So, when I was working on this, I spent quite a few minutes searching my screen caps for a close-up picture of Aladdin. More time, in fact, than I would care to admit, considering it should have taken just seconds to find a shot of the main character of the movie. But the issue I was having was that so many of the shots were colorized, with the color, aura, mood lighting, whatever you want to call it coloring the characters’ faces in addition to the backgrounds. Shots like these:
In fact, the only time you get an accurate color shot of the characters are in just a few scenes (the marketplace and in the palace during the day). This got me to wondering if this was just my imagination, a coincidence, or something very much intended. So I took a sample of the screenshots that I had downloaded from disneyscreencaps.com (an awesome site, by the way), about 10% of them, and put them together to get an idea of the colorization. This is the result:
You can click to enlarge to prove to yourself that I’m not manipulating the image. These are unaltered screenshots (though a bit low-res to keep the size down).
Remind you of anything? This is the thought that popped into my head after I had assembled the finished product:
Yup, it looks like Carpet. It wasn’t intentional, but the width I had used for my collage (which I kept thin so that the stripes of color would be thicker for emphasis) makes the finished product resemble Carpet, but not just in shape, but in color. The main colors are there: Dark and light purple, gold, and maroon. This was almost certainly intentional by the artists: they chose a palette of colors and stuck with it, weaving threads of it into both the characters and the backgrounds themselves. Aladdin’s got a maroon fez and a purple vest, Jafar’s main color accent to his black is maroon, and he’s got a gold staff. But the rest of the colors don’t follow this pattern: Jasmine wears a kind of light turquoise, the Sultan wears off-white, Genie is bright blue, etc. So the colors we’re seeing in the overall scheme mostly come from the backgrounds themselves, and the reflected light onto the characters’ skin and clothes that gives this illusion. It’s done for mood. Darker scenes have darker colors, big scenic shots are often pink or purple, often at sunset/sunrise to give it a emphasized beauty. The oasis and Jasmine’s gardens are mostly shot in broad daylight, so most of the green color comes from the foliage in the background. Jafar’s takeover is in a cloudy purple to show the darkness overtaking Agrabah and is later red to reflect Jafar’s signature color and his eventual red genie form. (Even Jasmine and the Sultan’s outfits are colored red to reflect Jafar’s total takeover. By the end of the movie, everything is back to normal, with totally unaltered color and bright blue skies.
So this got me to wondering again… This color scheme was so intricately woven into the movie that it could be not be anything but intentional, so what about the other movies of the time? I turned to the rest of what I (and many others) call The Fab Four: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty & the Beast (1991), and the Lion King (1994). (Aladdin was 1992, BTW). Here’s what their color palettes look like:
The Little Mermaid (Left), Beauty & the Beast (Center), The Lion King (Left)
Disappointed? I was, at least a bit. There’s not the same coherence of color in these movies as there was in Aladdin. Let’s do a detailed analysis for each (because, if you haven’t noticed this about me yet, that’s sort of my thing).
The Little Mermaid:
Out of all of them, Little Mermaid seems to lack a coherent color palette, and seems much more subdued than the others. This is actually rather understandable, considering where Disney was coming from at the time. Many people signal TLM as the game-changer for Disney, bringing them back out of a slump into the glorious age that brought us the Fab Four, plus other awesome movies like Mulan and Hercules which are definitely on par quality-wise. Before, the movies were a lot darker, with things like The Brave Little Toaster, Oliver & Company, the Black Cauldron, and the Great Mouse Detective. Plus, you have to realize that Little Mermaid takes place under water half the time, and if you remember from that one oceanography class you might have taken in college (and that I definitely did), there’s only a thin layer of the entire ocean where light can penetrate, so I imagine it was a challenge to make it look realistic and yet look like they’re underwater. I also have to give Disney credit because, if you look closely at the underwater shots, they do a fantastic job of varying the light and making it act correctly underwater in a way unequaled until the glory that is Finding Nemo.
But there’s the difference, and this applies to the other two as well: they went for a more realistic approach. Sure, it’s an animated movie about mermaids and magic and whatnot, but there’s nothing too imaginative about their take. It’s not stylized like Hercules to make the characters (and clouds) more closely resemble Greek pottery or Mulan with the backgrounds that resemble Chinese watercolors. It’s just a Disney movie underwater.
Disney should know ears don’t look like sticky buns.
Check out the trees. That’s definitely an art style choice. They even allude to the art style of Chinese watercolors in the opening credits.
Back to Little Mermaid. There’s a ton of detail in the scenes, which kind of muddies the zoomed-out view of the movie. Some of the water scenes have so many details in the rock formations that the brilliant blues and turquoises are darkened, making them not pop quite as much as they could. Even on those scenes where the background art is gorgeous (like the sunset right before Eric’s wedding to Ursula-in-disguise, the misty greys of the opening sequence of the ship at sea, and the purples of most of Ursula’s scenes, the colors are not as obvious in the grand scheme because the character coloration generally remain constant, so you’ve got a red-haired, purple-shelled, green-tailed, pale-skinned girl against a teal sky with grey clouds and a tan shore. It’s hard to see what the dominant color is supposed to be. Even when there is a dominant color, it’s not as stark a color choice. Check out the rowboat scene with Ariel & Eric. It’s got a kind of teal hue to it, but the characters themselves only look as if the darkness got cranked down a bit, but their color balance stayed the same as usual. You can tell it best by looking at Ariel and Eric’s sleeves, which we know to be white. They’re just a bit of gray, not teal like the background.
Beauty & the Beast:
This color scheme bears a resemblance to Aladdin’s (lots of reds, purples, golds and blues), but it’s far more subdued. There are pops of color here and there (mostly around “Be Our Guest”, with all the colored spotlights they use), and some tonal color changes: Murky blue for the Beast’s castle interior, ominous green for the fight scene, which fades to a more melancholy blue when the Beast’s death/transformation occur. Everything else is mostly just realistic interiors like wallpapers, blue skies, etc. Note that the screenshots were taken from the extended version of the movie, which includes the song “Human Again”. This song’s coloring does a lot more to set the tone than a lot of other scenes. It’s mostly in pinks and purples, which are very bright and hopeful about (you guessed it) being human again. Beast & Belle’s dance sequence and subsequent balcony chat I think is interesting color-wise because the ballroom is gold (matching Belle’s dress) and the nighttime sky is a royal blue (matching Beast’s coat). Similarly, the hunting lodge/tavern scene for the “Gaston” number is very similar in color to Gaston himself, a sort of reddish brown to match his bright red shirt. All of his cronies, too, (except the Bimbettes) blend into the background, giving you this hint that Gaston’s got a kind of control over the town. (Also, what is it with villains and red?)
I’m not saying the comparison between Aladdin’s clear design decision about color and that of B&tB is fair, or that one style is intrinsically better than the other. In fact, I think the absolute single greatest frame of any animated Disney picture is this one:
The colors are amazing, the shot is wonderful, it’s just…gorgeous. I had a Beauty and the Beast trading card collection as a kid and this was my all-time favorite one. But when you zoom out of it, you can’t really get the bright blue sky, the fiery oranges, the fluffy pinks…you just get a tan mess. That’s the point I’m trying to make. The details are great, but it’s colorization is more down-to-earth and realistic.
The Lion King:
The colors definitely pop in this one. They do a great job of setting a color scheme, if not as pronounced as Aladdin’s. You definitely get a feeling in the zoomed-out version that this is an outdoor movie. There’s the greens of the grasslands and jungle, the browns of the desert, and the bright blue African sky. They even set the mood for the villain, though all of the movies do a pretty good job of that. Scar’s early scenes are darker, bland in comparison to the bright colors of the Pridelands. The elephant graveyard background is practically the same as the hyenas’ coats. Scar’s “Be Prepared” scene is ominous, to say the least, with eerie greens and dark silhouettes (and goose-stepping hyenas for that Nazi vibe). Mufasa’s death is a smoky tan from the dust of the wildebeest, with all of the colors so subdued to echo the somber tone. They could have done the standard dark, rainy scene, but they’ve got to save that for the end, of course (although it works better there, with the rain being life-giving instead of mournful as Simba becomes king). And, of course, Simba and Scar’s confrontation is a dark, subdued pink that blazes into fiery red once, obviously, the fire starts. It all works really, really well. This is done, as with the other films, mostly in backgrounds and not in an overall color mask like in Aladdin, with the few exceptions of the fire and nighttime scenes, for obvious reasons.
Anyway, so I hope you like my take on the colors of the Fab Four (most notably, Aladdin), and hopefully you’ll give more thought to this easily overlooked subject when rewatching your favorite Disney movies.