Note: This week’s opening of Snow White and the Huntsman, the second Snow White movie this year after Mirror Mirror, is as good an occasion as I’m likely to get to go back and review the fairest one of all.
Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is widely celebrated as a beginning, the first feature-length animated film in Hollywood history. It’s just as correct, though, and perhaps more illuminating, to hail it as a culimination — as the crowning achievement of years of experimentation, discovery, growth and achievement by Disney’s animation team.
A decade earlier, with the landmark short Steamboat Willie, Disney had pioneered the union of animation and sound, including synchronized music, opening the door to the groundbreaking “Silly Symphonies” series, and paving the road for the later masterpiece Fantasia. In the 1932 short The Three Little Pigs Disney took animation storytelling to a new level, with a cast of distinct characters with unique personalities and unique body language.
Even so, prior to Snow White animation was still generally regarded as a humble medium suitable for six or seven-minute bursts of whimsical imagery, slapstick, music and perhaps a feather-light plot, primarily as a diversion to children before the main feature. Even Walt’s brother Roy affirmed the conventional wisdom that there was no audience for a feature-length cartoon, dubbing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs “Disney’s folly.”
Walt, though, had faith in the medium and in the creative team he built and honed over the years — and he had the vision to recognize how and where Snow White would have to go beyond even the most accomplished animated shorts in order to hold an audience’s attention for over an hour.
Snow White features a large cast of characters, each with distinct personalities and body language — and such characters! The fearsome Queen appears in only a handful of scenes, and confronts Snow White only at the climax, but the impression she makes is comparable to the most iconic Hollywood villains, from Wicked Witch of the West to Darth Vader.
Then there are the dwarfs, any of whom could be identified by posture or gait alone, and three of whom — Doc, Grumpy and Dopey — are especially vivid and beloved. Dopey’s out-of-step gait as he works to keep up with the others is a mark of Disney’s attention to detail; the gesture was introduced by one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, Frank Thomas, for the washing-up scene, but Disney loved the gesture so much that he insisted that all of Dopey’s walking scenes be redone to add the “hitch-step” (eliciting not a little irritation from the other animators toward Thomas).
The animation, and in particular the lavish background art, set a rarefied standard for painterly detail and richness that Disney would match for only three other early films — Fantasia, Pinocchio and Bambi — before succumbing to the more simplified look of later fare like Cinderella and Peter Pan. Look at the lovingly fashioned woodwork in the dwarfs’ cottage, with the little owl heads carved into the stairwell and so forth. Even better, watch the play of light and shadow around the bedroom door as Dopey and the other dwarfs tiptoe in to confront the unknown sleeper lying across three of their beds.
Just as importantly, the art embraces a variety of moods, styles and settings, from the gothic horror of the Queen in her dungeon workshop toiling at her black magic to the singsong cheerfulness of the dwarfs in their jewel-crusted mine or Snow White scrubbing the courtyard and tidying the dwarfs’ elegantly rustic cottage. Even the same location can take on very different moods, as the forest transitions from a fearsome nightmare world into a bucolic paradise; later, when the Queen stalks through the forest, the trees becomes menacing again.
For all that, crucial to to the film’s appeal is its simplicity. Where animated shorts could string gag after gag in rapid succession and fill the screen with a dozen different things happening at once, Disney realized that such freneticism would undermine the emotional connection required for a feature.
Above all, Snow White is joyously alive to the charm and power of its source material and of the fairy-tale form. The poetic power of Snow White’s coming of age — awakening to love; discovering evil and malevolence; seeing through childish fears; taking on adult and even parental roles and responsibilities; and finally death and resuscitation by the power of true love — is realized here about as compellingly as any screen adaptation of any fairy tale. In the Disney fairy-tale canon, it’s matched only by Beauty and the Beast.
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