Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Toon-arama: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

“Hah! Women!” –Grumpy
by Kit
Whenever Disney re-releases Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs they refer to it as “The one that started it all” and its true. As the first hand-drawn animated feature length film it created for Disney a legacy as the Master of the Animated Film that remains to this day. But what makes it truly great is that after over 75 years it still holds up.
The movie’s plot is well-known. An Evil Queen asks her magic mirror on the wall “Who is the fairest one of all?” The mirror replies that it is Snow White, who is in rags meeting her Prince just outside the Evil Queen’s tower. Furious, the Evil Queen sends her Huntsman to take Snow White out into the forest and kill her. The Huntsman takes her to the forest but is so overcome by her innocent beauty that he cannot do it and tells her to flee into the forest. She does and runs into a cottage owned by seven dwarfs (who are out mining). Snow cleans the cottage with the help of some animal friends she met in the forest. Then the dwarfs return and, finding it clean, are initially not amused but upon seeing her they are quickly won over and she soon becomes a Team Mom to the dwarfs, making them clean themselves and cooking them food. Grumpy is unhappy with this arrangement and fights it every step of the way. Eventually, they head back to work with Snow White kissing all of them except Grumpy, who refuses.
Meanwhile, the Evil Queen creates a poisoned apple to put Snow White into a deep sleep that will make her seem dead and can only be cured by Love’s First Kiss, which she dismisses under the belief that the dwarfs will be so heartbroken that they will bury her alive. To pull this off she turns herself into an old woman. Once the dwarfs are back to mining she arrives at the cottage and tricks Snow White into eating the apple, causing her to collapse. The animals, who had tried and failed to warn Snow White of the Evil Queen, go and tell the dwarfs. The dwarfs rush to save Snow White. They chase the Evil Queen until she falls off a cliff while trying to push a boulder onto the dwarfs.

The dwarfs then return to the Cottage and hold a funeral/wake of sorts where even Grumpy cries. Fortunately, they are too sad to bury her and make for her a glass casket, allowing the Prince to arrive and kiss Snow White, bringing her back to life. She bids farewell to the dwarfs and rides off with her Prince.
Making of and Impact
When Walt Disney decided to produce a feature length animated motion picture his studio was already the best in the field of animation (Bugs, Daffy, and the rest would not come until c. 1940). Indeed, despite the artistic and financial success of cartoons like Steamboat Willie and Three Little Pigs, he wanted to aim higher. He was going to make a feature length hand-drawn animated movie, an unprecedented act when all animated films were 5-7 minutes at the longest, and he chose the fairytale of “Snow White” for his film.
But it would not be easy. The movie ran into multiple problems from the animator’s inexperience in drawing human figures, resulting in them going to rotoscoping and scrapping a major story involving Prince Charming, to the constantly rising cost of the movie (the movie’s final budget was $1.4 million, fairly high sum at that time). None of this was helped by the fact that no one except Walt Disney thought it would be a success with newspapers calling it “Disney’s Folly”. But the Company made it and upon its release it was a massive success, grossing $8 million and receiving praise from nearly everyone at the time including Disney’s personal idol Charlie Chaplin. Its success may even have started the Fantasy Film genre as its success resulted in MGM deciding go ahead with a feature film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
But Does it Still Hold up?
I think the answer is... Yes! It does hold up. While the animation is often lacking, even by 1950s Disney standards, the movie manages to surpass these flaws with a great deal of charm, particularly in the cast and their lively interactions with each other.

Snow White is sweet, nice, and kind. She is very motherly to the dwarfs and the animals around her. In fact, when she first arrives at the cottage she assumes the dwarfs are orphans. But she is also a little girl. She is far too trusting of others at times and frightened when she is chased into the woods after learning of the Evil Queen’s plan to kill her. On the whole, she is a likeable and relatable character who is very easy to root for, an important quality for many lead characters – especially a Disney Princess. Her interactions with the rest of the cast are nearly always motherly, whether its telling the dwarfs to wash their hands and faces or lecturing two squirrels for sweeping their dirt under the rug.
With her you have the Dwarfs, and these aren't just silly sidekicks. They are each given a distinctive personality trait: Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleezy, and Sneezy, and each personality interacts with the others in a unique and entertaining way. Doc is the leader of the group, Dopey is the most child-like with his dim-witted behavior, Bashful is very shy, and Grumpy is just unhappy about the whole situation, etc. The result is that every dwarf responds to a situation in his own way and each responds to White in a slightly different way as well. The best example is “Silly Song”. It starts with Grumpy, who is not happy about the presence of Snow White and her effect on the home, playing on the organ while glaring back at Snow White and the other dwarfs. Doc (the leader) takes Snow White’s hand and brings her onto the floor to dance. Happy, who is, well, happy about things, steps forward and starts gleefully singing to Snow White and tap dancing for her. Bashful is so shy he can barely get out his words to Snow White. Sleepy plays the flute half-awake, and Dopey, after being distracted by a fly, interestingly shows some ingenuity by grabbing a coat and, getting on Sneezy’s shoulders so he can dance with Snow White at her height until Sneezy ends this by sneezing. In a way, this mimics the different ways humans react to the mating ritual.

Another interesting thing about their interactions with Snow White is how it is, in some ways, perhaps a story of domestication. When Snow White arrives at their home she finds it in utter disarray: the plates are unclean, the floors unswept, the whole place is filthy. She cleans the place. When the Dwarfs first arrive back home they are shocked, confused, and angry about their home being cleaned up. Then when they see her they are immediately smitten and are suddenly eager to please her and all do as she asks by cleaning and washing themselves. All except Grumpy, who remains angry over her arrival. But even Grumpy is not permanently immune to her charms. When he finds out it’s a woman, he announces that she will run all over them and order them around, the other dwarfs dismiss it, even though he is clearly right as she does order them around. He continues to gripe and fume about her presence until he finds out that she is in danger. Then he shouts “We’ve got to save her!” and jumps on a deer to ride to her rescue. And at the wake he turns his head away and cries over her apparent death.
This is a rather interesting portrayal of male-female relations and one to think about. When Snow White arrives the dwarfs’ cottage is a complete mess and, believing them to be children without a mother, she resolves to clean it up. When the dwarfs arrive they are shocked and appalled at what has happened to their home, believing there to be a criminal or monster of some sort in their home. But once they see it is a beautiful girl they drop their anger and are immediately eager to please her. And she goes about bringing about a culture of domesticity into the place. Turning the filthy mess of a cottage into a lovely and pleasant home. Only Grumpy holds out, saying he wants nothing to do with this woman. Yet perhaps this is only a show as the moment he realizes she is in danger he is completely willing to charge in and save her.

Finally, opposing Snow White and her dwarf and animal friends is the Evil Queen, a truly brilliant villain. The Evil Queen works in the story by presenting a sufficient enough of threat to Snow White and the heroes that we become genuinely scared for their lives when the movie needs us to be. She is cold-blooded, as well. She wants to have Snow White murdered and her heart cut out simply because she is prettier than her and when that fails is willing to have Snow White buried alive. Adding to this, in her hag form there are several moments when she looks straight into the audience and the result is incredibly creepy.
This is a great movie. It knows when to hit the right notes whether it is being scary, such as Snow White’s run into the forest, which Steven Spielberg called “One of the most frightening sequences in film history”, or joyful, as when the animals are cleaning the cottage, and it playfully reminds of things we often face in our own relationships.


AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Thanks for the review! Nicely done. I'll have more comments soon.

K said...

Nice review Kit. Goin "Old School" here.

I'd like to know if the stories of the kids wetting themselves during the scarier portions of the movie were true or just apocryphal.

Tennessee Jed said...

I know I could be blamed as liking the stuff from when I was a little kid, but I think it not only holds up, but is vastly superior to most of what I've seen since

tryanmax said...

Interesting observations, Kit. Compelling reasons why Snow White would be vastly different if it were done today.

One thing that always strikes me about early animation, with this being a prime example, is how lavish the backgrounds were compared to the not-just-relatively simplistic animated characters. Many of the Silly Symphonies are the same way.

Kit said...


Well, I've read that a young Steven Spielberg cried during one scene when the Evil Queen kicked a bucket away from a skeleton that was reaching for it.

AndrewPrice said...

Nice analysis, Kit. I too think this one holds up. It feels like a classic movie, rather than just an old cartoon. I think in part the animation is sufficiently "adult" that it can compete with modern stories (it doesn't look scribbled). I think the themes are very much still modern. I think the film also continues to offer a nice range of emotions for the kids and a strong enough story to keep the adults entertained as well.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think this one would be completely redone today. If it was done for kids, then it would be much lighter and more silly. Cinderella would be obnoxious and the dwarfs would all be very, very similar. The lessons it would impart would be about "inclusiveness" with maybe a "preserve the forest" theme as well.

If it was done for adults, it would be a romance/blood bath with huge battle scenes and Cinderella would show a lot more skin.

Kit said...


There have been some good Disney films.

In the early-90s you had Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, both were great Disney movies. Since then, aside from Lion King, Disney has not produced much. (Though Pixar's output has been good -for the most part.)

Kit said...

"If it was done for adults, it would be a romance/blood bath with huge battle scenes and Cinderella would show a lot more skin."

Actually, the Prince would probably be the one showing skin. To attract the Twilight crowd.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Disney has done some good films, but those were also almost 20 years ago now, and things have continued to change in the meantime. Right now, fairy tales are mainly handled as adult films and cartoons tend to make young female characters obnoxious.

Kit said...

Well, I enjoyed Tangled.

It was not Beauty and the Beast good but it was still good.

K said...

Kit: I enjoyed Tangled as well, but it still suffers the (nudge nudge wink wink) of the Howard Ashman/Broadway musical irony.

tryanmax: Snow White would be vastly different if it were done today.

Something like this I would imagine.

Kit said...

"it still suffers the (nudge nudge wink wink) of the Howard Ashman/Broadway musical irony."


K said...

The campy subtext. The way overblown musical set pieces. A different animal from Snow White. One's a "fractured fairy tale", the other is not.

=old school.

Kit said...

What "campy subtext"? Explain.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I haven't seen Tangled, so I can't comment on it.

K said...

Snuggly Duckling = gay biker bar. Pretty funny, but not exactly Bros. Grim.

Rustbelt said...

Kit, before I go any further, let me say this is a terrific review! You clearly have a love for the Disney classics.

I just wanted to share some other things I've heard about this film.

The scene you mentioned where the Queen kicks the skeleton reaching for the bucket is a truly powerful one. Just think about it. With only one word, "Thirsty?!" she laughs evilly and desecrates the remains, clearly enjoying herself. This tells us more about her than a 20-page monologue. (Maybe it vindicates Sylvester Stallone's comment that a good movie contains almost no dialogue and lets the visuals do the talking.)

I also remember an AFI (American Film Institute) special on AMC where the 10 best of various categories of films were ranked. (Drama, romance, war, sci-fi, etc.) "Snow White" was ranked #1 in the animated category. A director talking about it (I forget who it was), said the film shows all the potential of feature length animation. He referenced the scene of Snow looking into the well and her prince showing up next to her in the reflection. He said it's just inspired; something live action weren't even attempting then or now.

Also, there's the character of the Queen. A good philosophical question here is, what exactly is the disguise? As the Queen, though icy, she's very reserved. However, when she becomes the hag, she becomes (forgive the pun) animated and emotes ten times better. (The animators said voice actress Lucille La Verne was so convincing as the Queen that when her character gave a command, the production assistants stood up at attention! And then, they were completely blown away by the witch. She told them she just took out her false teeth!) One might say, this is the true face of evil. The Queen is what this woman wants you to see. But if personalities had looks, the hag is what she really is. One might say, she needs Snow dead because, in reality, despite the facade, she has no beauty to speak of.

BTW, I've heard that the Queen (and her alter ego), were so scary, that young Spielberg wasn't the only one squirming in his seat. I've heard Walt was also terrified of her and thus made a decree about future villains- they had to be drawn in a way that one could still be sure, despite suspended disbelief, that they weren't real. That's why Disney villains are mostly either fat (Stromboli, the Coachman, Ursula), thin (Cruella De Ville, Jafar), or just have coloring or marks that scream "bad guy" (Scar).

Anyway, great job! I'm looking forward to your future installments.

Anthony said...

I have a higher opinion that most here of Disney's recent output. I liked Lilo and Stitch, Tangled, The Princess and the Frog and Wreck-it Ralph.

Moving on to the main topic, I agree that Snow White is a classic.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, That's a great point about the Queen and the witch, and which is the real person beneath. I've never thought of that, but it really does lean toward the witch being the real personality and the Queen being the facade.

Kit said...

"Kit, before I go any further, let me say this is a terrific review! You clearly have a love for the Disney classics."


Rustbelt said...

You're welcome, my friend.

Kit said...

I want to sincerely thank everyone who posted a comment or simply read it.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And I want to sort of close out this 24 hours of conversation on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with a Chesterton quote, which I think justifies the very existence of this movie:

“Pain, it is said, is the dominant element of life; but this is true only in a very special sense. If pain were for one single instant literally the dominant element in life, every man would be found hanging dead from his own bed-post by the morning. Pain, as the black and catastrophic thing, attracts the youthful artist, just as the schoolboy draws devils and skeletons and men hanging. But joy is a far more elusive and elvish matter, since it is our reason for existing, and a very feminine reason; it mingles with every breath we draw and every cup of tea we drink. The literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain.

Good night, everyone.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, but mostly the whole time I read this I thought "Why aren't more contemporary "feminists" up in arms about this movie?!?!?!"

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