short - thus making it more like the small, glowing pools of light we often favor in intimate interiors. There’s a primal appeal there that harks back to the prototypical comfort humans have drawn from fireplaces for ages. We feel safer in, or near, pools of light. And, again - there is a diminutive/spherical quality that I think is key. Small, rounded objects are generally more approachable. But the attraction runs deeper than that; small and rounded are essential aspects of cuteness - the roly-poly forms of babies (both animal and human), for example. By contrast, sharp, pointed things are off-putting, threatening. So is immense scale. Hugeness makes the viewer feel small - separate, exposed and vulnerable. Ayn Rand-ian structures like the Empire State Building and the Taj Majal were all about that - deliberately designed to make visitors feel insignificant by comparison. We tend to feel safer in cozy, cave-shaped spaces than we do out in the open. So small & rounded isn’t simply hospitable, it also implies a certain security as well. Thus, large structures and spaces that have been whittled down to a more human scale become more inviting, accessible and relatable. The original Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland and its subsequent iteration at Disney World provide a good case in point; the unconstrained Floridian giant seems cold and impersonal next to its diminutive, yet decidedly more charming, sibling. As the modernist architect, Mies Van Der Rohe, proclaimed: “God is in the details”. I wonder if he would have mourned the loss of these 2 modest tweaks that yielded such a significant qualitative difference.


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