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.
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.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.