Watching Walt Disney’s first full length feature film as somebody born in 1993 who is accustomed to seamlessly lifelike, evocative animations and the technologies available to make them so, it would be very easy to forget how much of a true achievement “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was at the time.
This isn’t one of my favourite Disney films by any means, but in saying that, I enjoyed this much more than I expected to. I think it’s a shame that Disney’s early work often gets remembered largely for its princesses. Snow White or the Prince aren’t overtly interesting characters; she is kind and sweet and beautiful, he is handsome and heroic and knows how to ride a horse. And that’s okay; to me, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is about the world that Disney and his team created, not just the titular character. Every inch and moment of this film is breathtakingly detailed, which is all the more extraordinary when you realise how difficult a single frame of animation was to make back then. For instance, animator Shamus Culkh has since described how drawing the dwarf’s “Heigh Ho” march home was one of the toughest assignments he’s ever had had, with each dwarf having to walk with their own characteristics but still in time and then with Dopey chasing up from behind, out of time but still needing to be integrated into the action… “I worked six months on that god damned thing, and it doesn’t last a minute onscreen”. Even the score is layered and intricate to every last moment, from the flurry of violins as the dwarfs chase the Queen to the sombre organ as Snow White lays in her glass coffin and the quirky trumpet whenever somebody creeps somewhere. It’s as if Disney is trying to fill his film with as much sensory detail as possible in order to make this world which had previously been unattainable, as real as any other.
Looking at the animation now, it’s still pretty impressive; the movement is fluid, the detail in the backgrounds are meticulous and the expressions on the characters’ faces range from benign and jovial to outright terrifying. That’s something I had definitely forgotten about, just how scary the film can be at times. That’s what Disney always did well, and something which I think Roald Dahl recognised too; they didn’t pander to children, instead acknowledging that kids can handle a bit of the macabre and respond positively to storytelling that doesn’t insult their intelligence. The wicked Queen is formidable and cruel yet strikingly beautiful, and Snow White running through the woods with the trees coming alive and clawing at her dress is flat out the stuff of nightmares. It works though, because its balanced out with other elements of the story that are silly and ridiculous; I had expected the dwarfs and the woodland creatures to be an overload of sappiness but they’re actually pretty funny. Although I must admit I did find at times Snow White herself and the singing with the critters pretty nauseating, but this is a fairy tale aimed at children and probably needs a bit of that sort of thing.
I marvelled quite a few times at the ingeniousness of some of the gags. My personal favourite is the tortoise who is trying his hardest to keep up with all the other animals but keeps getting knocked flat on his ass, and the squirrels who sweep the dust into a mouse hole and get chastised by its irate occupant. Even little things like the chipmunk rolling up a spiderweb into a ball of yarn seemed clever to me, and is testament to Disney’s efforts to include as many gags in these sequences as possible and would allegedly offer an extra $5 per gag to his writers (the dwarfs’ noses popping up over Snow White’s bed frame came as a result of this). Disney did well to balance out some of the treacle which I mentioned earlier, sometimes with the scarier elements of the film but also with the characterisation of the dwarfs – I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Grumpy and Dopey are given as much screen time as they are. The dwarfs washing themselves before dinner is genuinely funny, and I laughed at most of what Dopey did. But then again, they love Snow White and are genuinely heartbroken when she eats the apple and falls into her eternal slumber. How strange it must have been for audiences in 1937 to be watching a cartoon and to experience genuine sadness and empathy for what happened to its characters.
One aspect of the story I found a little strange was how quickly and easily the evil Queen died. She’s all powerful and menacing but her downfall is basically because the seven dwarfs chase her and she falls off a cliff. It seemed quite anti-climactic and not properly thought out; how on earth is the audience supposed to believe that a sorcerer who had in the previous scene summoned the power of lighting, the black of night and the cackle of a hag to turn herself into an old woman, then be killed because she couldn’t outrun a bunch of tiny little men who have spent the majority of the film falling over each other. Still, this is a small quibble and the chase is admittedly quite exciting.
Every animated film since 1937 owes a great deal of gratitude to Walt Disney and his team that produced “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. For it to hold up even today is something miraculous and indicative of the man’s genius; this was the first time anybody had really considered animation as a vehicle for actual worlds and characters who could feel and laugh and cry just like real people. Never before had a filmmaker asked their audience to trust them and suspend its disbelief more than in this film, and never before had the boundaries of filmmaking been pushed to such a degree that its audiences bore witness to something magical.
By Jock Lehman