Disney was fond of stating that his company started “with a mouse”,* yet his film series stared with a princess in peril, a theme that the studio would revisit in time, though not nearly as much as others would have you believe.
Like all companies in Hollywood back when, Disney created the shorts that were part of the cinematic experience. This being a time were you would see films alongside news-reels, featurettes and shorts (both live action and animated). Of course the other studios had their hands in the full-length movie business, while Disney was a pure cartoon studio, albeit one of the most successful and imitated. Yet no matter how good the shorts he made were, they could never demand the returns of a full length movie.
So Walt decided to, at great personal risk to his company, make a full-length animated movie. Of course it had been done before, not that many probably remembered at the time. To be fair how many people who aren’t animation buffs have even heard of The Adventures of Prince Achmed.†
Critics of the time called it “Disney’s Folly”, convinced that no-one would sit through a hour-and-a-half cartoon. In their way, they would have been correct. The prospect of watching 80 minutes of gags and frivolities that made up the traditional 6-7 minute short would indeed have been something that audience would’ve likely frowned upon and sound equally unappealing today. Instead, Walt had a different idea of what such an animated film would entail, in some ways none too different from a live-action movie, yet with roots in fantasy that living actors couldn’t hope to emulate.
Each day, the evil Queen asks the magic mirror who is the fairest in the land. One day the mirror informs her that she is no longer the fairest of all, overtaken by the young and beautiful Snow White. Snow White is forced to flee into the forest, where she comes across the house of seven dwarfs, whom she convinces to let her stay hidden from the Queen.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarf leaves me cold. It’s regarded as a landmark of American cinema, as well as a keystone in the history of animation. Yet, from were I stand, the next four films that followed it out of the Disney studio – Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi – were better told story wise, technically superior (with the exception of Dumbo) and I feel have coped with the passing of time better than Snow White has.
This isn’t to say that I don’t think the film is not enjoyable and watchable today, some seventy-six years after its debut, it just that to me, it’s starting to look its age in a way that the other five do not. Its biggest issue wasn’t that it isn’t a good film, it was just that it was almost left in the dust almost from the moment it came out, at least relatively speaking.
My first point of contention with the film, is its apparent obsession with washing, with the lady herself seen not only cleaning the house of her host, but also as a wash hand in her own castle. The dwarfs themselves are forced in washing up if they want to eat the supper that Snow White cooks up for them. It may have been a fine way to make a movie back in the mid-thirties, but it probably wouldn’t cut much mustard with studio executives these days. While cleaning in real life is certainly an activity that I would wholeheartedly recommend everyone do, it isn’t perhaps the thing I would want to watch a movie about.
Perhaps part of my issues with this, is that it really isn’t that far removed from various Silly Symphony shorts that the company created. Many of them featured a group of characters doing banal tasks, to the point were a few of them were almost interchangeable. Maybe the studio was still influenced by it own series and didn’t yet have a perfect understanding on how to pace out the longer running time of a feature, although being that this was their first attempt at a new concept, it is forgivable. However, the effect is that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs feels like a slow paced movie, with some intense action and a small amount of padding.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been talked about in terms of it creation of seven distinct personalities. In this it hold’s company with Disney’s earlier short film “Three Little Pigs” cartoon, which, at its time of release, was also praised for its advances in personality characterisation. When I last watched The Three Little Pigs, I kind of ask how it got this credit, because it really only had three personalities.
The Big Bad Wolf being a rambunctious, plotting baddie, not that much removed from others of his ilk. The Practical Pig being, well, practical and nonplussed by the wolf’s attempts to outsmart him (a precursor to other such characters, like Warner Bros. Bugs). The other two pigs were basically interchangeable and didn’t even have names to begin with (they got their names at a later date, and were named after the instruments they played).
Snow White has much the same issue, the amount of personalities here doesn’t add up to the amount of characters.
First of all, Snow White. She has the most developed personality in the film, appropriate enough, given that she is the title character. While she may be naive and innocent, she also has enough wit about her to seek out solutions to her problems and is strong enough to call out other characters for their misbehavior. In one early scene she reprimands the animals for trying to sweep dirt under a rug and another for “cleaning” the dishes with their tongues.
She also sees through the Dwarf’s – rather child-like – attempts to get out of washing themselves, and canny enough – in her own way – to talk them into letting her stay. Yes she’s trusting to a fault, almost incredulously so, but yet she’s not as two-dimensional as other may lead you to believe. She’s certainly not as insufferable as many characters that are meant to portray innocence and naivety that have come later, especially from other studios trying to out-Disney Disney.
Her voice is definitely unique, voiced by the then eighteen-year-old operatically-trained Adriana Caselotti and the film makes full use of her flighty, soprano vocals. Disney apparently made up a contract in which she agreed not to do any other voice work for other productions, so to keep her distinct vocals that of Snow White only (she was paid $970 for her work).
Of the Dwarfs, only Doc, Grumpy and Dopey have anything resembling an active personality. The other dwarfs however, are only little more than the gags their names represent. Sneezey, Bashful and Sleepy are especially egregious in this manner, both being walking gags who don’t really get enough screen time to develop distinct personalities to belie their comedic aspects. Bashful’s whole character trait is to get embarrassed easily around Snow White, but it seems to be a problem only when with her. He’s perfectly fine when just with the other dwarfs (a victim of being a walking gag perhaps). Incidentally, there was apparently going to be a subplot for Bashful, centered around him being jealous of the Prince’s affections for Snow White, but it was later shelved, a shame really, as it might have aided his character.
I kind of feel sorry for Happy, where upon the aforementioned characters were at least given names and related gags to be remembered by, Happy has to make do with being jolly. Though he seems happy enough, when he’s not annoyed by Dopey’s antics, if a tad round through the belly, he doesn’t really leave much of an impression to remember him by.
To be fair to him, Doc isn’t exactly the most developed of character either, defined just as much by his spoonerisms as anything he actively does, usually in a flustered manner that derails his train of thought. His aforementioned spoonerism gimmick is mildly entertaining and his voice actor – radio comedian Roy Atwell – is clearly enjoying the role.
Grumpy – voiced by Disney mainstay Pinto Colvig‡ – is the most nuanced of the group of Dwarfs, and is the only one with an actual arch to speak of out of any characters in the entire film including Snow White. Where everyone else is pretty much set on their paths and doesn’t really change, Grumpy goes from wanting to throw Snow White out of the house, to being the most resistance to her “wiles”, to warning her out of concern – while trying to keep up the pretense of not caring.
(Spoilers highlight to read) He also gathers the troops to save Snow white and is the one arguably most affected – and least able to hold back his emotions – by her “death” by the end of the film.
He was such a successful character that it wasn’t uncommon for cartoons that contained a group or clan of characters to have a grumpy as part of the entourage, usually as a centric part of the team. From Grouchy from the Smurfs, to Oscar the Grouch in Sesame Street to, yes even Grumpy Bear of the Care Bears and more.
Dopey is at least unique in his pantomiming, a silent protagonist in the vein of Harpo Marx (or Buster Keaton Chaplin, etc). His mute comedy lends a nice, gentle lightness to the film. He gets the most screen-time, and his antics come across as innocent as if he were a child. His few voice effects, which include hiccups, a gulp, and a comedic scream when he sees Snow White moving in the covers, are performed by the legendary Warner Bros. voice artist Mel Blanc.
The Queen is a good villain to start the legacy of Disney Villains, although limited by the subject matter. Vain and egotistical, her motive is simple and, yes, even understandable given the middle ages setting of the piece, where the world was pretty terrible to women. She wants power and the story implies that only way she got it was through her looks netting her Snow White’s husband, the King . Although given that she’s, well the Queen, I not sure what she has to lose from her step-daughter surpassing her in beauty after the fact. Perhaps old habits die hard and she had to kill others to get the King’s hand, killed the odd traitor, overtly annoying jester and more until it just got to be part of the normal routine for her.
The Queen also has two personalities going on for the price of one; the calm and collected Queen and the manic Peddler Hag (both superbly done by the same actress – Lucille La Verne). The Queen certainly has a lot more versatility in her latter role, cracking smiles and evil laughs that she never does whilst in her dignified Queen form. Of course, its likely due to her not caring about her “looks” whilst in disguise. The truth of the matter is more likely to do with the hag persona not being based on, or trying to emulate real life, letting the animators take the role further than the more realistic proportioned Queen would’ve allowed without the drawing becoming in the process.
It might go to explain why she quick to think of looking up if there’s a antidote for the apple, but doesn’t bother seeing if there is one for her peddler disguise; she’s probably used plenty of the latter and is well familiar with reversing them back again. I do wonder if there is also a disguise that will make her the most beautiful in the land again, though, yeah, that wouldn’t make for a compelling story.
She also doesn’t get a song, something that a lot of Disney villains are known for. In her normal state she’s far too dignified for that and where would it take the story in a way that wasn’t already apparent (Disney had cut a song out of the production for time, why bring in another). Also Disney villains having songs didn’t become a thing until Lady and the Tramp and later (I suppose the Headless Horseman song from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad could serve as the prototype). From what I can recall, the tradition of villain songs as a regular fixture came with the Woolie Reitherman’s films.
The prince is as two-dimensional as the paper that make up his drawings, despite him being an important part of the story. To be fair, Disney’s animators found it difficult to do strong male – human – characters in their future stories. Besides which, he and the Huntsman are really just here as ciphers to the story anyway.
The animals that Snow White befriends are also in a problematic position, sitting in a no-man’s land between the ultra realism of Bambi’s movements and Disney own Silly Symphony roots. Pleasant enough sure, but beyond a few sight gags they feel like so much background noise at times with no clear distinction of the animals besides their species and a few repeating cycles.
In terms of the quality of the animation itself, one thing that feels off to me is a strange juxtaposition when it comes to the general character design. At times it is hard to believe that Snow White, the Queen (in her original form) and the Prince really belong in the same universe as the Dwarfs and the Queen’s “Old Hag” persona.
The more realistic characters are the also gave the animators headaches. As noted earlier, the animation for the Hag version of the Queen was more fluid and expressive than that of her original form. You might notice that the camera cuts off from Snow White whenever it can, focusing on the much easier to animator dwarfs and animals. This isn’t to say the animation of Snow White is bad, just that the animation team that worked on her could only be given so much work in the allotted time frame and still keep her looking good: it’s a choice of economy. The studio learned a great many lessons making this film, which only improved their art.
The backgrounds for the film are sometimes absolutely stunning, but they are always functional and compliment the characters, never overpowering them. They serve the animation well, as good backgrounds should. The palette of the film was deliberately muted, with soft shades as the studio didn’t know if an audience would sit through a film filled with the brightest primaries that Technicolor had to offer. It gives the film an ethereal feel, not unlike the fairytale it is telling.
I’ve never been able to find the words to talk about the musical side of any film, thinking that if you have time to think and notice the score then the film is doing its job of engaging its audience. Nevertheless, the score is a little old-fashioned, at times coy, at others melodramatic. These are not bad things, indeed the score fits the moods of the scenes they accompany very well and are never overbearing. The one thing that still doesn’t lack anything are the songs, particularly those of “Whistle While you Work” and “Heigh-Ho!”. They are as timeless now as they were when they were first sung to that December crowd.
Yet I’m still back to my own feelings about Disney’s first picture. Taken on its own in a vacuum, it is still a very watchable piece of animation history. Yet as historically important it may be – and its importance cannot be overstated – I personally think that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in both its short and long-term future, was left far, far behind by the studio that created it. I also feel that the next four have more of a timeless quality to them, whereas Snow White feels more a product of a bygone age.
Disney’s first full length feature is still a nicely made piece of art, even in spite of this, yet I’ve always more admired its many achievements than enjoy it in the here and now. In the here and now, it’s not a film that I revisit often, but a film that I watch just to pass the time, or when I’m in the mood for a piece of animated history.
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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in December of 1937, just in time for Christmas, and opened to general release the following January. It received thunderous acclaim and superb reviews from the critics of the time and went on to become the highest grossing film of all time (a record it held until Gone With the Wind was released in 1939). It stood as a marvelous achievement in the face of adversity and is justly viewed as a historic landmark in American film making.
Its success convinced MGM to greenlight their famous technicolor-filled musical The Wizard of Oz. It also led to Columbia Pictures commissioning Disney’s biggest rival at the time, The Fleischer Studios to create their own feature, the much ill-fated Guliver’s Travels. It inspired other film makers in the fields of cinematography, staging and the like and pretty much changed everyones’ opinion on what animation could be overnight.
Watched on: Blu-ray
Studio/Distributor: Walt Disney/RKO Radio Pictures
Runtime: 83 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Genre: Musical, Fairy Tale Adaptation
Technique: 2D Animation
Country of Origin: USA
Director: David Hand
Producer: Walt Disney
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs © The Walt Disney Company
The Dwarfs would appear in a few war-time educational shorts.
- “Seven Wise Dwarfs” re-used footage from the feature film along with new animation to show the Dwarfs swaping their diamonds and rubies for stock and shares in the army singing “We all must help you know” to their signature tune.
- In The Winged Scourge, the Dwarfs demonstrated to audiences how to protect yourself from malaria carrying mosquitoes.
*Mickey Mouse formed the backbone of what became the Disney company, but he was preceded by both Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Disney’s series of Alice Comedies. Oswald would find himself at Universal pictures after being poached from Disney, where he would have a brief animated and comic career before disappearing for decades.
†The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest still surviving feature length animated film. This German stop-motion picture was shown at festivals and the like. It’s probably fair to say that it wasn’t that well known of remembered by the general populace when Disney announced his plans to make his first feature.
Additionally Argentina had made a few full length films dating as far back as 1917, all of which are believed to be lost to history.
‡Pinto Colvig also was the original voice of Goofy, Pluto and The Practical Pig from the Three Little Pig shorts.