RELEASE DATE: Tuesday 21st December 1937
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is based on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale (minus the gory details) and was the very first full-length animated movie in the world. At the young age of 36, Walt Disney unleashed this cinematic trailblazer into theatres and watched the world explode with applause.
It cannot be stated enough, that EVERYTHING was riding on this film. Everyone was saying that Disney was crazy. No one would want to sit through a 90 minute cartoon! Animator Ward Kimball states that people thought the bright colours would hurt their eyes, or that the animators would run out of gags. The papers were all calling it "Disney's Folly" before they had even seen the finished product. Walt's early estimated of a $250,000 budget was soon shown to be vastly lower than what was required to finish the picture, so he had his brother Roy beg the banks to loan them more money, putting the company into a huge amount of debt. Basically, if Snow White was the disaster that everyone was claiming it would be, the Walt Disney company would have folded then and there, and we might not even recognise the name "Disney" today.
While the naysayers grumbled though, an incredibly dedicated, passionate and talented team worked tirelessly behind the scenes to finish the movie that they all genuinely believed in. This film was created right in the middle of the Great Depression. People were out of work all over the place. But amid this, Walt was hiring hundreds of artists to come and be a part of history. It was without a doubt the biggest animated production the world had ever seen.
Every single one of those artists worked themselves the bone. The film wasn't even completed until 2 weeks before its premiere. As animator Ken Anderson tells it, by the time they had completed the film, there was no money left to advertise it. So Walt had every person in the studio hit the pavements of Hollywood armed with posters, which they all fixed to every telephone pole they could find! Nothing could keep the movie out of the public consciousness once it had launched though. It was Hollywood's biggest success story. The film was a hit! Not only did it make people laugh at all the silly gags, but audiences would openly weep, something nobody ever thought a cartoon could make them do! With Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the new era of cinema had arrived.
The film begins with a book.
It is a trope that Disney would use for many of his fairy tale movies. It's a way of inviting people in. "You've read this story before," it says, "but now you'll see it in a whole new way."
Then, the first character we meet is our villain... and what a villain she is!
Although the wicked queen had originally been planned as a fat and awkward character, Disney realised that for this film to work, the villain had to be taken very, very seriously. The queen is beautifully animated and viciously scary. She is horrified to learn from her magic mirror that there might be someone more beautiful than her.
We're then introduced to our heroine, the cute and pretty Snow White, who sings a song into a well, about being found by the one she loves. The girl is a dreamer, I'll give her that.
OK, let's discuss the character of Snow White. It's clear that she was to be absolutely adorable. She acts like every perfectly raised little girl should act. She is polite and innocent, she loves animals, she knows how to cook and clean. She is saccharine. It's almost too much for modern tastes. She doesn't have any flaws. She's designed to be perfect.
Here's a thought: just how old IS Snow White supposed to be in this film? She looks about 12, and her voice is so high-pitched she sounds like she's been sucking helium. But she's clearly old enough to be carried off to marry a prince. Speaking of which...
The Prince. (Like "The Queen," he wasn't given a name) He's not so much a character, as a plot device. He's only in the film for a total of about 2 or 3 minutes. Apparently the animators found the prince very challenging to draw. They were fine with drawing pretty ladies and funny little men, but no one had had much experience with drawing realistically proportioned hero characters. You can see as a result, the prince looks quite feminine in appearance. Because he was proving so problematic, his role in the story was cut short (he was originally planned to be imprisoned by the queen in the middle of the film) and he only appears at the start and the end of the movie.
So the queen is jealous and calls on her huntsman to cut out Snow White's heart. Lovely.
But of course, the big scary huntsman feels sorry for little innocent Snow White, and lets her run away into the forest. This is where the film takes a turn into the nightmare realm as Snow White, who has lived in a castle her whole life, is set loose in a dark and scary forest.
All is not lost though, because just when she is feeling terrified and alone, she remembers that animals love her, and the friendly critters of the forest all agree to help her out.
The animals lead her to the cottage of the seven dwarfs, where she is shocked that such slobs live in such a nice little cottage. So she organises a working bee for herself and the animals and they make the house sparkling clean. This entire sequence with the animals almost feels like a self-contained Silly Symphony in the middle of the film. All of the animals have their own cute little gags.
Eventually Snow White is tired and goes to sleep. It's only then that we're finally introduced to the characters we all came to see... the dwarfs.
All of a sudden, this becomes their film. They travel home to find an intruder in their house, and they get into all kinds of trouble trying to find out who it is. When they DO eventually find out, they realise that they will get along very well with Snow White, especially if she cooks and cleans for them! (Feminists beware...) Snow White doesn't like their dirty hands so she sends them outside to wash, much to Grumpy's horror.
Meanwhile back at the castle, the queen has discovered that Snow White is still alive, and we witness an incredible sequence where she casts a magic spell to turn herself into an old hag. She poisons an apple and sets off to kill Snow White herself.
Meanwhile, after having a party and listening to Snow White sing about her "true love" (read: stalker) the dwarfs head off to bed. The next day they go back to the mines, leaving Snow White alone. The old hag comes to the house, commends the princess on her pie-making skills and offers her a bite of what she calls a "wishing apple." None of the animals are convinced she is innocent, so who knows why Snow White is. Perhaps she's just dense.
Anyway, Snow White bites the apple of course, which "kills" her. The crone is just about to make her escape back to the castle (assumedly to make herself beautiful again - surely she has a reverse spell) when she is ambushed by the dwarfs, who had been tipped off by the animals. They chase her up a mountain where she ultimately meets her grisly end when she falls off a cliff. (The first of many Disney villains who die by falling)
The dwarfs, heartbroken at losing this beloved girl that they had only known for a few hours, decide to maintain her beauty by keeping her corpse in a glass coffin for all to see.
Luckily, the prince happens to be riding by (remember him?) and he is so taken by her beauty, he kisses her. The spell is broken, she wakes up, waves goodbye to the dwarfs and rides off on the prince's horse to his magnificent castle to be wed. The end.
The characters are generally good - except for the prince - and the dwarfs and animals get lots of laughs. The queen is fantastic, and my favourite character in the movie.
It seems like 1937 was the year for dwarfs! (or dwarves) Did you know that a mere THREE MONTHS before the release of Snow White a little British book was released that also featured a few dwarf characters?
One thing that concerns me a bit with Snow White is how she bosses the dwarfs around. They're probably three or four times her age, and just because they're small she treats them like naughty children. And they just take it! A bit condescending, don't you think? She is royalty I suppose...
I think the story was purely structured to showcase the characters. It still works; kids today still adore this film. But I wouldn't call it a paragon of storytelling.
There's no denying it: every frame of the film is a masterpiece. Walt pulled out all stops to ensure that every detail in every background and character was perfected. The backgrounds in particular are simply stunning paintings that would be hangable works of art in their own right.
This film also proved the usefulness and abilities of the multiplane camera. Whereas The Old Mill was the testing ground, in this film the artists managed to create brand new dimensions of depth never before seen in an animated picture.
I love what Disney has started doing with its "Diamond Edition" releases on Blu-Ray: fill out widescreen televisions with additional art for each shot. They call this "Disney View." Not only is the artwork created in exactly the same style and colour scheme as the original picture, in some cases it actually extends the original image out, like the added curtains below. How fantastic does that look??
One thing Walt Disney was always passionate about, was the effect music had on his movies. He saw it as one of the most important aspects to get right. Snow White has no less than eight original songs, and a couple of reprises. The vinyl record is on record (heh) as the VERY FIRST movie soundtrack ever produced for public listening, and it sold by the bucketload!
The songs were written by Frank Churchill and Leigh Harline, both who would go on to write moreclassic songs in the Disney library. Three songs have really survived in the public consciousness over the decades: "Someday My Prince Will Come," "Whistle While You Work" and, of course, "Heigh-Ho." That little chant (which only has 8 words in it) was so catchy, people have been singing it all over the world since the 30s.
The songs suit the movie very well, although I think there would be even better soundtracks to come in Disney's future.
I had to think long and hard as to whether I'd give this "good" or "not bad." Perhaps it's somewhere in between. I think the reason Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs stands the test of time is not because of its amazing storytelling, but because of its humour, its beautiful visuals, but more importantly, what it stood for. Pretty much everything to do with this movie was brand new; it had never been done before. There is an inherent excitement and wow-factor that comes with that. It's a miracle that this film actually came into existence in 1937, but it's no miracle that people are still watching and discussing it today.
You know what Snow White? You're okay.