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Dissecting the Classics – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

May 4, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

In case you were swamped by Infinity War news last week and skipped my column (or were too bored to read another review of The Avengers), this might seem like an odd change of pace. But I’ve been wanting to do another theme month for a while, and the idea of looking at the long history of Disney Animated Classics and the Disney Princess sub-genre seemed like a fun topic. And it seems prudent to start at the very beginning.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Wide Release Date: February 4, 1938
Supervising Director: David Hand
Directing Team: William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce and Ben Sharpsteen
Produced By: Walt Disney
Written By: Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rickard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Black and Webb Smith
Music By: Frank Churchill, Paul Smith and Leigh Harline
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Distributed By: RKO Radio Pictures

What Do We All Know?

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is Walt Disney’s first animated picture, and easily one of the most important films ever made. I am fond of the phrase “landmark film”, but rarely has it applied more to a movie I’ve covered than this one. The first of its kind, it starts the legacy of Disney’s long line of animated films over eighty years, not to mention the expansive Disney empire. And make no mistake; it really does boil down to this film. Walt’s wife Lillian and his brother Roy tried to talk him out of it, and critics called it Disney’s Folly. If Snow White hadn’t been the massive success that it was, the company likely would have gone bankrupt, and the world of entertainment as we know it today would be radically different. Even if you want to go to immediate influence, the film inspired Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to start work on The Wizard of Oz, which has its own far-reaching influence. The legacy of the film is simply unassailable.

But is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs really that good? Does it hold up as a classic on its own merit, or does it only get there because of its landmark status? If it weren’t the first of its kind, would it have any business on something like AFI’s 100 Films list? Does it belong there even with the caveat of being so monumentally influential? Well… my feelings on the matter are complicated. If you ask me if Snow White holds up as a great, watchable movie by today’s standards, I’d be a bit hesitant. But taking it on its own terms, I do think it is a good movie and an interesting case study for those who are interested in film history. So, you know, losers like me.

What Went Right?

It’s really hard for me to explain in technical terms what a monumental task Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was. The level of complex animation, new technology, and the sheer amount of man hours that goes into making a single scene was simply unprecedented when the film was in production, and the film was one of the more expensive films ever made at the time. The film is kind of a miracle movie; people working to create something that had never been done at this level, and very little experience working on the tools they had at their disposal. I’m not taking away from the level of work that other animated movies require, but at least every subsequent film had this one as a guideline. This was made from scratch and went through several different scripts as Disney and his crew tried to find the best way to make a feature-length cartoon. Just seeing something as simple as multiple planes on screen sticks out to me because it had never been done before.

Watching the movie now and appraising what makes it on screen, there are a few things I really do enjoy about the movie. The first thing that sticks out to me is that it really does have the sensibility of cartoon shorts at the time; lots of visual gags and sequences where characters are doing unique movements. The dwarves provide a lot of physical humor, but one can also see the philosophy at work with all of the various animals that Snow White encounters. While the human characters are more realistic, the animals and dwarves are cartoons and they never really try to hide that fact. There’s a simple, quaint charm to this era of animation that I enjoy, if only because it’s so different from the sensibilities of a lot of modern animated movies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we have more focus on complex plot and narrative structures in kids movies, but sometimes it is nice to just see cartoons being cartoons.

As for the more human characters, I really enjoy the Evil Queen in both her forms. The imagery is iconic, and she really is a great villain. I find it impressive that they manage to convey both the physical beauty and the petty, despicable nature of her personality. The sequence where she creates the transformation potion still holds up as a moody, impressive piece. I was also impressed by how the dialogue is handled in the movie; almost all of it is poetic, following the beats of the music and rhyming. It gives the whole thing an operatic sort of presentation that remains unique in the Disney Princess canon. You can still see bits of this approach in Pinocchio and Dumbo, but since Snow White skews a little older (what with its genuinely frightening imagery), this approach does stick out. Indeed, despite all the cartoonish gags and exaggerated imagery, Snow White preserves the tone of the Brothers Grimm story better than pretty much every other Disney fairy tale.

What Went Wrong?

This is a segment I have on all of my columns, but I found I don’t have anything to put in this section. Not because Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is devoid of flaws, because it sure has those. No, rather it’s because all of the bad stuff falls into a specific area that’s going to be a running theme of this month. So, without further adieu, let me introduce a special section for this and the next three columns.

How Does This Affect the “Disney Princess” Trope?

As the very first Disney Princess movie, Snow White obviously has an immediate and far-reaching effect on this concept. Indeed, for thirteen years, she was the only Disney Princess, as Disney’s subsequent features really didn’t have anything to do with fairy tales until they went back to the well in 1950 with Cinderella. All subsequent princesses are an ersatz, deconstruction, parody, tribute or some other type of reaction to Snow White. This makes her an influential part of pop culture eight decades later.

Some of that is fine and harmless; the affinity for animals is a simple aesthetic choice, the singing is an integral part of Disney that has led to a lot of great music, and she does embody the values of kindness and compassion that are always embodied by these characters. But unfortunately, Snow White embodies the passive, lovesick ingenue who lacks agency, depth or much in the way of a personality. She’s not the worst example of this (Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora remains the gold standard of problematic princesses), but she is emblematic of a lot of the issues people have with this character type. Hell, the whole movie is about one vain, jealous woman being obsessed with killing Snow White because she’s pretty. That’s not exactly a shining example for young girls who watch the movie to aspire to.

Obviously, it’s important to keep things in context and remember that this is a movie from 1937. The likelihood of any of its feminist politics playing well today is extremely negligible. It doesn’t bother me, as Snow White’s personal story is mostly a framework for the artists to show off the various gags of the dwarves, the gothic moodiness of the queen, and occasionally some human emotion. Snow White is bland, the Prince is even more bland, and virtually every Disney movie since has been an improvement on it.

And In Summary…

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a bit of a mixed bag, really. It has some good and some bad, but it’s also such an important part of film history that I doubt its legacy will ever be truly tarnished by its shortcomings. This was a true game changer, a film that had an immediate and lasting impact on the industry. And not just the movie industry; if Snow White hadn’t been the huge success that it was, the mega-corporation that is Disney probably wouldn’t exist in the form it is today. Maybe that would have been a good thing overall, but this is an example of a movie that, without exaggeration, changed the world, possibly forever. It’s not just a part of film history, but it’s part of history, period.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas,
The Avengers

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include A Quiet Place and Avengers: Infinity War, both of which are likely to stay among my favorite movies of 2018.