Is it Polish, French or German in origination? Our Architectural Editor John Goodall can’t resist turning a historian’s eye on Disney’s fantastical castle.

Across the world this Christmas, while families and children settle into their chairs and cushions to watch a favourite film together, many of them will see an opening sequence so universally familiar that they may never have thought about it or noticed its many striking variations. Across the television screen will appear the image of a castle with a fantastical outline of towers, turrets, steep roofs and a central gateway. As the image resolves itself, an arc of light sweeps across the sky above it. It is—of course—the Disney Castle.

Different versions of this building now command Disney parks across the world and, in the past 10 years, the opening sequences of the films produced by the company present a vivid impression of this building. As each one begins, the viewer stares into a star-laden sky. Suddenly, there is an illusion of rapid movement through clouds. Revealed in the half-light below is a valley with a river running through it and the clustered lights of small settlements. The scene is animated by a sailing ship, two car headlights moving along a road and a steam train crossing a viaduct.

Then, a fluttering standard flashes into view (apparently, you can hear it billowing in the wind, but the dated equipment in our house does not seem to reproduce this detail) and a firework explodes beside it.

The appearance of the standard is followed in a single sweeping and descending shot by a view of the entire castle that it surmounts. All the architectural details are picked out in bright floodlighting and the central gateway is revealed as the entrance of a river passage that runs right through the middle of the building. To either side of the castle, there extend into the landscape long causeways lit with lamps. Apart from the fireworks exploding in the night sky, there is no sign of any movement or activity in the building. An arc of light crosses the sky, the music surges and the film begins.

disney castle

Cinderella’s Castle, Walt Disney World, Florida, opened in 1983, is the immediate source for the current opening sequence of the Disney films.

Happily—for the purposes of this article—one enthusiast has spliced  seem to reproduce this detail) and a firework explodes beside it. The appearance of the standard is followed in a single sweeping and descending shot by a view of the entire castle that it surmounts. All the architectural details are picked out in bright floodlighting and the central gateway is revealed as the entrance of a river passage that runs right through the middle of the building. To either side of the castle, there extend into the landscape long causeways lit with lamps. Apart from the fireworks exploding in the night sky, there is no sign of any move- ment or activity in the building. An arc of light crosses the sky, the music surges and the film begins.
Happily—for the purposes of this article—one enthusiast has spliced together on YouTube every single opening sequence of a Disney film since 1985. This clearly shows the development of the castle and the many subsequent variations in the treatment of the sequence as a whole.

Internet discussion reveals a curious contrast of opinions about the present castle and its landscape. For one contributing group, the sources for the sequence are to be found in the imaginary worlds presented in Disney films: the train variously taken—it is suggested—from Dumbo, the ‘Harry Potter’ series or The Polar Express, the sailing ship an image of the Columbia, a pleasure boat at Disneyland, California.

Others, however, read the scene in literal terms. To take a particular correspondence in this vein, one contributor thought the castle flag was ‘German’ and another that the valley was a representation of the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. The chain revealingly concludes with a warning that restrictions have been placed on continuing the discussion ‘because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed’.

The truth is, of course, that we can all see whatever we like in this castle: it is meant to prefigure the imaginary world of the ensuing film. In this sense, the Disney Castle is no more than a screen version of the kind of spectacular architectural decoration that was once used to deck the auditoriums of super cinemas. These served as appetisers for the film, physically transporting their audiences into exotic and distant worlds.

Why does the Disney Castle work so well? The answer—I think— arrived at by watching the opening sequence that I have described above many more times than I should, is that it borrows from reality without ever slipping into it.

disney castle

The 16th-century Château Chenonceau reflected in the River Cher. Its bridge supports a long gallery.

Regardless, it is impossible for me not to fall into the architectural historian’s game of dating and locating the castle with reference to real buildings and their details. I tried to resist, but failed. At first, I presumed the building evoked the world of the Brothers Grimm and was German in idiom. The strange subsidiary turrets that stick out like ears from the parapets and the high bridges connecting the towers, for example, could relate to the architecture of the Teutonic Knights in northern Poland or the 16th-century depictions of castles in the paintings of Cranach or Dürer.

On reflection, however, there seem to be much stronger resonances with northern French medieval buildings. Take, for example, the treatment of the entrance gate with its cusped Gothic tracery. Could this be related to the gateway of the castle at Blois?

More certainly from French example comes the magnificent roofscape (a total contrast to English castle architecture, which, throughout the Middle Ages, exhibited a stubborn preference for battlemented towers and low-pitched and countersunk roofs). Finally, it’s just possible that the idea of straddling the castle across a river comes from Château Chenonceau, which spans the River Cher.

The connection with France is most clearly apparent in the design of the castle from which the film opening sequence properly derives: Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World. Here, the architectural details and even the palette of colours are unmistakeably borrowed from perhaps the most outstanding series of topographical paintings produced in Medieval Europe: the images of landscapes and castles owned by the Duke of Berry painted in about 1400 for his Book of Hours by the Limbourg Brothers.

The so-called Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is an idealised album of its patron’s vast possessions. Perhaps the view from this astonishing volume that most closely resembles the castle and landscape in the Disney opening sequence is a view of Mehun-sur-Yèvre, now a sadly mutilated ruin.

This similarity may or may not be intended or even conscious, but, nevertheless, the two images have a great deal in common beyond their clear visual similarity. Mehun-sur-Yèvre was the Duke’s most prized possession, with a collection of beasts and automata that amazed contemporaries. Rather like the Disney Castle today, indeed, it seemed to them a fantasy.

Moreover, the exceptional appeal of the Duke’s residence is here ingeniously underlined by the inclusion of two figures: on a mountain in the background, the Devil offers Christ the riches of the world. By this addition, the scene—just like that of the Disney opening sequence—escapes a particular historic context and, in some sense, becomes timeless.

As a final twist, it also becomes strangely contradictory. This building is the pride and joy of its owner, an emblem of all that the world can offer —yet Christ’s implicit rejection of it suggests that it is also a mere bauble, at once delightful and meaningless. There again, if the artist and patron really believed that, why would they build or depict it in the first place?

Here, the analogy between these two images of castles created six centuries apart seems complete. Disney could also be written off as meaningless fantasy, but it would be to miss the point. Now, sit back and enjoy the film.