06 August 2008

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

d. David Hand / USA / 84 mins.

There are some films that are simply better when you know the whole story behind them. Citizen Kane is more thrilling when you realize RKO basically gave Orson Welles the keys to the studio. Singin' in the Rain is more magical when you learn all but a few of the songs existed before the film and MGM just wanted a musical, any musical, constructed around them. Casablanca is more endearing when you hear that everyone on the set thought it was going to be just another war-time film.

Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first feature-length animated movie – is among those films that becomes more remarkable when you discover its story: that 750 animators worked on it for three years; that other studios nicknamed it "Disney's Folly" before it hit theaters; that critics thought 84 minutes would be too long for an animated picture and that Technicolor, an investment which had required Disney to mortgage his house, would hurt people's eyes over such a sustained amount of time. The two people most quoted in regard to the film are Disney's wife Lillian and Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. Lillian Disney famously said, "No one's ever gonna pay a dime to see a dwarf picture." Eisenstein famously proclaimed it the "greatest movie ever made."

Today we know one of these is at least false; for two years Snow White reigned as the highest grossing film of all time, until the release of Gone with the Wind. To the matter of Eisenstein, well, he's certainly entitled to his opinion (circa 1937, of course), but a few movies have been released since then. Snow White is much more than a mere historical footnote, though. There are some films that are great because their content and construction make them so, and there are some films that are great because they were the first of their kind. Snow White, happily, is both.

As with most animated movies, you may have seen it as a child but you haven't really seen it until you're an adult. Snow White is not all singing and smiles; there are moments of darkness and horror, stupendous examples of the broad range of art that Disney's team was capable of producing. The film might become boring if it were all whistling birds and bumbling dwarves, but it is interspersed with a wicked underworld where trees reach out (no doubt an influence on The Wizard of Oz) and vultures follow the evil queen. Why did I not remember the Queen's cold-blooded look when she tells one of her guards to take Snow White into the woods, murder the girl, and bring back her heart in a small box? Probably because the studio would love you to remember only the happiness, the sing-songy parts, which is a shame because the studio sells short Disney's complex and multifaceted vision that produced a film for all audience members.

If the film seems simple today, it's because of a cynical retro-assessment. I wouldn't call it simple as much as I would call it familiar. Many of the archetypes of animation's were born within these frames – from heroine's innocence and the exaggerated dwarf personalities to the catchy songs that advanced the plot rather than distract. Not to mention the poisoned apple, the magic mirror, the valiant prince, and the evil stepmother, who is perhaps the most dynamic character in the entire film. (She looks more dynamic, too: more defined facial features, livelier eyes, careful movements, a visually engaging wardrobe. However, her unmitigated evil and persecution of Snow White ushered in another one of Disney's tropes, much more negative than others: the weak flower of a girl who needs saving.)

It's important to remember that genius breeds imitation, which in turn breeds familiarity. From the technical innovations to the character development and even the basic story structure, Snow White has been the spring from which all other animated films have flown. There are better animated films in my opinion – Beauty and the Beast, most of the Pixar movies, and maybe even Fantasia, Disney's journey into the avant-garde. They have all benefited from a pitch-perfect example. It's enough to make one admit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still among the fairest of them all.


MovieMan0283 07 August, 2009  

I recently re-viewed the early Disney films and found all of my opinions on them flip-flopping. Previously, I had considered Fantasia Disney's masterpiece with Dumbo a personal favorite and Bambi the studio's most impressive narrative feature. However, on re-viewing Bambi didn't really do it for me and much of Fantasia seemed pretentious. Dumbo, meanwhile, has some of Disney's greatest sequences - the pink elephants and the hipster crows who sing the brilliant "When I See an Elephant Fly" (though racial stereotypes, the crows are portrayed quite sympathetically - much more so than actual black actors were in most movies of the time). Overall though, the movie feels alternately slight and belabored, while the animation - except for the brilliant surrealism when Dumbo gets drunk - is not quite up to Disney's standards. I had noticed this on previous viewings, and this one confirmed my hunch that it will remain a personal favorite but I cannot truly call it one of the great Disneys.

The big surprise was Pinnochio - I had sort of written it off a classic, but an easy critic's choice; the one they always pick in lieu of a bolder and messier work like Fantasia or a more compellingly complex tale like Bambi. Maybe so; but what astonished me now was how well the damn thing worked! There isn't a missed moment, the screen is stuffed with gags and details, the animation is superb and the narrative is gripping from start to finish. I can no longer get around the fact that it IS Disney's masterpiece.

This leaves Snow White. Watching it again, it felt like...a beginning. Which is to say much of what excited and intrigued me was connected to the notion that it was the first of its kind, that it was the most rooted in fairy tale and fable, that it was a kind of golden primer for the possibilities of animated features. The intellectual, historical elements in other words - as you point out in your piece. But something about it has stuck with me (it was probably the Disney film I'd gone the longest without seeing before this recent re-viewing) and I want to revisit it. It reminds me of what I wrote about Three Little Pigs vs. the Warner Brothers' fairy tale spoofs: as satisfying as a more adult, unpretentious, unsentimental take on storytelling can be there is something to be said for that primal, mythical, elemental, unadultered tale. Of course Snow White has comedy and sophistication in the animation, but it one of the more element, almost pure Disney movies.

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