Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937, 83 minutes.
Snow White was unprecedented. Not only was it the first large-scale, animated feature film, but it was also near-perfect. In the first ten minutes alone, you have romance, a song, and a dramatic chase scene through a forest come-to-life. The film also had many innovations, including Disney’s first major usage of the multiplane camera, a complex system which allows animation to have parallax scrolling, and other wonderful 3D effects. I won’t explain it all here, but it is a wonderful technique that truly makes the film feel more alive than otherwise possible, and was a notable achievement at the time.
To call this film beautiful is an understatement. The animation is brilliant, with charming characters and fluid motion, all set against gorgeous painted backdrops. Animal friends move much like real animals, but also have a cartoonish charm. The camera moves through the warm, lush forest so naturally it is hard to think that this was all done under harsh fluorescent lights in Silver Lake, LA.
The animation is wonderful all-around, though there are some oddities. The lines jump around a little bit between frames. Anything that moves, at least on the human characters, moves a lot. It’s not to the degree of Home Movies, or even Ed, Edd and Eddy, but there is a lot of line movement between frames. It’s not distracting, but it is something that is tidied up by Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi and Dumbo.
Considering all animation that Disney had done up to this point was for simple short subjects, it is no surprise that the animation is not as refined as its immediate successors, though it is indeed better here than even the most beloved films of the Disney Renaissance. There was an intangible magic in the studio at the time, and it led to wonderful things. Up until the WWII hiatus, Disney produced the best hand-drawn animation the world has ever seen, and it all started with Snow White.
There are several great showcases of animation. While certain sequences are a bit rudimentary, especially compared to Pinocchio, it is still beautiful. The film has several distinct set pieces that really let the animators break free and create something new. The most impressive of these is the scene in which the Queen ingests her potion to become the wretched old hag. The camera swirls around the evil queen in a nightmarish fashion, as she throws more and more disgusting ingredients in the pot. Also, what is with these ingredients? Mummy dust? The black of night? A blast of wind?
Snow White herself is a bit… dull. She has a nice voice (for the 1930s, at least. It’s a bit old fashioned,) and she has a beautiful design, with an equally beautiful dress, but she is a bit of a bore. Comparing her to each of the seven old men she finds shelter with, you find that each of them has more personality than Snow White herself. The queen is also a much more interesting character, showing her vain insecurities and desires in the initial sequences, and her horrifying mercilessness in the third act of the film.
From this perspective, Snow White is more catalyst than character. Her actions lead to dwarfs’ much more entertaining actions. The mercy brought on by the queen’s hunter leads to Snow White running away, which introduces the dwarfs, and in turn, leads to the beautiful queen’s horrifying transformation into hideous monster, arguably the most exciting scene of the film. The movie may belong to Snow White in name, but it begs us to care more about the dwarfs, the queen, and even the huntsman more than Snow herself, and that’s perfectly fine. This same “everybody is interesting except the main character” formula will be repeated with Sleeping Beauty, whose protagonist has even less to do.
One thing that is striking about Snow White, and only Pinocchio would equal this, is its economy of storytelling. Every scene in the film pushes the story forward at an alarming rate. Even a scene as innocuous as the Heigh-Ho sequence is there to demonstrate that the dwarfs are have a strict routine, and why they are hard-working at their job, yet lazy around the house. It sets up wonderfully the scene in which they arrive home, only to be shocked that the house is now clean, and the conversation with Snow White that ensues. It is incredible how efficient Disney was in making an 83-minute picture, when to this point, no Mickey cartoon had even topped 10.
Snow White has never been my favorite Disney film. In fact, it’s arguably never broken the top five for me. It’s a little too simple, the characters a little too one-note, and Snow White’s singing voice a little too shrill. But watching it now, as an adult, and letting the adventure and the music wash over me and capture my full attention, I became a child again. This movie captured me in a way it never has. It’s still not my favorite, nor is it the most emotionally engaging Disney film, but it’s an absolute triumph of animation, music and storytelling.
Grading note: I like letter grades more than 1-10 scoring, or stars. There’s no real reason for this, but it makes more sense to me. The grades start out quite high, just because the first five Disney films are all quite good, but there are far worse grades coming. There may even be an F at one point. Also, I am doing the movies strictly in release order, so most comparisons will be to previous films.
Up Next: Pinocchio