Part of Snow White’s charm and power lies in its lingering redolence of the world of animated shorts. The shorthand way that Snow White and the Prince fall in love — an early scene in which the Prince comes upon Snow in her ragged attire at the wishing well, and serenades her briefly at her balcony, professing already that his heart is hers alone — works here in a way that it wouldn’t have in, say, Cinderella. (Granted, one magical date and a quixotic quest with a glass slipper isn’t much more on which to hang a life together, but still the romance in Cinderella is treated with more naturalism than Snow White.)
The key to Snow White’s storybook feel is its pervasive musical milieu. Animation and synchronized music had become inseparable since Steamboat Willie, and it was natural for Snow White to be full of song, as many subsequent animated musicals have been. But characters in Snow White don’t just burst into song (though of course they do — and such songs!). They unselfconsciously embody a singsong world of rhythm and rhyme in which music is never far away, from the lyrical exchanges of the evil Queen and her magic mirror, to Doc’s spoken-verse “Washing Song,” to dialogue like the following lines from Snow White, addressed to the woodland creatures after her fright in the forest:
“I’m awfully sorry — I didn’t mean to frighten you. But you don’t know what I’ve been through! And all because I was afraid … I’m so ashamed of the fuss I’ve made.” Then, to a family of birds: “What do you do when things go wrong? … oh! You sing a song!” Of course; what else?
Snow’s dulcet little-girl voice, provided by 19-year-old Adriana Caselotti, is probably the most dated element of the production, along with the heroine’s “Someday my Prince will come” romantic passivity (and, for some, her domesticity). (As recently as The Princess and the Frog, Disney was still doing penance for the “wish on a star” magical thinking of its early films.) Still, Caselotti’s voice conveys the character’s innocence and goodness, and she has some nice line readings, such as when she charms the dwarfs into letting her stay. (Her gentle mockery of Grumpy isn’t her only show of humor, but it’s my favorite.)
Visually, Snow White is a marvelous achievement, a heroine who ideally balances the grace and naturalistic movement of rotoscoping (tracing live-action images of an actor) with the stylized proportions of a semi-realistic cartoon heroine. Rotoscoping is a powerful technique, but used too mechanically it can create a hyperrealism that diminishes the charm of animation. (The Snow White–inspired Fleischer Studios feature Gulliver’s Travels, with its uncannily lifelike Gulliver, is an instructive counterpoint.)
The blush of red on Snow’s cheeks is a notable example of the Disney team’s experimentation and innovation. In keeping with her name and description, the animators gave Snow a pale complexion, but at first her cheeks looked bloodless. They tried touching up her cheeks with a ruddier hue, but given the limitations of cel art she looked like a clown with painted cheeks. Gradations of color were easy on static painted backgrounds, but there was no good technology in those days for producing them on the painted cels for animated characters.
Then one of the ink-and-paint girls — women tasked with creating the colored animation cels from the animators’ pencil-and-paper drawings — suggested that they might apply real rouge or blush to the cels to give Snow’s cheeks some color. To Walt’s skeptical query whether the girls would be able to apply the rouge consistently on each cel, she shot back, “What do you think we’ve been doing to our own faces all our lives?”
Although the material has certainly been Disneyfied, with the Greek chorus of forest animals and the dwarfs’ slapstick, Disneyfication was not yet the debilitating condition it would later become. The animals and slapstick add their notes to the main theme without detracting from it, like the escapades of the mice in Cinderella.
What is most impressive about Snow White is that amid all the effort and technological and artistic innovation, what emerges is not just an impressive showcase of technique, but a film of simple and enduring power that still draws in and dazzles viewers. Even after all all the pomo deconstruction of Enchanted and its ilk, Snow White’s potent spell is unbroken.
Related: SDG’s Top 5 Fairy-tale Movies!