Monday, February 28, 2011

Snow White and the seven links

It's time to wrap up our month of focus on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (not that I won't ever write about it again), with some fun and some links.

Master of remixes, Pogo, has created this nifty song created entirely out of sounds from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Enjoy "Wishery":

Here's another video, this one the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,
compressed down to 5 seconds:

One more video, this one Carol Burnett and co speculating on Snow White's life 15 years after the end of the movie:

This drawing is from a series by Brodie H. Brockie (OK, so that's me) of the Disney Princesses reimagined as super heroes, influenced by the comics style from the same period as their movies' release:

There are, of course, many wonderful pieces of Snow White fan art up on the art site DeviantArt. Here's a recent favorite that caught my eye by Saimain:

Snow White Winter by `Saimain on deviantART

Check out this site, focusing on the brilliant artist who created many of the gorgeous concept drawings for Disney's Snow White, Gustaf Tenggren.

To read a lot more about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, don't miss the blog dedicated to every interesting bit of minutiae related to the film: Filmic-Light: A Snow White Sanctum

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Snow White's musical revolution

The Rogers and Hammerstein stage musical "Oklahoma!" is frequently cited by Broadway aficionados as the first modern musical - the first to not just stop the story dead in its tracks for each break into song, but to instead integrate those songs into the story, and at times even use them to advance the plot.

The problem with this theory is this: "Oklahoma!" debuted in 1943 - six years after the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

"We should set a new way to use music," Walt Disney told his story team during the film's production. "Weave it into the story so somebody doesn't just burst into song."

The songs, by Frank Churchill and Leigh Harline, accomplish this goal. Snow and the Prince meet and fall in love during "I'm Wishing/One Song," the princess overcomes her fear of the forest and is lead to the dwarf's cabin during "Smile and a Song," and performs the tasks that will endear her to the seven little men during "Whistle While You Work."

Sure, not every musical moment is a big leap forward in plot (the whole point of "A Silly Song" is how little it matters, really), but then, "Oklahoma!'s" "The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends" doesn't exactly advance the story either.

So while it may be technically true that "Oklahoma!" was the first stage musical to use integrated, plot forwarding songs, the next time you hear someone reprise that little nugget you can remind them that Roger's and Hammerstein's classic was beaten to that revolution by a film that was revolutionary in so very many ways: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Brothers Grimm's Snow White

"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is an ancient story. It's one of those stories that's so old that it was passed down orally for a long time before it was ever written down, and its precise origins are now unknown.

The Brothers Grimm, however, were kind enough to finally write it down (under the title "Schneewittchen" or "Little Snow White") in 1812. This was the version that became the definitive story and is the one on which Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is officially based (though it's likely the 1912 stage adaptation was an influence).

While the broad story and biggest plot points remain largely the same, the Grimm boys' version of the tale does differ from Disney's version in several interesting ways:

1) We briefly meet Snow's mother at the start of the story. She pricks her finger and is fascinated by a drop of blood in the snow next to her black window frame. She wishes for a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as the window frame. It's not really vital to the story, but it might have been nice to include in the animated film - seeing the lost mother, and offering a little explanation for the title character's odd name.

2) Snow White does take refuge in the dwarf's cabin and befriends the group, but not only don't the little guys have individual names or personalities, they really barely register as part of the story at all. Disney's seven dwarfs are a huge improvement on the source material.

3) The queen makes three attempts to kill Snow White in three different peddler disguises (all costume and makeup, no magic transformation). The first time she binds the girl's corset so tightly she can't breath and leaves her for dead (the dwarfs arrive and unbind her). The second time she combs her hair with a poisoned brush and again leaves her for dead (the dwarfs come home, remove the comb, and she's fine). Finally, she does the old apple trick and that one lasts a lot longer. Now it seems surprising at first that Disney took out the first two attempts. After all, when taking a short story and stretching it to feature-length, you usually need MORE drama, confrontation, and plot points, not less! Still, Snow falling for mild variations on the same trick three time and the queen leaving, assuming the job is finished three times kind of serves to make them both look pretty stupid, and I think the Disney version is stronger for the alteration (and, as I said in her character profile, I love the addition of the magical transformation into the old hag).

4) The prince does not meet Snow White before her journey into the woods or her poisoning by apple. He sees her for the first time in her deathless sleep in the glass coffin and becomes obsessed with her there. He first tries to buy her from the dwarfs, and then convinces them to give her to him because of his love for her. It's... pretty creepy.

5) It's not a kiss that wakes her, but one of the prince's servants stumbling while carrying the coffin. This dislodges a bit of apple still in her throat and revives her. Had any of the dwarfs known the Heimlich maneuver, she would've been fine much earlier. True love's kiss, again, is a big improvement.

6) The queen gets a very different comeuppance. She's captured and forced to dance wearing red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead. It's wonderfully dark and weird, but I think I understand why that change was made.

For a lot more on the origins of "Snow White" and lots of other info regarding the story, check out this scholarly Snow White page.
Illustrations in this post are by early Grimm illustrator Walter Crane.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Happy President's Day

To celebrate President's Day, please enjoy this comedy video, from YouTube's Zoltarkill, of a less-accurate version of Disney World's Hall of Presidents:

President Tuxedo!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Disney's Next Generation project? I have reservations.

Rumors have been building for a while now among Disney park enthusiasts about a top secret billion dollar investment Disney is making that will have a broad impact on the overall park-going experience. It's been code-named the Next Gen project, and speculation about what it would entail has been rampant.

This week Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs finally revealed many of the broad strokes of the changes as detailed in this Orlando Sentinel article. The goals of the project are said to address park guests' two biggest complaints: 1) spending too much time bored waiting in line and 2) worrying that they might not get to experience favorite attractions.

Waiting in long lines has always been one of the biggest complaints about going to a Disney park, and I'm glad to hear Disney is using creative ideas to address the problem rather than simply accept it as a necessary evil. Still, some of the ideas about what to do about it leave me a little concerned.

First, there's the idea of simply making waiting in line more entertaining. This concept isn't entirely new. Disney has several attractions with detailed, decorated queues that set the stage for the attraction to come (Expedition Everest, Muppetvision 3-D, and Star Tours for example), and in the last few years have added some electronic games to lines (Space Mountain, Soarin'), but the recently-unveiled new queue for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at Disney World's Magic Kingdom took this to a whole new level. While waiting for their turn to ride through the Pooh stories in a honeypot, guests can play with a variety of Pooh-themed toys and games: springy Tigger pads, items in rabbit's garden that can be drummed or spun, gophers that jump out when you put your foot on certain steps, and lots more.

This is great. Some time spent waiting in lines is probably inevitable, so making that time more entertaining is an excellent idea.

Other ideas will attempt to lessen the time guests wait in line. There were some experiments last year with Disney giving guests a number and then letting them roam free in an area near the attraction while waiting for their number to be called. The new version of Dumbo the Flying Elephant coming to the Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom will be doing this, letting groups roam and entertaining circus area while waiting their turn to fly.

I'm all for this idea too. You can enjoy your time waiting, but not have to feel like you're being enclosed and herded. As long as it doesn't slow down the wait any (and I'm sure they'lll fine tune it until it doesn't), this seems good too.

But one of the biggest changes in this latest announcement is the one that has me worried: making advanced reservations for visiting attractions before you even step foot in the park. This one... this could go either way. A little of this wouldn't be terrible, like as an incentive to stay on Disney property, you get to reserve a spot for one or two high profile attractions. But booking a lot of attractions ahead of time or planning out your whole day in advance? That's not what I want from a Disney vacation.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a planner. It's best to go into your vacation knowing what parks you want to visit on most days and go into that park with some general goals about which attractions are your top priorities and which you should hit first, but adapting that plan and following your whims throughout the day are imporant too. Who wants to be so stuck to a schedule that you have to worry about your next attraction appointment that you can't stop to admire park details or divert from your plans when you notice a short line somewhere else? A Disney vacation isn't just about hitting attractions, it's also about relaxing.

Early reservations and the Disney Dining Plan have already conspired to remove most spontaneity from dining in the Disney Parks. You used to be able to decide where to eat when you were hungry. Nowadays you have to reserve well in advance for most table service options or wait in a long line for the burgers. Bad as this is, it would be much worse if the situation repeated itself with the actual attractions. That #2 worry - not having enough time to visit your favorite attractions? It's not one I have now. Missing out on a something I feel like on a whim because all the reservations are filled? That I would worry about.

But hey, it's early yet. Maybe I'm fussing over problems that won't really occur at all. I think it'll depend just how much guests are allowed to pre-schedule. A little could be a benefit for the savvy traveler, a lot could be a headache for everyone.

This isn't all about lines and reservations, though. Staggs says the Next Gen experience is about making your trip more personal. I won't flip out too much about this yet, since we don't really know what it means. Will the talking Mickey Mouse of the future know your name before you tell it to him? That might be neat, I guess. Will Haunted Mansion spiel get rerecorded so they can say, "There's no turning back now, JEFFREY!" No, thank you.

If the park knows Donald Duck is my favorite character, will I start to see Duck touches everywhere? What if my real favorite is variety and being surprised? Can we program for that?

I hate to be too much of a curmudgeon or a luddite about all this. There are some ideas I love and others that have great potential, but one of the main appeals of the Disney parks has always been nostalgia. Even when it first opened, much of Disneyland was about nostalgia for bygone times. Today's parks feed on our nostalgia for rose-tinted old days and for our memories of visiting the parks in the past. That creates a situation in which the repeat consumer is especially adverse to really big changes.

These changes are coming all the same - to the tune of a billion bucks - money that could've also shortened the lines by adding several new high-quality attractions to increase the parks' capacity by the way. I'm not saying they won't be worth it, I'm just saying to be worth it, they're going to need to be awesome.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From the Movies to the Parks: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs


Inside Snow White's Scary Adventures.

Snow White's Scary Adventures was one of the opening-day attractions in the original park, though it was thoroughly-updated and reconfigured along with most of Fantasyland in 1983. This dark ride re-tells the story of the animated feature in the style of classic carnival spookhouses, with an emphasis on the movie's darker elements. Look for two great little touches: 1) The wicked Queen occasionally peers out to look into Fantasyland from the window above the ride's entrance. 2) Touch the brass apple in the attraction's queue and you'll hear the haunting cackle of the Old Hag.

Snow White's Grotto

Snow White's Grotto can be found just to the right of the entrance to Sleeping Beauty's Castle. Listen closely, and you can still hear the echo of Snow singing "I'm Wishing" coming from the wishing well. Statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs adorn a nearby fountain and Snow herself can sometimes be found here greeting park guests.

Storybook Land Canal Boats is a quaint, peaceful boat ride during which you'll see miniature versions of settings and buildings from various Disney features. Among them is a dwarf version of the dwarf's cottage.

While there is, as of this writing, also a version of Snow White's Scary Adventures in Disney World's Magic Kingdom, it was recently announced that that attraction is very soon to be shut down and become, instead, a meet-and-greet location for the Disney princesses.

Concept art for the Seven Dwarfs' Mine Train

Nearby, an all-new attraction will be created called the Seven Dwarfs' Mine Train. This attraction will be part roller-coaster, part dark ride, and feature characters and music from the movie. It's expected to open sometime in 2013.

In Epcot's Germany pavillion, Snow White also has a dedicated meet-and-greet location, also themed to a wishing well.

The Candy Cauldron sign.

Care for an appple, dearie? Downtown Disney's Candy Cauldron is a confectionary selling delicious apples covered with a variety of sweets (poison is not available), themed to the old hag herself.

Want to meet Snow White and all seven dwarfs at the same time? You're best bet is attending Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party. Be ready to wait, though, as the line for this rare character interaction gets very long, very fast.

Tokyo Disneyland has it's own version of Snow White's Scary Adventures. Disneyland Paris does too ( though they call it Blanche-Neige et les Sept Nains), along with their own Storybook Land Canal Boats. Hong Kong Disneyland doesn't have an attraction for this movie, but it does have a Snow White Grotto.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Can't go back to Toontown

Tomorrow finally marks the closing of Mickey's Toontown Fair, a land in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom that was not initially intended to last nearly as long as it did.

The area initially opened as Mickey's Birthdayland (set in the town of Duckberg from the Donald Duck comics and then-popular Ducktales cartoon show) in 1988 when it was designed as a temporary area celebrating Disney's main mouse's 60th birthday. When it proved more popular than expected it was rechristened Mickey's Starland in 1990, then upgraded and renamed Mickey's Toontown Fair in 1996.

It's a cute land. Mickey and Minnie's houses and Donald's boat are fun to see and full of clever little details, but there's really very little there to hold the attention of anyone but toddlers for very long. It's mainly become the place to walk through if you want to go meet some characters in the under-themed tents. Oh, and there's the Barnstormer, a Goofy-themed kiddie coaster that's mostly sticking around, though it will be re-named The Great Goofini, and redecorated.

This is happening because of the big Fantasyland expansion going on in the Magic Kingdom, touted as the largest park expansion in the resort's history. Initially, I was thrilled to see Toontown was being scrapped for this change. More of what we love about Fantasyland (primarily dark rides based on animated classics from the company library) would be a big improvement over a little whimsical architecture and a few meet-and-greets.

But... it's hard to see what we're getting in place of Toontown fair now. All the big headline attractions being added to Fantasyland (The Little Mermaid Ride, the Dwarf Mine coaster, the Beauty & The Beast restaurant) are all going in elsewhere. The space that's currently Toontown Fair will become part of the Dumbo's Storybook Circusland portion of Fantasyland, but even the main draws of that will be the two spinning Dumbo rides which also won't be where Toontown is now, and the Great Goofini which is essentially already there.

Big circus tents are coming - they look to be a lot like the big circus tents aleady there. More giftshops? Meet-and-greets? Bathrooms? I don't think I'll really miss Toontown, but just what are we getting in it's place?
Mickey's Country House.

My guess: another placeholder. The initial plans announced for the Fantasyland expansion weren't well greeted by fans. Too much girls' stuff, too many meet-and-greets. Toontown was initially slotted to be given over to Tinkerbell and friends as Pixie Hollow. That's gone now, and I think they haven't yet decided what the more-perminant addition to this area is going to be. I'm fine with that -for now, just so long as this temporary solution doesn't last another 23 years.

(Meanwhile, Disneyland in California still has their more detailed, urban Toontown with no plans to shut it down)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Character Spotlight: Wicked Queen/Old Hag

Today's examination of The Wicked Queen/Old Hag in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs owes a lot to the writing of screenwriter and blogger Todd Alcott. Alcott writes engrossing, detailed examinations of movies in his blog, and those examinations often center around the two questions he has learned are the most important to the screenwriter: who is the protagonist, and what does the protagonist want?

Who is the protagonist of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? If we take the simplest definition of "protagonist" meaning the principal character, then the answer is simple: Snow White herself. However, if we look at the more challenging and literary definition: "the character whose desires and actions drive the plot of the story", then the question becomes a bit more complicated.

What does Snow White want? This we do learn. At the beginning of the movie she meets the prince, and despite running away from him in terror, we later learn that she has fallen in love with him and hopes to one day marry him. What actions does she take to make this happen? Nothing at all. Not only does she run away from him at their first encounter, she then never makes any effort to see him again (beyond wishing anyway). When she runs from the murderous queen to take refuge in the Dwarfs' cottage, she makes no effort to find Prince No-name, get word out to him about where she is, or assist him in any other way. "Someday my prince will come," she sings, but she will take no action in helping him find her.

Snow White isn't the only character in the movie's title, though. If she's not the protagonist, surely the Seven Dwarfs must be, right? OK: What do the seven dwarfs want? Nothing much that I can tell. When we first meet them they're happily working away in their mine full of untold riches. They're so wealthy that extracting the precious gems from their mine seem to only interest them as an activity ("We dig up diamonds by the score - a thousand rubies, sometimes more, but we don't know what we dig 'em for. "). They care so little about material wealth that they barely protect their fortune (Dopey hilariously hangs the key to the vault right next to the locked door) and live in filthy cramped quarters in seeming complete contentment. Sure, once they meet Snow White and fall for her charms they want her to be safe, but they don't really take any actions to help her until it's too late, and that desire could hardly be said to drive the plot.

What about the movie's only other good guy, then - the Prince? Please. He's hardly in the movie at all and is only fractionally less passive than Snow White.

So if the movie's protagonist isn't one of the good guys... Bingo: it's the Wicked Queen. Think about it. At every turn, the queen's desires and actions drive the plot forward.

What does the Wicked Queen want? To be the fairest in all the land? What stands in her way? Snow White is prettier than she is. What is she going to do about it? Kill her.

Everything that happens in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs happens because of this. Now, it's not uncommon that a villain's desires and actions provide the initial catalyst for a story's plot, but it is very rare that the hero of the story never takes any action whatsoever in opposition to the villain's actions (beyond hiding). If it weren't for the Queen ordering the Huntsman to kill Snow White, the princess would never have met the dwarfs at all. If she didn't then come after her in the guise of the Old Hag, it's likely Snow White would've lived the next several decades hiding the cottage and cleaning up after the dwarfs. If the Queen didn't poison Snow White, the prince would likely never find her - remember, he only does when he hears of a beautiful girl in a deathless sleep, displayed in a glass coffin.

She's deliciously evil. If the heroine has skin as white as snow, the villain has blood as cold as ice. She's utterly ruthless and will stop at nothing to pursue a goal that is both petty and - even if achieved, inevitably temporary. She has everything: political and magical power, enormous wealth, cowering servants to carry out her every whim, and great looks. It's just not enough, though. She must have everything.

One of my favorite aspects of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is that the Queen pursues her secondary goal (killing Snow White), that she loses sight of her primary goal (be the fairest in the land) to the point that she destroys her own beauty - becomes old and ugly - in order to kill Snow White. Now the transformation spell might be temporary or reversible, but there's nothing in the movie to indicate that it is. The spell seems new to the Queen and she doesn't read further to look for a reversing potion. It sure looks like she's knocked herself a lot further away from being fairest of them all* having been driven mad by blood lust. Her murderous actions reveal her true inner-nature, she's always been hideous, but now she has become literally so.

Reversible or not, the transformation scene is a highlight of the movie. The dark, moody atmosphere of the laboratory, the quick cuts, the increasingly tense music all build to the reveal of the Old Hag in her jeering, toothless, bug-eyed glory. It's a terrifying moment for small children, and I love it so.

In addition to the art and animation, I have much respect for Lucille La Verne who provides the Queen's voice. For a long time, I assumed two women voiced this character: one for the form of the cold, beautiful Queen, and one for the form of the cackling Old Hag. Not so - La Verne provides both voices, transforming her vocal performance as thoroughly as the artist transformed the physical appearance. La Verne's vocal dexterity was achieved in part by removing her false teeth when performing as the Hag. An inspired move, but surely one that only amplified what her talent already provided.

Finally, the Wicked Queen is the template for so many Disney villains that follow. Take this bare-bones description: driven by jealousy, the villain turns to magic to take revenge against the hero. When the initial attempt fails, the villain transforms into a hideous form in a final attempt at vengeance before meeting its final defeat. That's our Wicked Queen, of course, but also Maleficent, Ursula, and Jafar (and maybe Yzma? I'll admit I haven't seen Emperor's New Groove yet).

* Unless The Queen and Snow White are the only two women in the kingdom. I suppose this is possible given that they're the only two we ever see.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Acrobat's Legend comes to an end

I just learned that the Dragon Legends Acrobats, an ever-changing group of kids from China who have been performing amazing feats in Epcot's China pavilion since 1986 performed their last shows yesterday. No more tumbling, juggling, contorting, and flipping by adorable children to the delight of all.

While this isn't the biggest loss in Walt Disney World History (it's no closing Mr. Toad, Horizons, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, or the Adventurers Club), I'm sorry to see the kids go. Sure, no one planned a trip specifically to see them, they were the kind of additional surprise that delighted you when you first discovered them, and had you always on the lookout for them when you returned. Those are the kind of great little touches that can really add up and make a Disney vacation great.

The Dragon Legend Acrobats were remarkable little entertainers, and their incredible stunts never failed to put my jaw on the floor. Disney says that a different "culturally authentic" act will be taking their place. Here's hoping it's authentically entertaining too. The kids will be a tough act to follow.

How to Play Football

Hope you enjoyed the Super Bowl yesterday. If you would like to one day play at the Super Bowl yourself, I'd advise paying close attention to this highly-educational Goofy short:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Review: Waking Sleeping Beauty

Waking Sleeping Beauty is a documentary about the behind-the-scenes events taking place around Disney animated features during the late 80s and early 90s (released on DVD late last year). This is a time any Disney fan recognizes as an important point in the company's history: when Disney animation suddenly rebounded from a string of relatively mediocre offerings to produce big hits earning critical acclaim, most notably The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

Directed by Don Hahn, who was a producer for Disney during this period, Waking Sleeping Beauty is surprisingly frank in its portrayal of the company and the individuals working within its walls for a documentary released by Disney itself. There's even a point in the movie when Roy Disney, Jr. bemoans the fact that his uncle Walt often took too much credit for his movies' success to the detriment of the animators working for him. From a company that sometimes seem to want to elevate Uncle Walt to sainthood, this is a pretty shocking admission to hear.

But Walt and his long shadow are only occasionally mentioned here, the focus is more modern contributors to the company's legacy. Early on, there's a tour of the Disney animation studios casually conducted by animator Randy Cartwright with his newly-purchased home-movie camera. Inside, we see men who would, in the years to come, become Hollywood giants - Tim Burton, Glen Keane, Joe Ranft, and (behind Cartwright's camera) John Lasseter. Along the way, we see walls covered with classic Disney artwork. One animator flips through some old animation from Peter Pan and complains that the work they're doing isn't as good - that they're not allowed to be as good. The question goes unasked, but is obvious, for a company that built its fortune on animated features and with such a wealth of talent and ambition still at its disposal, why in the world were the movies so bland?

Michael Eisner, Roy Disney Jr., Frank Wells.

And then a series of events begin to occur - Frank Wells, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Michael Eisner are brought in and hungry for money, the animators are kicked out of the animation building that Walt built for them long ago and the insult makes them even more eager to prove themselves, and Howard Ashman and Alan Menken have a Broadway hit with "Little Shop of Horrors" that attracts Disney's attention. Would they like to work with the company? Ashman jumps at the chance and has a particular request: he wants to work on animated features.

From there, the snowball begins rolling and growing as it goes. The songwriters are assigned to The Little Mermaid, their work inspires Keane to take on animating the title character, and so on. Suddenly Disney is making animated features worthy of the company's legacy again, and the success only continues to grow for the next several years.

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman collect Best Song Oscars for The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea".

And then it doesn't. Howard Ashman dies before Beauty and the Beast is even complete. Frank Wells dies in a helicopter crash. Katzenberg and Eisner have a clash of egos resulting in Katzenberg's resignation. And then it's all over.

Waking Sleeping Beauty tells this story primarily using archival footage and interviews, along with narration provided by Hahn and resists the urge to impose to clean a narrative on the story. Waking Sleeping Beauty could easily have become the story of Howard Ashman or Frank Wells or probably any one of several other individuals and how their rise and fall (or death) steered the company into and out of this renaissance period. But this isn't a fairytale, it's a story of real-life people creating fairytales, and real life rarely provides as simple a plot as our fictions.

Hahn and his fellow filmmakers draw no conclusions about what made Disney animation great during this time period nor why that greatness faded. It simply presents the facts and allows us to see the mix of talent, timing, and opportunity that fell together in a fortuitous way. It damns no one for the how things fell apart either, avoiding the easy, simplistic task of making Eisner or Katzenberg out to be villains.

Jeffrey Katzenberg inspects animation storyboards.

It's a little frustrating to watch at times. We're used to stories like this giving us reasons and drawing conclusions, or at least steering us more strongly toward our own. Waking Sleeping Beauty eschews such narrative elements, though, and simply provides a look into a real-life time, just the way it was. It's a very unDisneylike thing to do, and all the more fascinating for it.

Waking Sleeping Beauty is must-watch for fans of Disney animation, especially fans of the movies made during this time period. I imagine it wouldn't play quite as well to those not already interested in the material (unlike some documentaries like, say, Spellbound, which is still entertaining and interesting to someone whose never paid much attention to the world of spelling bees).

If you get your hands on the DVD, don't skip the extras. There's some great material in the deleted scenes and side-stories. My favorite is a lecture being given by Howard Ashman (only a few seconds of which appears in the actual documentary) to the Disney animators about the history and use of music in movies. It's a great look at how the lyricist thought, and his ideas are expressed in a succinct and entertaining fashion.

I give Waking Sleeping Beauty 7 out of 10 mice:

If you care to purchase Waking Sleeping Beauty:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In the news: Chilean miners enjoy Disney vacation, face fears

Disney says: "SALUTE TO CHILEAN MINERS AT MAGIC KINGDOM: To flag-waving Walt Disney World Resort guests on Monday, Jan. 31, 2011, the rescued Chilean coal miners paraded in grand fashion down Main Street, U.S.A. at Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The miners, their rescuers and their families are enjoying a Disney-provided holiday saluting them for their story of hope and perseverance. (Kent Phillips, photographer)"

I think it's great when Disney does nice things like this. Sure, it's good publicity for them too, but let's not be so jaded that we're not happy the formerly-trapped Chilean miners get to enjoy a few days in the happiest place on Earth.

Please note in the above photo that, in addition to meeting Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, they are also posing with Disney's own group of miners: The Seven Dwarfs! Nicely done. For a moment I thought I spotted Bert in the background and wondered at his inclusion before I remembered, "Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke/ In this 'ole wide world there's no 'appier bloke." Anyway, it's not Bert, it's the Dapper Dans, the Magic Kingdom's own barbershop quartet. But, hey, maybe they sang "Chim Chim Cheree" to them... or at least "Heigh Ho" ("We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig in our mine the whole day through
To dig dig dig dig dig dig dig is what we really like to do.")

I wonder what attraction Disney chose to photograph the miners on...

Oh, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, of course. The roller coaster in which DISASTER IS NARROWLY AVOIDED IN A TERRIFYING MINE! Way to make those guys face their fears, I guess. I wonder if they also considered locking them in the caves on Tom Sawyer Island for a while. Sheesh.

I really wish they'd also taken a picture of these guys inside Snow White's Scary Adventures, pretending to mine along with the Seven Dwarfs... or put them to work inspecting safety on the upcoming Seven Dwarfs Mine attraction. Oh, the possibilities!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Chronological Canon: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

It is astonishing to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs today, knowing that this film was the first of its kind: the first full-length animated feature film. Under any circumstances, creating an animated feature is a huge, complicated, and difficult undertaking requiring years of commitment, a boatload of cash, and an army of talent. That Snow White was completed at all is amazing; that it still stands as a paragon of the medium is nothing short of miraculous.

Almost every single aspect of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs works too. It's both beautifully rendered and artfully animated. The characters are adorable and endearing. The jokes and gags almost all land. The dangers faced always feel real and menacing. If there's a weak point at all, it is perhaps the plot, which is a little light and frequently diverted from, yet those diversions are so consistently entertaining that we hardly even care.

Pause the frame at almost any given moment during Snow White, and you're treated to a gorgeous work of art. Every drawing is so rich in detail and color. A muted color palette was chosen out of fear that audiences would not be able to handle nearly two hours of bright primary colors, but whatever the reason, the colors chosen create a lush, warm, soft world. Does Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs echo our perfect ideals of what a storybook world should look like, or did it cement that ideal in our minds? There is a softness to the movie that only lasts for a few more of the Disney animated features (to be sure there are many beautiful Disney movies, but only Pinocchio and Bambi are really a match for Snow White for this kind of painterly aesthetic).

Warm colors, soft edges, and a subtle glow. Beautiful.

Matching the exquisite detail of the art is the abundance of action in this movie. I don't mean "action" in the modern movie sense of car chases and explosions, but simply the amazing number of things going on. At any given moment during Snow White there seem to be multiple things happening at once. One dwarf is singing while another is being pestered by a fly while some woodland creature does something adorable and comical at the same time. Disney animators and story men get everything they can out of the legion of forest-dwelling animals. It's amazing that the shtick never gets old, but it really never does. For all these reasons - the gorgeous art, the loveable cast, and the non-stop business - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs still manages to entertain audiences both young and old to this day - 74 years after its initial release. Its strengths will always be strengths - their inherent appeal is timeless.

The unsung stars of the movie.

For all its sweetness and charm, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs wisely does not shy away from including genuine dark and macabre elements. Famously, of course, there's the queen ordering the huntsman to cut out Snow White's heart and present it to her in a box. There's the old hag's frightening reveal as she glares out at the audience, and the moment when she gleefully taunts the skeletal remains of some prisoner who died reaching for water. One of my favorite little touches of darkness in Snow White is the pair of vultures who follow the old hag on her journey, sensing the malice of her intent and hoping it will result in a snack for them. Then, when it becomes clear that the tables are turning, the vultures now wait for the hag to get her comeuppance... and for her to become their meal instead. This whole little mini-story is all conveyed wordlessly, but with utter clarity.

The old hag attracts the attention of a pair of vultures.

Unfortunately, not every element of the movie has aged as well as those great strengths. There's one prominent element of the movie that feels very much of the time in which it was created: Adriana Caselotti's performance as the voice of Snow White. The squeaky high-pitch and forced vibrato just sound so old-fashioned today. Disney animated movies are full of acceptable anachronisms, but Caselotti's performance isn't like Jiminy Cricket's modern slang in Pinocchio (something historically inaccurate, but that feels just right), it's something that jumps out at you as not fitting in. The prince's boisterous, operatic singing voice is like this too, though to a lesser degree. These vocal performances far from ruin the movie, but it is unfortunate that they feel so dated in the midst of a movie that is otherwise timeless.

He comes off a little stalkery, don't yout think?

Snow and her prince are also at the center of the only other element of the movie that doesn't entirely work for me: their romance. Snow White handles a lot of its plot with a light hand, but the love between these two is the only part of the story that seems a little too light to me. Sure, love at first sight is a wonderful romantic ideal and a frequent element of fairytales, but I'd need to see a little more of their connection after that initial spark to really care about their story. The prince is more deus ex machina than actual character, and it doesn't seem like it would've taken much to make him a little more - a conversation during the initial encounter and a brief scene or two of him enduring hardships as he searched the countryside for his lost love could've gone a long way toward making us care about this cipher. Honestly, the Wicked Queen and the Magic Mirror have more chemistry than these two.

Then again, the prince meeting Snow White before her apple-induced slumber at all is an invention of the Disney version, so perhaps they get points for trying. Or one point, maybe.

But as big a deal as it may sound that the story's central romance doesn't really work, it feels like a minor complaint. The dwarfs, the critters, and the witch (oh, the witch!) are so thoroughly entertaining that it's a minor quibble. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a major victory for Walt Disney and, though Mickey Mouse was already a household name, was arguably the movie that really set the Disney company on the path toward become the entertainment juggernaut we know today (for good or ill - or both). Nearly three-quarters of a century later, this cartoon is still very much a part of the collective American experience. The Disney version of this ancient tale has become the dominant version so much so that I'd wager most people today assume Grumpy, Doc, Dopey and the gang were always the dwarfs Snow White befriended, whereas the reality is that those names and personalities were given to them by Walt and his storytellers.

The dwarfs return home in front of a lovely sunset.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs deserves that place in our hearts and our minds, not just because it was the first animated feature (grand a milestone as that is), but because it remains one of the best.

I'm giving Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 9 out of 10 mice.

That's the review, but I'll have a lot more to say about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs throughout the rest of the month. Come back for a Character Spotlight on the Wicked Queen/Old Hag, a guide to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the Disney parks, a look at the movie's revolutionary use of songs, and more!

If you care to buy Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for yourself: