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:


  1. I'm also running a WDAS retrospective. Here's something from my Snow blog...

    "[The animation] was new, but it was still overly simplistic. The faces of Snow and Prince were under drawn and almost unable to emote (due to the artist actually just tracing film strips of actors portraying the characters. Some artists, the one who worked on the Evil Queen, refused to do this, and when you re-watch this movie, notice how much more natural she can emote.) The dwarfs are also more lively and animated"